May 2009

Authoritarian Democracy and Help is on the Way
Democratic Authoritarianism While the self-help movement has
traditionally been characterized as a
by Jon B. Alterman uniquely American phenomenon—an
$11 billion industry in 2008—it is also
For a part of the world that doesn’t have a lot of freedom, the Middle East burgeoning in the Middle East. In Saudi
certainly has a lot of elections that count. On May 16, Kuwaitis elected Arabia, self-help books like Men Are
a new parliament, sending women to the chamber for the first time. On From Mars, Women are From Venus
June 7, Lebanese will go to the polls, and five days later, Iranians will are bestsellers; the Farsi translation of
have their turn. The Secret, a renowned (and Oprah-en-
Kuwaitis’ election of four women was a surprise even to close observers, dorsed) book about the power of opti-
who had watched all of the female candidates go to defeat in elections mism, is in its 10th printing in Iran, and
independent self-help magazines such
just a year ago. Handicappers have expectations for the elections next
as Iran’s Happiness Magazine dot the
month—an uneasy tie between the pro- and anti-Hezbollah factions in
shelves of bookstores and newsstands
Lebanon, and a photo finish in Iran. But what makes these elections so throughout the country.
interesting is that their outcomes are truly unknown. In much of the re-
gion, the results are a foregone conclusion. Rulers are not about to allow Oprah Winfrey has a huge following,
challengers, and victory margins of 20, 40, or even 90 percent are com- showing twice a day on pan-Arab tele-
monplace. These countries are different. vision. Yet a surprising entry into the
self-help field is Muslim clerics, who
The countries that have meaningful elections are not the most liberal ones are increasingly assuming the roles of
by any means. Kuwait and Iran both ban alcohol and take religious law to charismatic self-help gurus. Increas-
be the bedrock of legislation. Lebanon is more libertine, but in many parts ingly, they are generating bestselling
of the country, religious rule is ascendant. books and popular television shows
For many Americans, this is a paradox. We see elections as manifesta- that embed the notions of success and
tions of liberalism, yet Middle Eastern elections rarely produce liberal self-improvement within a framework
of Islamic values. In Stop Worrying,
outcomes. Conservative forces, often cloaked in an air of religious legiti-
Relax and Be Happy, Egyptian Sheikh
macy, tend to do well. Their success is due in part to their superior level Muhammad al-Ghazali directly cites
of organization, their greater outreach, and the importance they attach to Dale Carnegie’s 1936 classic How to
the elections themselves. Conservative figures in the Middle East—like Stop Worrying and Start Living. Adopt-
conservatives everywhere in the world—also play on a sense of authentic- ing Carnegie’s metaphor of a flexible
ity in a rapidly changing and often confusing world. twig that resists snapping in the wind,
Al-Ghazali encourages Muslims to bow
(continued on page 2) to Allah’s will so as to avoid “snapping”
in difficult times. Saudi Sheikh Aaidh
al-Qarni has become another “motiva-
King Abdullah II of Jordan visits CSIS tional sheikh.” In 2007 he claimed his
CSIS hosted King Abdullah II of Jordan on April 24. Speaking to a luncheon book Don’t be Sad has sold two mil-
crowd of 160, the king spoke about the urgency of ending the Arab-Israeli con- lion copies, but bloggers complain it is
flict and argued that a U.S. role in helping do so would serve both U.S. strategic merely an Islamicized version of Carne-
interests and U.S. credibility. The king said, “We do not have time to engage in gie’s message. As this ethic of personal
yet another open-ended process. We have seen what comes of process without growth and self-improvement continues
progress. Every missed opportunity has alienated more people on both sides.” to spread, it’s hard to imagine how the
In his call for energetic U.S. engagement, he stated that “The U.S. commitment desire to “win friends and influence
to Palestinian statehood must be unambiguous in deeds as well as words.” To people” could ever be uniquely Ameri-
view both the transcript and video of the king’s speech, click HERE.■ can.■ CB

