In DepthThe QuestionIs the US ready for democracy in North Africa and the Middle East?


Posted on Friday, 18 February 2011 17:52

Is the US ready for democracy in North Africa and the Middle East?

Anti-government protesters in Tunisia and Egypt called for an end to authoritarianism. Since the US had friendly ties with rulers of both countries, we ask if it will welcome democracy there.

Join in the debate below over whether the US is ready for the democracy wave.


W. Andrew Terrill, Research professor of national security affairs Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College

I do not believe that there’s a US outlook that says democracy is bad. We would be very interested in dealing with democratic governments. This is obviously a time of tremendous change and I don’t know that we’d be in agreement with all the policies that are coming out of those governments, but I can’t imagine we’re going to just watch that change occur and not seek a dialogue and not seek to arrive at some common ground on issues that are of concern to us.

Obviously the United States is very committed to the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt and we would encourage, I’m certain, that any future Egyptian government honour that peace treaty. I think that the United States fears that in the absence of that peace treaty, there could be all sorts of problems on the border between Egypt and Israel that are bad for the region. Egypt is a weaker nation than Israel so I don’t see that any type of military confrontation with Israel is going to help Egypt.

Egypt of course, on its own initiative, sought that treaty because it was militarily exhausted after the 1973 war. That war was fought with the full backing of a superpower, the Soviet Union, which provided massive amounts of equipment. I’m not sure what option the Egyptians would gain by denouncing that treaty.

There are questions on what the Muslim Brotherhood would do. People behave differently in power than they behave out of power. If the Muslim Brotherhood renounced the peace treaty with Israel, we would see that as very troubling and that would be an obstacle to our good relations with Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda, from everything I’ve seen, hate each other. The things people like Ayman Al Zawahiri, who used to be in the Muslim Brotherhood but later became a part of Al Qaeda, says about the Muslim Brotherhood peel paint off the wall.

I would suggest that not all variations of Islamists are threatening to the United States. Some are a problem and some may be possible to work with. We have to explore that. If these governments come to power and if they turn to Islamist leadership, this is something we have to explore on the basis of sitting down and talking with them, telling them what our interests are and seeing if some commonalities exist.

It’s not clear to me that there’s a strategy [on military aid] that’s been worked out. I think that that’s something that remains to be negotiated with the new government. If the new government is deeply hostile to the United States, I’m not even sure they would want our aid. We don’t provide aid unconditionally to every country in the world no matter what. We provide aid to different countries that we at least have some minimal level of cooperation with on various issues that relate to both of our national interests. If that would change, then one would wonder what the justification for that aid package would be.

I think the US is very pleased with the possibility that various governments would become more democratic. If the Algerians decide that they want a democracy and the different parties in Algeria manage to make that happen, I’m sure that the US would be willing to work with that government under most circumstances. It’s not like we find democracy inherently threatening. If fighting Al Qaeda remains in the national interest of a democratic government in Algeria then we have some commonality that we can build on.


Gilbert Achcar, Professor of development studies and international relations, School of Oriental and African Studies, London

On the face of it, the United States has been promoting democracy in the region to the point of invading one of the key countries for this purpose – it was one of the stated goals for the invasion of Iraq. No one was fooled by this due to the fact that the neighbouring Saudi kingdom, probably the most undemocratic state on earth, is the most closely linked to the United States.?

US Middle East policy has traditionally been informed by what American political scientist Samuel Huntington called the “democracy paradox”, by which he meant democratic elections would bring to power governments hostile to US interests. United States policy is completely resented by the populations, not only because of the invasion of Iraq, but also because of the close links between the United States and Israel.?

What Washington would like to see would be no more than what you have in Pakistan or what you had in Turkey, where the army remains in control but lets elections happen and civilian forces be in the government. But everybody knows that the real centre of power is the army. The US hegemony is really in jeopardy right now. It reached a peak in the aftermath of the first US war on Iraq in 1991. It has been [in decline] for a few years. I think they are extremely worried about the future of their interests and influence in the region.

Gemma Ware

Gemma Ware

Gemma Ware is business editor of The Africa Report magazine, where she has worked since 2008. She coordinates the magazine's business pages and writes on a range of subjects from the continent's telecoms revolution, to private equity and African stock markets.

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