Push for Democracy in the Middle East: Observations from Latin America?

By Alexandra Kerr and Wallace-Joseph Salvador, Research Interns
Western Hemisphere Studies, Center for Strategic Research

 

Two oppressive administrations have fallen and various other regimes throughout the Middle East face a massive public outcry for resignation. If this trend persists, the political landscape of one of the world’s traditional hotspots may be redefined. This is not the first time a region of the world has undergone social uprising after years of oppression and pushed for citizen empowerment through democratic reforms; Latin America is one such region.

Many societies in our hemisphere were once under authoritarian rule and are now governed by democratically elected leaders. This shift away from authoritarianism in Latin America, which began in the late 1970s and continued until 1990 with the fall of Augusto Pinochet in Chile, is comparable to what we are presently seeing in the Middle East. There are similarities between the aforementioned changes in these two regions that should be explored to help the United States better address present circumstances. Five observations from the Latin American experience are outlined below.

First, it is imperative for the United States to recognize that it cannot treat the Middle East in the same way that it treated Latin America during the Cold War. We are operating under different circumstances and what worked then will not work now.  Current events in the Middle East are not a result of democratic promotion as was the case in the Cold War era; instead, the general public arrived at their own consensus for self-empowerment. For this reason, the United States must approach these states as peers and emphasize that Washington wants to support their democratic initiatives, not dictate what we believe are the next appropriate steps as this will foster resentment because other countries may see it as an affront to their dignity and sovereignty.

Second, a pivotal aspect of ensuring democratic success in a post-authoritarian state is the functionality of social, economic, security, judicial and other institutions. The United States has learned from Latin America that it is more effective to focus on strengthening the capabilities of current government institutions rather than to create entirely new ones. Our interaction has the potential to do more harm than good, so the United States must recognize that democracy functions differently in every region of the world. For example, the judicial system is one of the foundations of democracy and an institution that often proves resistant to change. Judicial systems are influenced by local culture and society and, therefore, will not readily adopt Western approaches to jurisprudence. A complete overhaul of the judiciary would be ineffectual and because rapid reform is not realistic, gradual strategic reform to the existing system would prove much more effective. As current conditions in Latin America have shown, judicial systems are the weakest link in democratic institutions. Therefore, even 30 years after the region’s transition to democracy, policymakers must give greater attention and resources in order to truly strengthen the rule of law and judicial capabilities to achieve fully consolidated democracies.

Third, the United States should encourage that amnesty be granted for a period of time to the military leaders of the Middle East, as it was in Latin America, so that authoritarian regimes will be more likely to relinquish power. The goal is justice, not vengeance and the former comes in time.

Fourth, even decades after authoritarian rule in Latin America has ended, the general public has harbored a distrust of the military. In order to dispel this distrust and stop it from becoming in a problem in the Middle East there must be increased civilian involvement in national security matters and integration of the military into society. Soldiers are citizens too and it is vital that the public be reminded of this.

Fifth, the United States should not exaggerate the benefits of elections as we did in Latin America. Holding elections will not fix all of the country’s problems. However, it does provide citizens with the ability to hold elected officials accountable. 

This is an opportunity for the United States to take what it has learned in Latin America and approach newly democratizing nations in the Middle East in a more informed and effective way. The United States should support these movements for democratization as they find their way ahead. However, there should be no mistake; we cannot do this for them. It is central that the United States recognize that there are limits on what we can do.  The Cold War-era has ended and our foreign policy should change accordingly; we can no longer force state-actors to do as we wish. The United States needs to approach these transitional regimes as equals – supporting them will be more conducive to shaping a positive outcome in the region than preaching to them and criticizing their efforts.

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Filed under Hemispheric Defense Studies, Middle East, Regional Studies, South Asia, Strategic Studies

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