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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Democracy, Really

A new book argues that democracy should remain a U.S. objective in the Middle East—despite its outcomes.

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The Problem of Democracy: America, the Middle East, and the Rise and Fall of an Idea, by Shadi Hamid. Oxford University Press, 345 pages.

Looking back on the early 2010s, historians will struggle to name one U.S.-based pundit who didn’t hail the Arab Spring as a harbinger of Western-style liberal democracy in the Middle East and North Africa. The hubristic hope that Fukuyama’s end of history was, twenty years overdue, finally reaching the Arab world infused all but a rare species of writers. One outlier is Shadi Hamid, whose idealism was tempered by a realist sense of democracy’s potential pitfalls in Muslim-majority societies. 

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Born to Egyptian parents in Pennsylvania and a graduate of Georgetown, Hamid has been a hot fixture of Beltway liberaldom for a decade, serving as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing writer to the Atlantic. The author, most recently, of The Problem of Democracy (2022), Hamid had freshly tied up his Marshall-funded doctorate at Oxford when Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi famously protested the police’s confiscation of his wares by setting himself ablaze. Bouazizi’s self-immolation catalyzed mass protests regionwide against autocracy, corruption, and social inequities that overthrew despots in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen. Some of those power vacuums, Hamid warned, would atrophy into endless cycles of instability—or be filled by Islamists.

Thirteen years later, the commentariat’s hope that the Arab Spring would usher in a wave of unidirectional democratization rings hollower than ever. Retrospectively, the protests successfully and durably installed constitutional democracy in one country alone—Bouazizi’s Tunisia, which is now sliding into the standard model of Arab-world dictatorship. How the U.S. should reassess its foreign policies in the region in view of that disillusion is the question Hamid addresses in this latest book, which he claims in the acknowledgements is “my best attempt to marshal the various strands of my work from the past ten years and beyond into something suitably ambitious.” 

Hamid is a longtime critic of American support for the autocracies these protests challenged, claiming that the support didn’t advance American interests, as was claimed, while it violated American values; he nevertheless rejects the premise that pro-democracy protests would necessarily lead to something better by Western standards. He supports democratic openings no matter the outcome, mind you, but as a longtime watcher of the Muslim Brotherhood—his doctoral thesis built on fieldwork about the group in Egypt and Jordan—he knows that a slowly reforming autocracy can prove a lesser evil than a potentially theocratic and violent Islamist movement.

Hamid largely dispenses with a thorough history of U.S. policy in the region, choosing the 1990s as the starting point of America’s response to what he calls the “democratic dilemma”: the potential mismatch between democracy’s promise and its outcomes in practice. After the Cold War, America’s solution to that dilemma took shape as a contradictory mix of nominal support for democracy in theory and a distrust of the outcomes it can produce in practice. This response yielded what Hamid calls a regional “authoritarian order” that is “objectionable on moral terms and unsustainable on strategic ones.” He quotes Jeane Kirkpatrick, Ronald Reagan’s U.N. ambassador, who once said that “the Arab world is the only part of the world where I’ve been shaken in my conviction that if you let people decide, they will fundamentally make rational choices”. 

As the Middle East bucked the ’90s global trend toward democratization with its own hardening of authoritarianisms, U.S. policy barely budged to reflect that change, often privileging relations with strongmen who best accommodated U.S. interests in the region’s energy resources, and always nudging partners and allies toward Arab–Israeli peace as part of what Hamid calls “linkage theory”.

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Hamid claims, in passing, that America’s support of the Jewish state has undermined the region’s democratization prospects, since Israel too prefers to deal with stable autocracies than with wobbly democracies where hardline anti-Israel parties can emerge. This is hardly a consensual observation among scholars of democracy, let alone among U.S. diplomats. Be that as it may, a more principled American stance for democracy began to emerge with assistant secretary of State Edward Djerejian’s 1992 Meridian House address, whereby America backed “one person, one vote, one time,” which Hamid claims was “the one and only attempt by a U.S. administration to address the Islamist dilemma with something resembling coherence.” 

