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And the Winner Is : Authoritarian Elections in the Arab World Author(s): Jillian Schwedler and

And the Winner Is

:

Authoritarian Elections in the Arab World

Author(s): Jillian Schwedler and Laryssa Chomiak Reviewed work(s):

Source: Middle East Report, No. 238, Year of Elections: Fact and Fiction (Spring, 2006), pp. 12-

19

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Supporters ofPresident fine al-AbidineBen Ali rally inTunis before the October 1999 presidential election.

And

the Winner

Is

Authoritarian

Elections

in the Arab World

JulianSchwedlerand Laryssa Chomiak

FETHI BELAID/AFP

Does anyone believe thatArab citizens are freelychoosing theirleaders inelections thatreturnthe incumbents

bymargins of90 percent ormore? Surely Arab leaderscannot. Yet, even though theiroutcome isnot in question,

almost all authoritarian regimes intheArabworld now hold at least semi-regular elections. Why investscarce

state resources inballot boxes and vote counters? Why bother?

12

MIDDLEEASTREPORT238 SPRING2006

The

administration of President George W

commitment to promoting democratization

Bush claims a

in theArab

world, whether through regime change or by pressuring authoritarian leaders through "transformational diplomacy"

to open their political systems. It has been tempting for the administration's supporters tofind evidence forthesuccess of these

policies in the spate of elections inArab countries in 2005.

Certainly,

December's

elections

for

a four-year

national

assembly in Iraq would not have occurred had theUnited States

not invaded the country, but the ongoing military occupation

and the flourishing of numerous armed groups outside of government control raisedoubts about whether the outcomes

pressure

played a role in keeping the May-June elections in Lebanon

on schedule, though the results there, which

confessional divisions, sapped the popular democratic energies

really reflect the preferences of Iraqis. Arguably, US

reinforced old

thathad earlier been on display. The US

creditforthe January 2006 elections that gave Hamas control of

thePalestinian Legislative Council, inwhat was clearly themost

can also claim some

democratic balloting the region had seen in decades, notwith

standing having taken place under Israeli military

occupation.

The US

response to theHamas

victory, however, betrays the

hypocrisyunderlyingWashington's exhortations to democratize.

spokespersons were caught in the contradiction between

congratulating thePalestinians on holding successful elections

US

and

denouncing

the victor

as

a

terrorist

organization.

In

Iraq,

Lebanon and Palestine, thereare good reasons for questioning whether the fact of more or lessdemocratic elections equates

to democracy.

Most

elections in theArab world, however, are not demo

cratic

by any measure,

and

no

years,

elections

in current

and

one mistakes

them

as such.

former

"rogue

states"

such

For

as

Syria and Iraq under Saddam Hussein's rulehave been mocked

as the fraudulent

practices

they are.

Syria,

for

instance,

has

a

decades-long history of mounting patently false elections for a domestic audience that isno more fooled than the interna

tional one. Syrians "approve" the president every seven years by

every four

referendum, and they "elect" the People's Council

years

in an ostensibly

multi-party

competition.

Charade-like

elections are also the norm inUS-allied Arab

countries?the

examples

of

Iraq,

Palestine

and

Lebanon

notwithstanding?and

have not changed this. Initially promising political openings in Jordan, Tunisia and Yemen have since been emptied ofmost

substance, while the formal trappings of electoral democracy

the policies of theBush administration

and pluralism remain. The more recent openings ofMorocco

and Egypt appear, upon closer inspection, tobe littleconcerned

with broadening real participation. In 2005, Egypt promised a

competitive presidential election and then adopted measures to ensure that a real contest could not happen.

