The Woeful Lack of Democracy in the Middle East

A pro-government protester chants slogans as he and others gather in Al-Qaed Ibrahim area of Alexandria, Egypt, the city's equivalent of Cairo's Tahrir Square, during the fifth anniversary of the uprising that ended the 30-year reign of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, on January 25. Asmaa Waguih/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

January 25, 2016 is the fifth anniversary of the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and the 10th anniversary of the Palestinian legislative elections that were won by Hamas.

In both cases, high hopes were crushed by events. Egypt today is more repressive than it was under Mubarak, and Palestine is divided between Gaza, ruled by Hamas without a scintilla of democratic practice, and the West Bank, ruled by Fatah just as it was when Yasser Arafat lived.

In the Egyptian case, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) emerged from the 30-year Mubarak dictatorship as the best-organized party and won the first election. The MB then proceeded to rule as if it planned to stay forever and prevent democracy, so the people turned against it and supported a military coup.

Today, President Sisi is crushing not only the MB but any chance for democracy—jailing secular, liberal, moderate and democratic forces. Presumably he believes there is a method to this repression: After all, it was not the MB but the more liberal forces who brought down Mubarak. The MB joined that effort quite late.

So he is trying to beat down all forms of political activity. Perhaps if he could bring on an economic miracle he could succeed for a while, but there will be no miracle. The world economy is not cooperating, nor will subventions from Gulf oil exporters continue at past rates, given the low price of oil and their own deficits.

Moreover, the very people who might help achieve that miracle, in the Egyptian business community, are also mistrusted by the Army, which is interested in protecting its own economic interests rather than in economic growth. So the prognosis is grim.

But it is worth noting what the Egyptian picture has in common with Palestine: the lack of strong democratic political parties. The MB won in good part because it had weak competition, and it had weak competition because Mubarak for three decades made sure centrist or moderate (including moderate Islamist) parties could not be organized. Similarly, Hamas won in 2006 in good part because of the absence of alternatives.

The ruling party, Fatah, was rejected by the voters (the popular vote went 44 percent/41 percent to Hamas) for a mix of reasons: It was secular rather than religious, it was corrupt, it was organized not as a party but as a personal vehicle for Arafat, and it argued against violence and for coexistence with Israel.

It is impossible to know what part each of these played in the Hamas victory. President Bush hoped the defeat would be a wake-up call that would lead to reforms in Fatah to turn it into a modern democratic political party.

Ten years later, there are no reforms. Mahmoud Abbas still rules, without a presidential election since 2005 and without a parliamentary election since 2006. Fatah remains an old boys' club more than a party, with a reputation among Palestinians for incompetence and corruption. Hamas is a movement and a terrorist group, not a democratic political party.

So on January 25, 2016, these fifth and 10th anniversaries are a reminder (among many other things) of the importance of building democratic political parties, or put otherwise of the impossibility of achieving democracy when no such parties exist. Efforts to promote democracy in Arab and other lands that count solely on nongovernmental organizations and "civil society" will not succeed if this crucial ingredient—democratic political parties—are absent.

Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.