By Amanda Kadlec Staff Writer February 28, 2010

Brown, Nathan J. et. al., The Struggle over Democracy in the Middle East: Regional politics and external policies (New York: Routledge, 2009).

Brown, Nathan J. et. al., The Struggle over Democracy in the Middle East: Regional politics and external policies (New York: Routledge, 2009).

The brief political opening in the Middle East between 2004 and 2005 known as the “Arab Spring” is long over. Once vibrant reform movements with potential to rouse public participation – such as the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon or Egypt’s Kefaya movement – have stalled. The United States’ once loud call for democratic change under President Bush is now silent. As the region trends toward greater authoritarianism, the evolution toward democracy seems like an optimistic intellectual concept at best. Surprisingly, the pressure on U.S. President Barack Obama from Middle East reform activists remains consistently firm. Their opponents continue to argue, however, that democracy now will not produce the sanguine results envisioned by its advocates, and cite Bush-era failures as evidence. Others contend that democratic elections in the Middle East will create governments unwilling to cooperate with Western nations. The debate is complex, multifaceted, and on-going.

For several reasons, the Middle East is among the remaining bastions of non-democracy. In this lull of post-democracy promotion rhetoric from external actors, can the internal political environment continue to change? If so, is it desirable? Can democracy prevent Islamic terrorism? How will religion play a role if democracy one day does emerge?

The Struggle over Democracy in the Middle East: Regional Politics and External Policies, the first in a series to be published by the UCLA Center for Middle East Development (CMED), is a critical contribution to deconstructing this intricate and continuing debate. This concise compilation of essays naturally reflects the complexity and nuance of the region’s politics; ten regional experts from different countries and academic disciplines each chime their analytical bells in brief, topic-specific segments. With notable Middle East Studies scholars Nathan J. Brown and Emad El-Din Shahin serving as editors as well as contributors, The Struggle over Democracy in the Middle East offers a current and thorough range of perspectives on the direction, potential, and pitfalls of democracy throughout the Middle East.

Following the contributors’ common assessment, Brown and Shahin starkly describe the potential for change in the Middle East today as “bleak.” Contributors Amy Hawthorne, Richard Youngs, and Walid Kazziha analyze the policies of external actors toward the region’s governments in the realm of democratic development. Shlomo Avineri addresses what the editors consider a lacuna in the study of democratic development in the Middle East: comparative analysis of formerly communist Eastern European states with contemporary Middle Eastern countries. The country case studies in this volume also detail the structural, political, and social barriers to democratization in four states – Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey – which seem to repeatedly teeter on the edge of more complete democratic transitions. Even when seemingly large strides are made toward progress in these states, domestic actors are again met with ostensibly insurmountable hurdles to be overcome.

Shahin contends that Egypt’s authoritarianism is entrenched in a legal system that is centralizing power ever further. A series of “controlled reforms” implemented in the last decade, including the constitutional amendment permitting the first multi-candidate presidential race in 2005, are counterproductive toward democratic growth. Shadi Hamid believes that Jordan’s centralized power is cemented because certain key aspects of the democratic process are prohibited by law. Like Egypt, Jordan effectively possesses a legal authoritarian structure that will probably stifle the prospects and potential for change in the near future.

Syria’s 2005 withdrawal from Lebanon sparked hopes among many that Beirut, now free from influence by an external power, could become the regional leader moving toward more representative democracy. Despite the Cedar Revolution, and a peaceful, clean election in June 2009, Lebanese politicians have only recently formed a coalition government. In addition to the long history of meddling by foreign actors, B.F. Salloukh believes that ethnic loyalties and rigid sectarianism will make stable democracy in Lebanon an unattainable prospect, at least for the time being.

Turkey’s democratic development, according to Ersin Kalaycioglu, has also been stunted due to competing ideas about “good society” and who exactly should lead it. Should it be those committed to secular modernism or religious traditionalism? Indeed, a discussion of Middle East democracy is not complete without addressing the prominent role of religion in politics — Islamism. Azza Kazam posits that the characteristics which separate groups along what she terms, the “Islamist continuum,” are their divergent definitions of Islamic society and governance. Kazam sees the rise of Islam as pivotal to political discourse, and, to the likely dismay of the staunchly liberal secularist, asserts that “religion is here to stay.”

While the editors admit that the situation for Middle East democracy does not look promising, they believe that not all hope is lost. The discourse on democracy, once the dominion of the intellectual elite, they claim, is now commonly understood on a deeper societal level. Although the future for democracy in the Middle East may seem discouraging today, longer-term effects of such grass-roots developments today are yet to be seen.

The comprehensive nature of this volume inevitably results in glossing over certain aspects of Middle East democratization, and the ideas among authors are not thoroughly compared with one another. Apart from the consensus that the status of democracy in the Middle East is stagnant, this book does not identify a unifying concept; nor does it intend to. Each of the contributors is trained in a particular discipline, offers his or her perspective in this light, and, therefore, does not address the arguments of his or her colleagues. As a slim volume of only two hundred pages, the book is limited in scope and lacks detailed analysis on other nations in the region struggling to democratize — such as Morocco Kuwait, and even Iran — and does not directly address some key aspects of debate such as the role of women and minority rights in Muslim-majority countries. Nonetheless, this publication is a critical read for any activist, student, or scholar interested in the Middle East’s arduous efforts toward democratic progress.