Julian Schwedler teaches government and politics at the University ofMaryland

chair ofMERIP's board of directors. Laryssa

ment and

Lynch, Shana Marshall

and is

Chomiak

isa doctoral student in govern

Marc

earlier drafts.

politics

at

the UniversityofMaryland.

and Lisa

Wedeenfor

The authors thank SamirFayyaz,

theirdetailed commentson

MIDDLEEASTREPORT238 SPRING2006

13

All this leads to a question: what do authoritarian regimes

gain by holding bogus elections?1 Some leaderswho claim a

commitment to democratization blame the lack of progress in

theircountries on,for example, the threatof radical Islam, the

lackof viable political parties or

instabilityresulting fromweak

economies.

Yet

virtually

every

regime

embraces

the

language

of democracy and most hold regular elections. Even states

that have long resisted the trend toward increased participa

tion, such as Bahrain, Oman, Qatar

and Saudi Arabia, have

held or called for elections of some kind, though the resulting

assemblies have little actual power. If neither their citizens

nor the international community are bedazzled by these great

performances,

why

do

authoritarian

resources in elections? Why

bother?

regimes

invest

scarce

Do ElectionsProduce Legitimacy?

One

frequent refrain is that authoritarian regimes hold elec

tions

in order

to gain

"legitimacy"?a

slippery

term

that,

in

the broadest sense, means

something like the consent of the

ruled.2

But

the

reasons

for consent

are many,

and

not

all

of

them require the unencumbered choice between politicians

vying for public support that the term "elections" implies.

recognize their leader as

possessing themoral authority to rule according to religious

One

possibility

is that people

prescriptions. Jordan's Hashemite monarchy andMorocco's Alaoui monarchy both claim the right to the throne based

from the Prophet

in part on claims of familial descent

Muhammad.

They recurrentlydeploy symbols and rhetoric

king portrays himself as the

to that end?the

Moroccan

"Commander

of the Faithful," while Jordan'sKing Hussein

claimed a role as protector of the holy

ruling family in Saudi Arabia

sites in Jerusalem. The

stakes a different, religiously

based claim tomoral authority, stemming from its role as

the protector of the holy cities ofMecca and Medina. All

threemonarchies have continuously presented themselves as

legitimate, though the consent of their subjects has been far from constant, and they have held at best irregular legisla

tive elections. (Certainly, they have not put themselves up

for election.)

The ruled might consent to other forms of undemocratic

rule because of the popularity of a charismatic leader or a

political ideology. Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser was popular throughout theArab world forhis pan-Arab nationalist project,

andTunisia's PresidentHabib Bourguiba won popular support

forhis early policies of rapid modernization. A regimemight

also become popular by bringing an end to conflict, ousting an occupying force or providing security to itscitizens. Finally,

an unpopular but militarily powerful regime might secure the appearance of consent of the ruled (or at least the absence

of overt dissent) through the omnipresent threatof arbitrary

imprisonment

or worse.

No

independent

observer

would

say

that such a regime was legitimate, but the regime would most

likely claim to be.

E v e n S a d d a m Hussein held elections. V o

Even Saddam Hussein held elections. Voting booths in Baghdad,

1995.

shepard

sherbell/corbis

saba

Not

only

have

elections

been

unnecessary

for gaining

de

facto consent of the ruled in theArab world, but also there

is no

reason

are gaining

summoned

to think

legitimacy

to the polls.

that authoritarian

regimes

believe

they

on

those

occasions

when

citizens

are

Does

anyone

believe

that

the citizens

of Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen are freelyconsenting to be ruled

by their

or more

elections?

respective

presidents

when

those men

win

than

90

percent

of

the vote

in obviously

Surely

the presidents

cannot.

88 percent

spurious

LittleReal Commitment

The explanation for why authoritarian regimes hold elections

ismore likely to be found among these five reasons:

out

a real commitment

to democratization;

to distract

to carry

citizens

from other crises; to respond to foreign pressure; to display

state power;

and simply because

they have held them in the

past. Multiple

rationale

rationales

one

for any

are often

at play

in any

regime

tends

to shift over

state,

time.

and

the

The leaders of Jordan, Morocco,

Egypt, Yemen and Tunisia

all

claim

a genuine

commitment

to advance

democratic

processes

and

norms,

but

none

has

allowed

an

election

to

produce

real

alternatives

to

the

incumbent

regime.

