On democracy, the Middle East can benefit from the Biden summit

Next week, US President Joe Biden will convene his World Summit for Democracy, a virtual gathering of world leaders that aims to promote human rights, fight corruption and discuss ways to strengthen democracy against a rising tide of authoritarianism across the world. The event fulfills a campaign promise made by then-candidate Biden to host a Democracies Summit in his first year in office.

The gathering has been rejected in some neighborhoods as a hollow performative exercise, rendered meaningless by the inevitable controversy over the guest list. But the arguments on the substance of the summit, as well as on the countries invited and those who have been snubbed, escape a crucial point: the importance of the exercise lies precisely in its symbolism. If Washington manages to persuade more than 100 countries to make a public declaration of their commitment to democracy at a choreographed event, it will not magically turn the world into a utopia. But it could potentially put pressure on countries attending the rally to live up to the democratic commitments they made there. More importantly, the summit could give a boost to Americans concerned about the deepening crisis of democracy in the United States.

There is a broad consensus that democracy is currently at its lowest relative to its post-Cold War expansion, and arguably nowhere has it sunk lower than in the Middle East. Several countries, including Egypt, Libya, Sudan, Yemen and Tunisia, which experimented with democracy and experienced brief moments of hope for change after the uprisings that began in 2010 have since receded in the country. authoritarianism, war or both.

The Biden administration has not released the full list of countries it intends to invite to the summit, but List leaked to Politico only shows two MENA guests: Israel and Iraq.

If confirmed, it means that the summit organizers have ruled out Lebanon, which is certainly a democracy in the sense that it regularly holds multi-party elections and is not ruled by a single autocrat, but is functionally a state. failing with little respect for the rule of law and few rights for its citizens and residents. They also left out Turkey, nominally a democracy, albeit an authoritarian one which is now virtually under the exclusive control of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Presumably Iraq and Israel, for all their considerable democratic flaws, have been included because they demonstrate some key aspects of “affirmative program for democratic renewalWhich the Biden administration defines as focusing on three themes: defense against authoritarianism, the fight against corruption and the promotion of respect for human rights.

Iraq is a troubled republic that embodies democracy more in its aspirations than in its practices. At the same time, in what is for the most part a violent and volatile neighborhood, Iraq has emerged from a disastrous US invasion and occupation as a pluralist regime, without any dominant non-state militias, as in Lebanon. with Hezbollah, for example. Importantly, the country has key institutions administering the affairs of the state, however weak they appear to be. Iraq is a living rebuke to the despotic monarchs of the Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC, and theocrats like the mullahs of Iran and the Houthis of Yemen. Iraqi democracy may collapse, but its hesitant success is a threat to the autocratic governments around it, even if it does not offer a model of hope on how to consolidate the gains of governance. democratic.

For its part, Israel presents a different set of problems. Its non-Jewish citizens do not enjoy the full basket of democratic rights, while at least 4.8 million Palestinians live under Israeli control in Gaza and the West Bank without exercising any right of citizenship. And Israel’s commitment to rules-based democracy appears to be eroding even for Jewish Israelis. But Israel also has responsive institutions that, while compromised and threatened, can push back authoritarianism and extend civil rights, the rule of law, and democracy to a growing portion of the population, much like America’s democracy does. has done, episodically, since the founding of the nation. till today.

Defending democracy in the Middle East is a complicated business; there are no perfect examples and few political leaders deserve to be emulated. Thus, MENA guests symbolize the promise of the summit as well as its limits. Washington can shed light on even the barely promising ingredients of democracy in the region, in order to initiate discussion and focus on democratic ideas and principles. At the same time, it should set low expectations as to how quickly democratic rhetoric will translate into tangible gains for democracy.

Ben Scott at Lowy Institute convincingly argues that if poorly executed, “another platform for meaningless democratic rhetoric would be a step backwards.” To be successful, Scott writes, the summit should facilitate genuine and difficult cooperation in order to defend both established and consolidated democracies and the most vulnerable democracies present against further setback and erosion.

The skepticism is understandable, and the optics go no further. But to dismiss a discourse or summit as performative is to overlook the role rhetoric plays in shaping practice. Rather, values, rituals and performance shape policies and practices.

Certainly, no democracy activist would argue that inviting Israel to a democracy summit will end its occupation of Palestinian territory or its two-tier system of rights and citizenship within Israel. Snubbing GCC countries also does not mean that they will end their repressive surveillance systems or their dependence on disenfranchised foreign workers with little legal protections to manage their economies. At the same time, Washington’s partners in the region crave international legitimacy and validation. If the United States makes a new public commitment to democracy, backed by credible action both at home and abroad, some MENA governments will want to be admitted to the club, even if they do not. do not care at all about the substance of democracy.

Ultimately, democracy depends on the voluntary participation of powerful actors. Democracy in the United States is arguably as precarious as it has been at any time since the Civil War. Globally, the effectiveness of democracy is called into question. Next week’s summit is the first high-level expression of the United States’ commitment to its core values ​​since the War on Terror vitiated Washington’s moral leadership. A Zoom conference will not save democracy, but it is a much needed first step in the right direction.

Overview of rights

Hossam Bahgat, Egyptian human rights activist, head of the Egyptian Initiative for Human Rights, was fined on Monday following an iconic pursuit of Cairo’s broader crackdown on rights and dissent. Bahgat was convicted of spreading fake news after citing cases of electoral fraud on social media in last year’s parliamentary elections. His assets were frozen by the Egyptian authorities and he was banned from traveling. Like Alaa Abdel Fattah, another victim of official harassment and futile prosecution, Bahgat is well known internationally, and his case has received significant global attention. Earlier in November, 45 rights groups called for an end to Bahgat harassment by the Egyptian authorities, an appeal taken up by some elected officials around the world, including American lawmakers. The prosecutions are representative of a frightening environment for Egyptian NGOs and human rights groups which makes it virtually impossible for them to continue their normal activities.

Top of page

We all know how financial corruption continues to shape the global political economy, thanks to revolutionary leaks like the Pandora and Panama Papers. “Congo robbery”, A deeply impressive new investigation takes readers on a meticulous tour of exactly how a massive corruption scheme worked. The project combines the resources of 19 media organizations and five NGOs and draws on what is billed as Africa’s biggest data breach to uncover the network that has stolen hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds from the Republic. Democratic Republic of the Congo. Lebanese daily Orient today went deep on the Lebanese dimensions of the scandal, in which members of the Tajeddine family – three of whom were sanctioned by the United States for alleged links to Hezbollah – used a Congolese bank linked to former President Joseph Kabila to circumvent those sanctions. The collaborative reporting project demonstrates the globalized nature of corruption and how a case can link maladministration, fraud and illicit financing of armed groups across multiple continents and jurisdictions.

Thanassis Cambanis is a senior fellow and director of the international politics program at the Century Foundation in New York. He teaches at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. His books include “Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story”, “A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions” and four edited volumes on politics and security in the Middle East. He is currently writing a book on the global impact of the Iraq war. His Twitter handle is @tcambanis.

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