1800 K Street NW, Washington DC 20006 | p. 202.775.3179 | f. 202.775.3199 | www.csis.org/mideast

Alterman ered to citizens rather than make hard choices about resource allocations. Elections can do little by themselves. Washington DC 20006 | p. Indeed. on the other. Politics and the Resur- people talk of “the government” in most parts of the Middle East. almost exclusively mean the executive branch.S. Similarly. ed a Gulf Roundtable. Voters want results. Successful campaign themes. International Studies. to be expected. duced by the Center for Strategic Second. all views.3199 | www. Haim Malka But electoral uncertainty in the Middle East. From that Program Coordinator/Research Assistant expectation. especially ment electronic newsletter is pro- high or especially low turnouts are signs that something is amiss. Policy Studies. Even the world’s most authoritarian leaders keep close tabs on what their people think. Islam. on top of the other uncertain- Deputy Director ties that governments face. Despite all of the elections. not rhetoric. especially by opposition candidates. 202. While many are loyal to the government. “Obama Tells Netanya- hu He Has Iran Timetable. lature.csis. begins to help shape it.” If that is the case. elected officials are slowly gaining more icy issues. elections are an indicator of the popular will. helps leaven a governmental process that has often been slow and leaden. and legislatures endorse that rule. Elected officials often dema- gogue on issues more than they analyze them. and they 2009 by the Center for Strategic and have an increasingly diverse set of outlets for their dissenting opinions. many are not. cusing on international public pol- But third. Kings. Assessing the Iranian Nuclear Challenge with Da- ting religious oppositions. bate in such a way that it certainly constrains government policy and. elections can help spur public debate and vet new ideas. and elec- tions—both in terms of outcomes and turnout—are important indicators of that. blogs. Institute of Peace.775. co-opting some parts and repressing others in vid Kay of the Potomac Institute for order to prevent the creation of a powerful opposition bloc in the legis. accordingly. Its research is nonparti- influence in the Middle East. and they have tried to create environments ed a Congressional Forum on Islam in which legislatures have responsibility without authority. they gence of the State with Steve Heyde- mann of the U.2 | CSIS Middle East Notes and Comment | May 2009 This is not the season of religious parties. perhaps. and conclusions expressed in this in the most positive sense. when Event. and presi- dents rule. many Middle Eastern governments have become adept at split. In The CSIS Middle East Program host- addition. Elected officials are publication should be understood to necessarily interested in the actions of governments. elected officials have a growing ability to shape public de. Director All of that is. but the Lindsey Stephenson uncertainty surrounding them creates expectations of change. and a decade’s worth of religious parties’ ascendance has meant that these parties have an increasingly difficult time distancing Links of Interest themselves from responsibility for the status quo in many countries. 202. why do all of these elections matter? There are several reasons. Criticizing the ruler remains taboo in many countries. and most important. private. elected officials (from Kuwaiti parliamentarians to the president of Iran) have The CSIS Middle East Program shown a single-minded determination to maximize the subsidies deliv- Jon B. and informal media such as the Internet. even in countries without truly democratic rule.org/mideast . While and International Studies (CSIS). In many cases. emirs. and text messages not take specific policy positions. a legislators’ ability to force adoption of those ideas is quite limited. tax-exempt institution fo- tions can help expand the solution set that governments consider. then. All of this has not produced democracy. elec. © them. however.3179 | f. those actually ruling these countries have The CSIS Middle East Program host- remained firmly in control. First of all.775. CSIS does hand. The Middle East Notes and Com- can serve as harbingers of danger for governments. With the rise of regional media on the one san and nonproprietary. change may come. and they speak about be solely those of the author(s). ■ 5/22/09 Christie Bahna Graham Griffiths Interns 1800 K Street NW. and questioning the ruler’s legitimacy is almost Jon Alterman was quoted by the New unthinkable. positions. York Times.