When

Algeria's

1991-1992

elections

threatened

to

do

just

that,

the

military suspended the democratic process

entirely, and civil

war

ensued.

The most democratic

they

are

mechanisms

certainly

not

for choosing

elections in theArab world?though

without

their

a government

flaws?emerged

among

from

as

parties

to a conflict (Lebanon after the civil war), during unification

(Yemen)

and

under

occupation,

when

existing

state

structures

are eitherweak or entirely absent (Iraq and Palestine). The

elections

contexts

in Lebanon,

where

Iraq and Palestine all were held

non-state

militias

about

In

in

armed

raising

questions

candidates.

control

portions

of

the ability

of voters

to

of today's

Iraq and

each

choose

territory,

freely among

the cases

Palestine,

the commitment

to long-term

democratization?in

the form of both regular elections and vibrant, independent

institutions?remains

uncertain.

Newly unified Yemen's elections in 1993 looked promising

at the time. The People's Democratic Republic ofYemen and

theYemen Arab Republic unified as the Republic ofYemen in

1990,

and

the former

regimes

agreed

on a democratic

system

as

part

of unification.

process?through

of

assassination

Despite

efforts

to undermine

the electoral

vote buying, intimidation and hundreds

attempts

(many

successful)

against

leaders

14 MIDDLEEASTREPORT238 SPRING2006

returned an

assembly inwhich no party won a majority and independents won 48 of 301 seats.A briefcivilwar in 1994 brought an abrupt

from the souths Yemeni Socialist Party?Yemenis

end to that process, however, when President Ali Abdallah

Salih's military defeated the leaders from the south.

Distraction

Authoritarian

initiate processes of democratization to distract citizens from

other crises. These might include rapid price hikes while the

regime is lifting subsidies in accordance with International

Monetary Fund recommendations, domestic political tensions like the arrestof a popular opposition figure, or international

regimesmay also hold elections or otherwise

issues like allowing foreign troops to amass in preparation for intervention in the region. Elections are initiated for strategic

energy

into state-controlled processes. This strategy has the added

benefit of making opposition forcesboth visible and subject to

state regulations, such as the legal requirements for declaring

candidacy or registering as a political party. Jordan called for fullnational elections in 1989, thefirstsince

the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, largely as a strategy of distraction.The

Jordanian economy had sufferedfrom the drop in oil prices

of the early 1980s and a decrease in labor remittances from

Jordanians working in theGulf. By 1988, the regime devalued

itsdinar by half and adopted an IMF-led austerityprogram that included a reduction in certain subsidies. In April 1989,

Jordanians rioted in response to the price increases, first in the

south and then throughout the country.King Hussein called a

reasons, as the regime hopes to channel opposition

meeting

of both

conservative

and

reformist

advisers

to evaluate

the situation, with one side advocating repression and theother

urging political liberalization to deflate growing opposition to

the regime.3

Seven

months

later,

a newly

restructured

parlia

assembly,

and other advances followed, for example, the adoption of the

National Charter codifyingpolitical rights, a reduction of state control over themedia and the legalization of political parties.

ment4 returned a pluralist, opposition-dominated

Likewise, Morocco's

opening

in the early

1990s

King Hassan

initiated a political

in response

to growing

unrest

around

poor economic conditions. In particular, the regime hoped

that the strategy of liberalization would

deflate the increas

ingly vocal urban, educated opposition calling for political

reform.The monarch had

divide-and-rule tactics to consolidate its power, so itsdecision

previously relied on cooptation and

to initiate a gradual political liberalization process marked

a significant turn. In a short time, Morocco

constitutional reforms, first in 1992 and then again in 1996

saw significant

with the establishment of a bicameral legislature with a popu

larly elected lower chamber (replacing the indirectly elected

unicameral parliament) and thecreation of ad hoc commissions

to investigate

government

As in Jordan, Morocco's

affairs.

regime initiated a

political opening

largely to temperopposition while inviting domestic and inter

MIDDLEEASTREPORT238 SPRING2006

15

national private investment to bolster the economy. Though

regimesmight hold elections for purposes of distraction, the

contests may indeed mark the initiation of a real democratic

transition even if the regime never intends to cede any real

power to the new assemblies. Elections held for these reasons

are not necessarily fake, although in practice the regimes typi cally structure the electoral systems and draw districtswith

a view toward producing the results they want. After these

initial openings, regimes may continue to hold elections for

very

different

reasons.

