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 Arabia.”
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 different generals.
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 actions.
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 Presidents.
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 itself.
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).
Copyright 2005 Dilip Hiro
[A printed version of this article will appear in Middle East International, no. 746. The article first appeared on-line on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]