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June 3, 2014
The United States, the European Union, and the United Nations all affirm their intention to facilitate democratic transition in the Middle East and North Africa. Despite this claim and in the face of deeply flawed elections, they remain married to political niceties and empty diplomatic rhetoric. The region has seen many elections this year, with recent notable examples being a constitutional referendum in Egypt, Iraqi parliamentary elections, the Algerian, Egyptian, and today’s Syrian presidential elections. Given how these supposedly democratic processes fail to result in democratic outcomes, international proponents for more open political systems should reassess the obstacles confronting regional elections—and further address the typically timid responses.

One primary electoral challenge in the Middle East is a declining voter turnout, attributed to autocratic political climates, the willful alienation of specific political constituencies, and in some cases a deteriorating faith in democracy. Egypt serves as the best example of this trend, though it is no doubt relevant in the wake of Algeria’s recent election and the ongoing struggle to mobilize voters in Libya. Egypt’s deteriorating political environment surrounding the military’s recapture of the civilian government has been defined by mass death sentences, bans on protests, and the intimidation of political competitors. The state poured its resources into Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s campaign; he was shown obvious preference by the state-controlled media and his face is on billboards, signs, and posters in all major cities. The domination of Egypt’s political environment served to demobilize and demoralize political opposition, leading to a skewed electorate. The government was recently forced to threaten the population with fines for not voting before extending the vote to a three-day process. Though the government claims the election garnered a turnout of 46.8 percent, it remains a dubious and fraught deserved contention.

The second challenge is that currently elections do not serve as a contest of ideas. This is best demonstrated by Iraq, though Egypt’s Sisi is another prime example. Iraq’s candidates largely campaigned without political platforms, preferring to pander to ethnic, sectarian, and regional constituencies. Iraq has no shortage of political crises: the Kurdistan Regional Government’s revenue conflict with Baghdad may lead to its secession; effective social services elude most of the population while economic opportunities remain limited; and the raging conflict in western provinces has resulted in the capture of large population centers as the remobilization Shia militias threatens to plunge the country back into civil war. Despite these significant challenges, Iraq’s numerous political parties and coalitions failed to articulate solutions.

Finally, the centers of political power are often simply not at stake in regional elections. It has been proven repeatedly that presidential elections in Egypt—while certainly important—do nothing to infringe on the military’s primacy. Algeria’s president, however, is more obviously just a figurehead of the regime. Abdel Aziz Bouteflika has been incapacitated for the past year since he suffered a stroke and was unable to campaign for himself, leaving the regime to do his campaign work for him, all the while intimidating potential rivals. Even given Bouteflika’s previous reform efforts—whose sincerity is often cast in doubt—they have never been able to truly alter the nature of the military’s domination of Algerian society.

The United States, European Union, and United Nations are prudent to avoid the appearance of meddling in election processes, but that should not preclude them from criticizing flaws—and it certainly should not bind them to empty celebration.

Following Egypt’s January referendum, marred by low voter turnout, EU High Representative Catherine Ashton congratulated Egypt, adding, “I take note of the level of participation that may be the result of events ahead of the referendum...” Ashton’s prevarications failed to confront the flaws in Egypt’s referendum. The EU had a similarly congratulatory response to Sisi’s victory, apparently eager only to cut the ribbon on the new regime and move on. This attitude does not serve the European Union’s interest to see democratic change in the region—heretofore demonstrated only rhetorically.

All international actors acknowledge that the difficult work of democracy goes beyond the mere process of elections, yet rarely exhibit dedication to this principle. The European Union, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, and the United States all praised Iraq’s parliamentary elections, despite lack of a clear vision to navigate Iraq’s political challenges from nearly any political party, including the victorious State of Law coalition. This lack of leadership and vision is no doubt frustrating for Iraqis, but it also clearly does not serve the interests of Iraq’s western allies—and they should not hesitate to say so. When it comes to elections, a successful process devoid of substance is nonetheless a failing process.

Meanwhile, despite the apparent calcification of the military regime in Algeria—and Egypt as well—the United States is silent on criticizing the lack of relevance that elections hold in such contexts. US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Algeria weeks before the elections to release a “Strategic Dialogue” communique, and the secretary surprisingly said very little at all about democratic transition—certainly nothing in reference to Algeria. In the wake of Bouteflika’s pitiful reelection, the United States has remained silent.

Elections and referendums, in healthy participatory democracies, serve to foster dialogue and build political consensus as a country plans its future. In the Middle East, however, they serve as little more than an occasional spectacle attempting to paint preordained regimes with a facade of legitimacy. Today, in Syria there is of course the most offensive mockery of the democratic process, and western observers will rightly condemn them as such. But they should not reserve criticism only for their political opponents—their allies in the region similarly manipulate democratic processes to solidify authoritarian political orders. There is much that western political actors can do to have a positive influence—facilitating dialogue efforts to increase political engagement, lending additional support to civil society development, etc.—but it must start with honest communication of principles rather than reactionary, meaningless congratulations.

Adam Simpson is an independent MENA analyst and a former intern with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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