Foreign Pressure

Authoritarian

regimesmight also hold elections in response

to real or perceived foreign pressure, for example, ifan inter

national agency or foreign statemade a lucrative aid package

contingent

on progress

toward

democracy

or the improvement

of human rights. As theworld s largestprovider of foreign aid,

theUnited States should be in a unique position to put teeth

into its declared commitment to democracy promotion

theMiddle

in

East.

But while

the Bush administration has indeed moved

democratization to the centerof debates about political reform

in theMiddle East, in practice itcontinues to provide and even

Authoritarian regimes oftenhold elections to distractcitizens from othercrises.

increase aid to authoritarian regimes, including military aid

that cannot be sold asmere succor for long-sufferingpopula

tions. Military

aid to Jordan went up from $76.5 million

in

2001 to $207.4

jumped from $3.5 million

million

in 2005, while military aid toMorocco

to $17 million

in the same period.

Washington

rightly welcomed

Egypt's announcement

in

February 2005 that itwould

elections in September and open its parliamentary elections

program

hold competitive presidential

later in the year towider competition, all as part of a

of significantpolitical reform.But the requirements for presi dential candidacy erected significant obstacles, particularly for

independents. A candidate unaffiliatedwith a registeredparty

must obtain the signatures of at least 65 members of the lower

house of Parliament, 25 members of the upper house and ten

municipal council members fromat least 14 provinces. Because

both houses of Parliament and most local councils are domi

nated by the ruling National Democratic Party, "establishing

eligibility would be nearly impossible in practice."5

Washington

remained largely silent on these "legal" means

of electoral manipulation. Rice did cancel a trip toCairo

Secretary of State Condoleezza

in February 2005 to protest the

V o t e r s t r y to enter a p o l

Voters try to enter a polling station blocked by riot police in the Delta town of Talkha, December 1, 2005.

for good

f o r g o o d governance,

governance,

accountability

and

greater

political

the advancement

of

elections, while tacitlybacking dictator ships. The difference is that the Bush

administration explicitly claims to be

reversing the decades of double-talk

about Arab democracy. A 2005 democ

racy and

"Promote

governance

Free

and

program

Fair Elections,"

for Egypt,

stated,

"For the 2005 national elections, USAID

will

promote

a more

transparent

and

competitive electoral process by offering

assistance

to

the government

of Egypt

and civil society to improve the legal

framework,

administration

of elections

and civic participation. The resultwill

be

a more

open

electoral

system

allows

political

parties

to compete

and

that

an

informed

citizenry

to participate."

Similarly,

in December

2005,

the

USAID

for

and State Department

and

governance

program

in

democracy

Morocco

Government

issued

a report

Responsiveness

on

"Improved

to Citizens,"

stating

program

for

that

was

"the

based

the government

rationale

for

on

the urgent

of Morocco

this

need

to

do

a better job of responding to the real

needs

of its citizens

or face

their prospect

of their looking elsewhere." In practice,

USAID

regime

has neverwithheld aid toanArab

for not making

advances

in areas

of democratization

and

governance,6

and

in any case thedollar amount of aid from

these programs

is almost

always

dwarfed

strong relations

with allied "friendly" Arab regimes clash

by military aid.When

with

democracy

promotion

initiatives,

the alliances

are always

preferred.

Indeed,

willing

Washington

seems

almost

to ignore serious flaws in elec

toral

in

processes

"friendly"

her

opening

when

they

take

place

authoritarian

states.

