Playing the Democracy Card
By Dilip Hiro
03/17/05 "TomDispatch.com" - - How America furthers its national
interests in the Middle East. The United States flaunts the banner
of democracy in the Middle East only when that advances its
economic, military, or strategic interests. The history of the past
six decades shows that whenever there has been conflict between
furthering democracy in the region and advancing American national
interests, U.S. administrations have invariably opted for the latter
course. Furthermore, when free and fair elections in the Middle East
have produced results that run contrary to Washington's strategic
interests, it has either ignored them or tried to block the
recurrence of such events.
Washington's active involvement in the region began in 1933 when
Standard Oil Company of California bid ten times more than the
British-dominated Iraq Petroleum Company for exclusive petroleum
exploration rights in Saudi Arabia's eastern Hasa province.
As a leading constituent of Allied forces in World War II, the U.S.
got its break in Iran after the occupation of that country by the
British and the Soviets in August 1941. Eight months later President
Franklin Roosevelt ruled that Iran was eligible for lend-lease aid.
In August 1943, Secretary of State Cordell Hull said, "It is to our
interest that no great power be established on the Persian Gulf
opposite the important American petroleum development in Saudi
The emergence of Israel in 1948 added a new factor. Following its
immediate recognition of Israel, Washington devised a military-
diplomatic strategy in the region which rested on the triad of Saudi
Arabia, Iran, and the new state of Israel, with the overall aim of
keeping Soviet influence out of the Middle East. While each member
of the troika was tied closely to the U.S., and links between Iran
and Israel became progressively tighter, Saudi Arabia and Israel,
though staunchly anti-Communist, remained poles apart. Nonetheless,
the overall arrangement remained in place until the Islamic
revolution in Iran in 1979.
Besides pursuing the common aim of countering Soviet advances in the
region overtly and covertly, each member of this troika had a
special function. Being contiguous with the Soviet Union, Iran under
the Shah helped the Pentagon by providing it with military bases. By
inflicting a lightning defeat on Egypt and Syria - then aligned with
Moscow - in June 1967, Israel proved its military value to the U.S.
This strengthened Washington's resolve to get Israel accepted by its
Arab neighbors, a policy it had adopted in 1948 and implemented soon
after, even though it meant subverting democracy in Syria.
In March 1949, following Brig.-General Husni Zaim's promise to make
peace with Israel, the CIA helped him mount a military coup against
a democratically elected government in Syria. After Zaim had signed
a truce with Israel on July 20, he tried to negotiate a peace treaty
with it through American officials. A month later, however, he was
ousted by a group of military officers and executed. The military
rule that Washington triggered lasted five years albeit under
As the possessor of the largest reserves of petroleum in the region,
Saudi Arabia helped the U.S. and its Western allies by keeping oil
prices low. Furthermore, as a powerful and autocratic monarchy Saudi
Arabia played a leading role in helping to suppress democratic
movements in the small, neighboring, oil-rich Gulf States.
American clout increased when Britain - the dominant foreign power
in the region for a century and a half - withdrew from the Gulf in
1971. The British withdrawal allowed the U.S. to expand its regional
role as the four freshly independent Gulf States - Bahrain, Qatar,
the United Arab Emirates, and Oman - struggled to adjust to the new
reality. But instead of pressuring these sheikhdoms to institute
democracy, Washington either opted for secret defense agreements
with them or let the House of Saud implement an anti-democratic
agenda in the region unhindered.
The Saudi Anti-Democratic Mission
In 1962, during a severe crisis in the House of Saud, Crown Prince
Faisal promised political reform, especially the promulgation of a
written constitution specifying a Consultative Council, with two-
thirds of its members elected. But when he ascended the throne two
years later he reneged on his promise.
Washington said nothing. It also remained silent when Riyadh helped
suppress democracy in neighboring countries.
After its independence from Britain in 1961, Kuwait acquired a
constitution which specified a National Assembly elected on a
franchise limited to males belonging to families domiciled in Kuwait
since 1921 - in other words, about a fifth of adult citizens.
Despite its limited nature, the Assembly evolved into a popular
forum for expressing the aspirations and grievances of several
important constituencies. Stung by criticism of official policies by
its representatives, and encouraged by the Saudi monarch, Kuwaiti
Emir Sabah ibn Salim al Sabah suspended the Assembly in 1976,
accusing it of "malicious behavior," and then dissolved it. Its
revival in 1981 lasted a mere five years.
At no point did Washington criticize the ruler's undemocratic
Since 1992, when limited parliamentary elections were restored,
voters have returned more Islamist MPs than pro-Western liberals.
Emir Jabar ibn Ahmad al Sabah's efforts to extend the vote to women
have failed, while he has made no move to extend the vote to the
remaining four-fifths of adult male citizens - nor has America
pressured him to do so. He and the Americans fear, of course, that a
universal adult male franchise would bolster the strength of the
Islamist bloc in the Assembly.
Bahrain: Limited Democracy Derailed
In Bahrain, Saudi Arabia's anti-democratic mission melded with
America's military needs. Bahrain became independent in August 1971.
Its constitution, drafted by a constituent assembly (half nominated,
half elected on a limited franchise), specified a National Assembly
of 42 deputies, 30 of whom were to be elected on a restricted
franchise. The first Assembly convened in December 1972 while Saudi
Arabia watched warily.
As in Kuwait, however, the elected representatives criticized the
government, angering the ruler, Shaikh Isa al Khalifa. This -
combined with pressure from Riyadh - led the Emir to dissolve the
Assembly in August 1975 and suspend the constitution.
