5. Februar 2019 | EDP Wire | Vera Van Hüllen

Democracy Promotion in the Arab World

Dieser Wire-Beitrag ist Teil unserer EDP Wire Series für die wir wöchentlich Beiträge aus unserem gemeinsamen EDP Policy Paper veröffentlichen. In den nächsten Wochen werden wir  weitere Fragen dazu beantworten, wie Demokratieförderer und Akteure in verschiedenen Weltregionen mit Erfolgen und Scheitern von Demokratieförderungsaktivitäten umgehen.

Status quo

Even beyond the Arab uprisings of 2011, authoritarian rule has proven remarkably persistent in the Arab world. So far, Tunisia is the only country that has successfully completed the initial stages of a democratic transition. Elsewhere, steps towards political liberalization have not (yet) been translated into regime change, and we even see de-liberalizing tendencies (see Gerschewski in this report) and shrinking civic spaces (see Poppe/Wolff in this report) in many parts of the region. In addition, a number of protracted violent conflicts – most notably in Libya, Syria, and Yemen – that are the source of humanitarian crises and regional instability reveal the relevance of power politics and strategic interests in conceiving and especially in implementing democracy promotion policies. The uprisings, on the one hand, highlighted the overall failure of previous international democracy promotion efforts. On the other, they did not bring the democratic breakthrough that would have opened a window of opportunity for more legitimate and more effective democracy promotion efforts. Thus, it is not overly surprising that the initial enthusiasm of the main international democracy promoters in the region has quickly waned: The US rhetoric of disengagement from the region overshadows its ambition to promote democracy through its Middle East Partnership Initiative (see Poppe in this report) and the European Union’s revised European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) of 2015 is silent on the 2011 Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity (see Grimm in this report). While the G7 are still engaged in the Deauville Partnership with Arab Countries in Transition launched in 2011, they have silently pulled out of their earlier G8 Broader Middle East and North Africa (BMENA) Initiative with its emblematic Forum for the Future.[1]


In the Arab world, the backlash against democracy promotion described in the introduction plays out in two ways. First, the credibility of international actors as champions of democracy and human rights has been severely compromised. Charges of hypocrisy and paternalism are strong and further reinforced as ‘Northwestern’ actors increasingly face undemocratic movements and developments ‘at home.’ Second, democracy promoters in the Arab world are increasingly facing competition from other regional and international actors who promote alternative models of democratic or openly authoritarian rule. Beyond Russia and China, these also include regional players such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey. As a result, both the norms and the way they are promoted are increasingly contested, and international actors can count less than ever on the ‘natural’ attractiveness of their policies to state and non-state actors in the region.

In addition, violent conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and Libya are overshadowing international democracy promotion in three ways. First of all, the concern for ending hostilities and initiating a peace process is eclipsing a narrower democracy promotion agenda for the moment. Second, the transnationalized nature of these ‘civil wars’ reflects much deeper regional and global conflicts. The intra-regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Kurdish question in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, as well as global tensions between the US, Russia, and Iran, are barriers to a more stable and peaceful regional order. Finally, the spillover of violence and the sheer number of refugees are directly destabilizing the political situation in many countries of the region and highlight other foreign policy interests that compete with the objective of promoting democracy. In particular the issue of migration has become a concern for European actors and is putting further strain on the idea of foreign policies consistent with normative ambitions, as illustrated by the EU-Turkey refugee deal of 2016 (see Grimm in this report).

Depending on specific conditions in individual countries, international actors face fundamentally different challenges regarding their potential – positive as well as negative – impact. While a democratic transition opens a window of opportunity for external actors to successfully support endogenous dynamics of democratization in principle, the process of establishing and consolidating democratic institutions in Tunisia is fragile at best. Fragmentation, tensions, and protests mark the political process, put under stress not only by terrorist attacks and political violence but also by slow economic growth and increasing socio-economic grievances. These developments risk feeding into processes of radicalization and a broader disenchantment with democracy’s inability to deliver on the promise of ‘dignity,’ including both freedom and employment. Only by successfully – and democratically – addressing the current security and socio-economic challenges, will democratic consolidation stand a chance in Tunisia and make it an attractive model for other Arab countries.