The concern for democratization, however, largely subsided in the 2000s and became subordinated to George W. Bush’s crusade against Sadam Hussein in Iraq. And while Barack Obama’s presidency galvanized hopes for a democracy-first approach, that hope was ultimately undermined by his failure to act against Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime in the Syrian civil war.

Enter the Arab Spring, and Hamid argues that America’s lip service to democracy in the region was exposed as support for liberal democracy—namely, that America supports whatever electoral outcomes democracy produces as long as they point to liberalism, understood as an entangled mix of gender equality, individual autonomy, a secular public square, and respect for minority rights. Hamid spends a great deal of the book’s opening chapters hammering the difference between the two: “if democracy is a form of government”—built on electoral procedures allowing the majority to orient the country’s policy—“liberalism is a form of governing.” 

Hamid observes that these two core components, both in the Middle East and in the West, are diverging as electoral majorities form to support illiberal candidates. To some extent, this conundrum is not dissimilar to what America faces in other regions. In Europe, illiberal candidates keep winning democracy’s game in Poland and Hungary, with the E.U. and the Biden administration correspondingly withdrawing their financial support, as Hamid counsels America to do in the Middle East. In both regions, what passes for U.S. support for democracy is in fact support for liberalism.

As the Arab Spring protests unfolded, this paralyzing contradiction in U.S. policy became apparent throughout the region, in one country after another. In Egypt, America hailed the mass uproar against Nasser’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, as a welcome shake-up. It did not expect that, when the protests had swept Mubarak from power, an Islamist would emerge to claim an electoral majority in Mohamed Morsi, who would go on to launch the drafting of a new theocratically-inspired constitution and indulge in autocratic tendencies of his own. 

What’s worse, when the old regime was restored at gunpoint under Colonel Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the army loyalists backing him tried Morsi’s supporters and sentenced many to death, launching the country into a spiral of internecine violence in which no candidate for the role of reliable U.S. ally seemed to emerge. Hamid chronicles similar spirals of violence between secular authoritarians and Islamist pro-democracy challengers emerging in 1990s Algeria and in 2000s Jordan. In each of his examples, democratic openings lead to results that prompt America to reassess its priorities, finding out it supports liberalism instead of democracy per se.

In the prescriptive portion of the book—bizarrely situated at the book’s start—Hamid proposes a radical new path forward for U.S. policy in the region, a path he calls “democratic minimalism.” “What if”, he asks, “we wished other countries to be “mere” democracies, emphasizing democracy as a system and means of governing and rotating power with no prejudice to substantive ideological outcomes?” He thereby urges U.S. diplomats and policymakers to “reconceptualize” democracy by focusing on “means instead of ends.” 

De-instrumentalized, democracy in this view would become an end unto itself rather than a means to attaining liberal outcomes. And rather than paying mere lip service to democracy, Hamid has concrete proposals for using America’s power of the purse to create incentives for democratization. During the Arab Spring, he teamed up with the State Department’s Peter Mandaville to propose a “Multilateral Endowment for Reform,” a repository of carrots and sticks with a multi-country funding stream reaching $20 billion over ten years. “Rather than relying on ad hoc, country-specific initiatives,” he argues, “a regional reform endowment would provide an overarching framework to reground U.S. policy in the Mid-East”.

Hamid’s introduction—which reads like a conclusion and ran as an excerpted essay in the Atlantic—is unsettling. The “democratic dilemma” is hardly exclusive to the Middle East, he argues, with the West similarly grappling with democracy’s theoretical appeal coupled with its potential unattractiveness in practice. “I do believe we are moving toward a realization that existential politics”—which Hamid defines as debates over “who we are” as opposed to “how to best achieve” a given goal—“is no longer, if it ever was, a Mid-Eastern problem. It is a democratic problem. It is the problem of democracy.” 

What does Hamid mean by the parallel between America’s Middle East policy and its domestic predicament? Hamid seems to claim that our dislike of Islamist parties—not that of their secular competitors in those countries—is not altogether dissimilar from liberals’ dislike of Brexit, Trump, and every national-populist victory since 2016. Just as one hopes that Western democracies will weather an unprecedentedly visceral polarization, Hamid hopes the Middle East will slouch toward democracy despite America’s blunders and theocracy’s obtrusion. The book supplies optimism to a region that sorely needs it.