Dear America, keep ‘your’ democracy at bay

I would find it highly problematic, even wrong, to be involved or to legitimate any democratization activity that is funded by the United States

Abdullah Hamidaddin

Published: Updated:

Analysts Shadi Hamid and Peter Mandaville recently raised concern about the diminishing United States’ support for democracy in the Middle East. I would sum up their argument as follows:

The United States has a security approach to the Middle East. The security risk the region poses is increasing and as result the U.S. has been diminishing its support for democratization while increasing its support of security. But this is wrong because most of the security problems of the region are a result of the lack of democratization. Thus the United States provide more support to democratization.

This is still a security based argument and democratization is not about the people of the region, rather, the security of the United States, which of course is a legitimate concern of the U.S. But I ask myself: Where is my place in the debate for and against democratization in the Middle East? I personally support participatory politics, rule of law, human rights, and personal freedoms. So should I automatically support democratization in the region and consider it legitimate? More importantly should I seek to be a participant in the democratization activities of the United States?

Taking part in the democratization debate

To answer that I need to consider the following:

First: To be part of the democratization debate I need to take off my hat as a citizen of my country concerned about the security interests of my own country and put on the hat of a member of the region concerned with the security interests of the United States. I also have to condone intervention in my country and the region. I may even have to subtly request a foreign government to breach the sovereignty of my country and intervene in its politics.

Democratization is not a moral issue. A polity does not have the right to violate human rights; but it has the right to reject a political system of governance

Abdullah Hamidaddin

Second: One can argue that democratization is in the interest of my country. And thus it would not be wrong to go to the United States and convince it that it is also in its interest. This makes it a win-win situation: I get democracy and the U.S. gets security. But the matter is not as simple as that. To democratize - or not - is a decision that a local polity has to make. And it has the right to reject democracy. Democratization is not a moral issue. A polity does not have the right to violate human rights; but it has the right to reject a political system of governance. A polity does not have the right to give up its human rights but it has the right to decide it is governed. And I as a citizen of a given polity have the right to demand democracy even if the majority of my polity rejects it. I have the right to claim that democracy is the “good” of my polity; but does that give me the right to request intervention from a foreign power? Does my assessment of the “good” give me the right to violate the sovereignty of my state?

Third: I may overcome that, and decide firmly – and maybe arrogantly - that democracy is in the interest of my polity even if it does not realize that yet. Then I would face the problem of the credibility of the United States. Since its approach is security based, I need to keep in mind that until democracy is consolidated, there is always the risk that U.S. interests change, and that support for tyranny becomes important for the U.S.. Actually, even if democracy is consolidated, the U.S. may decide to work against it. And there would nothing new in this. Many - if not most - of the tyrants of the past hundred years had been supported or even placed by the United States. So how can I trust it in consistently and continuously supporting democratization in my region?

Fourth: Pragmatism does wonders, and sometimes one needs to hold on to dirty hands. So I may decide to take the risk of working with a United States democratization project. But then I will face a complicated set of questions. Here are five of them:

1. How should democracy be defined? What is democratization? What is a democratic transition? What is democratic consolidation? These are not theoretical questions; their answers have strategic and policy implications. Answering them influences if or not to intervene, how to intervene, with whom to intervene, and to what end. I need to answer those questions myself but I do not want them to be answered by bureaucrats or academics on the other side of the world. Since it is my country, I and other members of my polity, are supposed to answer them.

2. Why is democracy useful for foreign countries in the first place? Sometimes I hear that democracies do not fight and world peace would be closer if all countries were democratic. But then I wonder if that is the case then how come that democracies – such as the United States - have been behind so many repressive regimes and wars around the world?

3. Why is democracy useful for my own polity? We always hear that democracy is the best form of governance or the least worse. But says who? Are policy makers willing to seriously contemplate if other forms of governance can work better for a polity? Since the goal of democratization is to achieve universally desired outcomes such as: rule of law, personal freedoms, accountability, fair distribution of wealth, economic prosperity, respect of human rights, and development … etcetera can we for a moment try to imagine how other forms of governance can deliver those? Can we be bold enough to ask how traditional governance can be as good as democratic governance? Is democratization about creating governments in the image of the greater powers or is it about enhancing the quality of life of peoples around the globe?

4. Thinking about democratization cannot be separated from thinking about its implementation. And even if democratization was the most noble of principles, its implementation is inherently political, and will serve the interests of some at the expense of others. So who is going to oversee it in the United States? Who is going to be selected to work on it in my own country? And what impact do those decisions have on other political forces in my polity? Who gains and who loses? Those questions become more serious in light of the absolute and tragic failure of the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan.

5. There is a lot of concern about the creation of illiberal democracies; but I am also concerned about the development of illiberal democratization. Donor support can easily morph into an end in itself, and local actors can become local predators of foreign donation. Moreover, some of the local elite may use foreign support as a tool to further their own agendas rather than serve the polity at large.

Highly problematic

Based on those considerations, and the questions within them, I would find it highly problematic, even wrong, to be involved or to legitimate any democratization activity that is funded by the United States. I do want to see political reform in the region but I think the United States is not the right partner.

However, if I were to add my two cents to the debate within the United States about democratization I would say: Tyranny is bad but it is categorically wrong to say that tyranny and terrorism go together. Tyranny has created much suffering in the region but terrorism was primarily a direct outcome of U.S. foreign policy; the invasion of Iraq, drones, disregard of Israel’s violation of human rights and international law… the list goes on. It is even accurate to say that most terrorists were the creation of U.S. foreign policy. Thus my suggestion to the U.S. would be for it to allocate the funds it had for democratization in the region and to spend it on improving the United States’ capacity for making democratic and intelligent foreign policy.


Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.