Most countries in the region have remained under authoritarian rule, however, and thus continue to present the real ‘hard cases’ for international democracy promotion. On the one hand, in times of shrinking civic spaces (see Poppe/Wolff in this report) and open resistance to external attempts at democracy promotion, international actors often find it almost impossible to implement their measures, especially democracy assistance projects targeting civil society organizations. On the other hand, past experience with the implementation of measures in cooperation with authoritarian regimes suggests that democracy promotion efforts are, at best, ineffective or even counterproductive, and stabilize incumbent rulers.[2] Steps in political liberalization are in most cases not a sign of substantive processes of democratization but part of authoritarian survival strategies.[3] Measures designed to improve good governance can boost the regimes’ output legitimacy or even build their repressive capacities, a (potential) ‘downside’ of functional cooperation described by Freyburg in this report. Competing foreign policy interests in the fields of economic and security cooperation, ranging from energy security to the management of migration flows, often curb the effective leverage of external actors and make political conditionalities both ineffective and an additional burden to their credibility. Furthermore, handing out rewards or withholding sanctions in contradiction of their own standards can create an impression of international approval of authoritarian practices where none is warranted.


Following the maxim of being credible and, if nothing else, of doing no harm, international democracy promoters should clearly distinguish between countries that have already completed a democratic transition and authoritarian regimes that might or might not be engaged in processes of political liberalization, and then design their policies accordingly.

While Tunisia presents, in principle, the most favorable context for international democracy promotion efforts in the region, external actors still face a number of challenges regarding the legitimacy and effectiveness of their efforts. International democracy promoters at all levels (governments, non-state actors/civil society) need to accompany the process of democratic consolidation in Tunisia in the long run without compromising its quality by heavy-handed interference. They should continue to generously offer their support in terms of expertise and resources, when requested to do so by Tunisia. In order to promote the emergence of a Tunisian democratic culture, they should seek to stimulate domestic contestation and deliberation in public debates and democratic decision-making in interaction with, but not dominated by external actors and ‘global’ norms. They should do so by raising questions and concerns, by suggesting options and alternatives, and by refraining from providing specific answers and ready-made solutions. In addition to the genuinely political side of this process, they need to pay attention to the broader economic, social, and security context of democratic consolidation and regard trade and investment policies as flanking measures. In particular, global institutions like the WTO and IMF need to make sure that the social implications of economic reforms do not jeopardize popular support for democracy.

By contrast, the room for maneuver in democracy promotion vis-à-vis the remaining authoritarian regimes in the region is much more limited. In order to restore the credibility of democracy promotion in authoritarian contexts, international actors need to self-critically address the dilemma of democracy promotion and pragmatic cooperation with authoritarian regimes (see Freyburg in this report). Heeding the premise of ‘do no harm,’ democracy promoters should avoid increasing the repressive capacities of authoritarian rulers. Even more liberalized regimes like Morocco also used physical force to suppress protests in 2011, and the case of Egypt demonstrates how authoritarian regimes are increasingly using legal proceedings to persecute their opposition. If other strategic interests suggest support for security sector reforms, border management, or even modernization of the judiciary, e.g. in Libya and other countries of transit, these activities should not be ‘sold’ under the label of democracy promotion. International actors should also avoid giving legitimacy to authoritarian rulers through their implicit or explicit recognition as democratic or democratizing, as they have frequently done in the early stages of transition in Tunisia and Yemen, but also in seemingly liberalizing countries like Jordan and Morocco. Given the lack of success in helping to bring about reforms that substantively democratize authoritarian regimes, international actors should tone down their rhetoric and avoid pursuing policies that are easily unmasked as window dressing. Further, they should refrain from formulating political conditionalities if they lack the political will and/or capacity to consistently apply their own rewards and sanctions, which seems to be the case most of the time. In particular the EU and its member states have to find ways of reconciling their normative ambitions and strategic interests in the ENP in order to avoid charges of both hypocrisy and complacency. Instead, international actors engaged in the Arab world should seek to promote spaces for democratization or at least broader political participation and open debates without shifting the balance of power in ways that do not reflect public opinion. Using both diplomatic tools and, if requested by the target regime, democracy assistance, they should support reforms in the legal framework of civil society, the media, and other spheres of political life and civic activism. The objective must be to level the playing field rather than to selectively support individual players. International actors should use more indirect ways of promoting fundamental norms and values conducive to pro-democratic mobilization through functional cooperation (see Freyburg in this report). Supporting the provision of public goods and services, such as health, education, or even water, can indeed entail experiences of impartiality and fairness for a broader public.

[1]     The Deauville Partnership supports economic and political reforms in Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, and Yemen in cooperation with partners from regional and international financial institutions, not least through a newly created MENA Transition Fund. The last BMENA Initiative Forum for the Future took place in 2013 in Cairo and attracted much criticism in light of the political situation in the host country.

[2]     Vera van Hüllen 2017: Resistance to International Democracy Promotion in Morocco and Tunisia, in: Third World Thematics: A TWQ Journal 2: 5, 637–657.

[3]     Vera van Hüllen 2015: EU Democracy Promotion and the Arab Spring. International Cooperation and Authoritarianism, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

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