Once again, Washington said nothing about the quashing of limited
democracy in Bahrain. Why? In 1971, after the Pentagon leased naval
facilities previously used by the British, Bahrain became the
headquarters of the American Middle East Force. In 1977, the ruler
extended the US-Bahraini agreement; and in 1995 Bahrain became the
headquarters of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet.
Jordan: An Election Law Altered by Decree
Jordan provides another telling example of how American
administrations have dealt with democracy in the Middle East. In an
uncommonly free and fair election in November 1989, the Islamic
Action Front (IAF), the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood,
won 32 seats in the 80-member House of Representatives. It joined
the government and ran five ministries.
During the 1990 Kuwait crisis which culminated in the 1991 Gulf War,
the Jordanian king took into account popular opinion, both inside
and outside parliament, which was opposed to joining the US-led
alliance against Iraq, and advocated a negotiated solution to the
crisis. By so doing, he acted as a constitutional monarch.
Instead of praising this welcome democratic development, the
administration of George Herbert Walker Bush pilloried Hussein as "a
dwarf king." Unable to stand the pressure, King Hussein crawled back
into Washington's fold after the 1991 Gulf War. To thwart the
possibility of the IAF emerging as the leading party in the next
election, he altered the election law by decree. In quietly
applauding his action, the elder Bush's administration showed its
cynical disregard for democracy.
Egypt: Supporting the Autocrat
While King Hussein manipulated the Jordanian political system with
some sophistication to achieve the result he wanted, President Anwar
Sadat of Egypt blatantly used the government machinery and state-run
media to produce a pre-ordained electoral result to endorse his
signing of the U.S.-brokered bilateral peace treaty with Israel in
1978-79 after he had broken ranks with the Arab League.
The depth and durability of popular antipathy towards peace with
Israel, while it continues to occupy the Palestinian Territories, is
highlighted by the fact that a quarter-century after the peace
treaty, relations between the two neighbors remain cold. While
remaining firmly under American tutelage, President Husni Mabarak
has continued to spurn offers to visit Tel Aviv.
As in Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest political party in
the Middle East and long outlawed in Egypt, offers a credible
challenge to the semi-dictatorship of Mubarak (in power since 1981).
His regime has continued to be the second largest recipient of the
U.S. aid after Israel under both Democratic and Republican
Several months ago, Mubarak mused that democracy in Egypt would mean
Muslim Brotherhood rule over the country. The key question now is:
Will Mubarak - who recently agreed to hold the Presidential election
scheduled for September through "direct, secret balloting" instead
of simply rubber-stamping his sole candidacy in a stage-managed
referendum - let the Brotherhood challenge him?
The answer will come in the wording with which Article 76 of the
constitution will be amended and passed by a Parliament dominated by
Mubarak's National Democratic Party. At present, it specifies a
single presidential candidate, endorsed by at least two-thirds of
parliamentary deputies, to be offered to the voters for approval.
Yemen: Rebuffing Democracy
Another victim of the way American administrations have placed their
narrow interests above any program to democratize the Middle East
was Yemen. Ever since the creation of Republic of Yemen, following
the union of North Yemen and South Yemen in 1991, the country has
had a multiparty political system. Indeed, since North Yemen had
been governed by the General People's Congress and South Yemen by
the Yemen Socialist Party, a peaceful unification could only come
about through the creation of a multi-party system.
In April 1993, the government organized the first general election
on the Arabian Peninsula based on universal suffrage. It was for a
301-member House of Representatives and the Presidency. This
historic event went unnoticed in the United States where the Clinton
administration continued to rebuff the Yemeni government because of
its insistence on an Arab solution to the 1990-91 Kuwait crisis and
its negative vote on United Nations Security Council Resolution 678
authorizing military action against Iraq.
Encouraged by the Yemeni election, six Saudi human rights activists -
professors, judges, and senior civil servants - established the
Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights (CDLR) in Saudi
Arabia. It demanded political reform in the kingdom, including
elections based on universal suffrage. Government persecution
followed, including job dismissals and arrests. Prof. Muhammad al
Masaari, the head of the CDLR, managed to flee first to Yemen, and
then to Britain.
Yet Washington did not protest.
Now George W. Bush loudly applauds the local elections held recently
in the Saudi Kingdom. His administration ignores the fact that only
half of the seats were even open for contest, and so distrustful
were Saudi citizens of their government's electoral promise that
only a quarter of eligible voters even bothered registered. Women
were, of course, barred from voting.
By contrast, Bush endlessly laments the absence of freedom for the
people of Iran, which his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
recently described as "a totalitarian state." These statements run
counter to the facts. Since the 1979 revolution in that country, the
Islamic regime has held seven parliamentary, eight presidential, and
two local elections - as well as four Assembly of Experts polls -
all of them multi-candidate and based on universal suffrage with a
voting age of 15.
What explains this blatant myopia? While practicing an Islamic
version of democracy, Iran is actively opposing the economic,
military, and strategic ambitions of America in the region.
Actually, the historic pattern of American administrations in the
Middle East - downgrading democracy at the expense of narrow
national interests - is in line with what the United States has been
practicing in Central and South America for a much longer period - a
phenomenon that has gone largely unnoticed in the United States
Dilip Hiro is the author of "The Essential Middle East: A
Comprehensive Guide" (Caroll & Graf) and "Secrets and Lies:
Operation "Iraqi Freedom" and After" (Nation Books).
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