In

remarks

to

the House

arrestof opposition politician Ayman Nour on

highly dubious

charges

of fraud.

Nour

was

released

on

bail

and ran against President Husni Mubarak

two weeks

later,

in September, but

inDecember

he was

convicted

on

the trumped-up

charge

and

remains in jail. Scolding from Washington

and aid to Egypt has not been suspended.

was mild

in tone,

Of

regimes

course, the failure to put teeth intoUS

aid toArab

is

not

unique

to

the

Bush

administration.

For

years, various US

agencies have included language calling

hearing

on the fiscal 2006 Federal budget, Secretary of State Rice

kept the glass half-full: "FromMorocco to Jordan to Bahrain,

Committee

on Appropriations

we

are

seeing

elections

and

new

protections

for women

and

minorities, and the beginnings of political pluralism. Recent

weeks

have

seen

an

opening

toward

broader

participation

in the first-ever municipal

elections in Saudi Arabia,

and a

very important decision by President Mubarak

to open up

competition in Egypt's presidential elections." A year later,

selling "transformational diplomacy"

atHouse

hearings on

16 MIDDLEEASTREPORT238 SPRING2006

the fiscal 2007 budget, Rice did not even mention

these

five US-allied

countries by name, perhaps because

there

was

no

progress

Jordan, Bahrain

toward

democracy

or Saudi Arabia.

in

She

2005

in Morocco,

also chose not

to

mention

either the shenanigans preceding race or the fraud and violence

presidential

the parliamentary

elections

that

Muslim

Brotherhood.

Likewise,

returned

88

in his 2006

the Egyptian

surrounding

seats

for

the

State of the

Union Address, Bush celebrated Egypt's electoral experi

ences, declaring, "The great people of Egypt have voted

in

a multi-party

presidential

election?and

now

their

government should open paths of peaceful opposition

that

will reduce the appeal of radicalism." The

second half of

the

sentence

might

be

taken

as

regime,

but

the word

"radicalism"

an

oblique

makes

reproach

of

the

it clear

that, given

the choice between Mubarak

theUS

stands with Mubarak.

and theMuslim

Brotherhood,

Asserting Power

As the presidential elections in Egypt illustrate, authoritarian

regimes sometimes hold elections inwhich the outcome is so

manipulated

and over-determined that it seems unlikely

that

the regime expects anyone to be fooled by the charade. No

real competition is possible and the victory of the incumbent

regime

is a foregone

conclusion.

The

regime

uses

not

only

electoral engineering and gerrymandering, but finds various

ways of eliminating all viable opposition before winning a landslide.

in

United Yemen's first presidential

process

well.7

By

1999,

President

Salih

elections illustrate this

was

ruling Yemen

auto

cratically, just as he had ruled theYemen Arab Republic from

1978 until 1990. Two months before the election, a united oppo

sition

announced

its intended

candidate,

the secretary-general

of theYemeni Socialist Party, Ali Salih 'Ubad "Muqbil." Few in

the opposition believed Muqbil had a chance of winning even

iffairelections were held. Yemen had a requirement, borrowed

from theTunisian judicial codes, that every candidate must be

approved by 10 percent of the sittingparliament; Muqbil

not meet the threshold. Salih's party then put forth its own

did

"alternative"

thus offered

candidate,

a choice

Najib

between

Qahtan

two

al-Shaabi.

candidates

Yemenis

were

from

the same

party,

and

Salih

unsurprisingly

won

96.3

percent

of

the vote.

IfSalih would dominate even a freecontestwith Muqbil, why

did

As

the regime

Lisa Wedeen

stage

an election

whose

argues,

the election

was

occasion

for the regime

to both

announce

outcome

not

and

was

a contest

assert

obvious?

but

an

its power.

Indeed, by presenting Yemenis with a bogus alternative candi

date,

the regime

effectively

to Salih were available.

The

Tunisian

regime

has

strate its powe