Foot-dragging slows march of democracy


WASHINGTON - In Cairo and Riyadh, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice chastised U.S. allies for not doing enough to advance democratic reforms and freedoms. Her criticisms echo the disappointment and frustration of so many Iranians, Syrians, Egyptians, Saudis and even some Lebanese, so she encouraged regimes to "go forward as quickly as possible."

But she added: "Obviously, regimes will do this at their own speed."

Sadly, many recent setbacks for democracy and reform in the Middle East come as no surprise considering the regimes involved. Expectations have been too high under the circumstances, and for the regimes she addressed most directly this week, "their own speed" will almost certainly turn out to be the slowest speed possible.

Deeply embedded ruling elites, benefiting from power, privilege and financial enrichment over many decades, do not readily put all of their advantages at risk by opening top-down political systems. Yet real power-sharing is the only basis for genuine, enduring political change.

Regimes that talk a good game about elections, freedom and reform are rarely willing to follow up with meaningful action. In fact, they regularly employ a political "bag of tricks" to put the brakes on anything they fear might place them on what they view as a slippery slope toward the surrender of political power and all that goes with it.

First, elections or reform can be delayed in the hope that international attention will shift away and internal pressures fade. Often the excuse for delay is that change must be orderly and carefully paced, but all too often such measured progress simply fizzles out. If, however, outside interest and pressure for change persist, regimes will then complain of foreign interference, which is always a winning - and distracting - theme among many patriotic citizens.

Failing that, elections can be manipulated, such as intimidating the opposition through bullying, harassment and even arrest. The opposition also can be put at considerable disadvantage by manipulating the political rules of the game, such as candidate selection, in ways that greatly favor the government and render elections far less meaningful. In addition, old elites can use traditional "backroom" methods to arrange for a vote that keeps pro-democracy advocates within certain bounds.

Another gambit is to hold a well-publicized election for an institution that has virtually no real power. This tactic of "faux election" is often highly successful in placating foreign governments that press for democratization, reform and good government, but do not wish to damage their interests in the country in question by pressing too hard.

Finally, if all else fails, an election can simply be stolen - even from under the eyes of foreign election monitors. Observers at polling stations may witness voters casting ballots with no interference and the sealing of ballot boxes for transport to a central location for counting, which is also observed. On the way, real ballot boxes (especially from districts the ruling regime deems "problematic") are replaced by ballot boxes filled with phony pro-government ballots filled out by hundreds of security and police cadres working long days and nights to produce genuine-looking ballots favoring the government.

I observed these techniques over the past 25 years from my vantage point inside the U.S. intelligence community. Some are being used now.

Sadly, techniques that suppress well-meaning efforts aimed at much-needed change only boost the level of public cynicism and bitterness and increase the likelihood of eventual destabilization. The ruling elites and their supporters tend to focus on just muddling through. The time has come for them to move beyond shortsighted interests and consider the long-term benefits of free and fair elections. I have not seen much evidence of such vision.

Wayne White, who spent 25 years in the Foreign Service, is an adjunct scholar with the Middle East Institute.

Columnist Steve Chapman will return Friday.

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