Autocracy May = Political Flexibility

As Table 1 illustrates, the heads of state of a number of Arab countries have been in power for some time and, in many cases, are reaching old age. In the overwhelming number of cases, power was not transferred to these leaders as the result of popular participatory processes akin to the democratic elections that define political life in the West. The primary exceptions to this autocracy in the Middle East more widely drawn, have been not only the obvious examples of Israel and Turkey but, to the surprise of some, the Islamic Republic of Iran, as well.

No one was more surprised at the election of President Mohammad Khatami than was Khatami himself, his supporters and opponents, as well as outside observers. And if the definition of a genuine democratic election is one in which the outcome of the election is not known in advance of the opening of the polls, then the Iranian election clearly qualifies. For the purposes of this analysis, however, we will restrict our analysis to the Arab world and specifically to the key states within it.

Significantly, the absence of democracy in the Arab world has, for the most part, helped the Arab-Israeli peace process. That the absence of democracy could actually help the peace process may sound counter-intuitive, as democracy is usually thought to be a prerequisite to all positive political developments. Yet it was precisely the absence of democracy that allowed President Anwar Sadat to forge the Camp David accords with his Israeli partners. On the other hand, it was this same independence of action that led to Sadat’s subsequent assassination by Egyptian religio-political nationalists who were opposed, amongst other things, to his “separate peace” with Israel.

Despite Syria’s non-democratic nature, it is widely believed that President Hafez al-Assad and Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin were quite close to reaching an understanding which would have led to the exchange of the Golan Heights for Syrian recognition of Israel and, far more importantly, Syrian involvement in the broader Arab-Israeli peace process. Whether or not this was the case must be left to future generations of historians to divine. But what is significant in this context, is the fact that if Assad had wished to consummate such a deal, he would not have had to seek the approval of the Syrian people to do so. Instead he would have been able to do so by seeking the support of a much smaller group of supporters in the military and from his immediate circle just as did Anwar Sadat in Egypt. At this writing, it is widely thought that the Barak administration in Israel is likely to emulate Yitzhak Rabin and thus, a test of Assad’s intentions may once again be in the offing. Assad’s paramount commitment is to a smooth transfer of power to his son and designated heir, Bashar. He undoubtedly weighs peacemaking with Israel based on how it will affect this process. Whether he regards peace with Israel as an asset or as a liability for the vesting of power to his son remains an issue of some debate. And whether Assad himself has resolved this to himself is uncertain. From an Israeli perspective however, it is clear that a certain and immediate peace with Assad in the present is preferable to the uncertainties of dealing with Assad’s successor, be it Bashar or someone else.

Another compelling example involves Jordan, a majority of whose population is Palestinian, much of which still harbors resentment towards Israel. Despite this, the enthusiastic embrace by King Hussein of peace with Israel was, as was the case with Sadat and Assad, a political action not rooted in a democratic, politically participatory system, but rather was the result of a decision by a powerful individual. What makes these leaders distinctive is the fact that they were all highly effective politicians, able to make deals with Israel while at the same time being able to make these arrangements palatable to key elite sectors of their populations. Thus, counter to commonly held views, limited accountability can be a significant political asset. And although political democracy may be a systemic good reflecting values held dear to all of us in the West, it is not necessarily the sole prerequisite to positive political evolution. Constructive political outcomes can be achieved, even by autocrats within the framework of virtually feudal political systems. As the above illustrates, democracy is not necessarily a prerequisite to or synonymous with “good political outcomes.” Thus, as our first principle, we can hypothesize that although democracy seems to be evolving on a global scale, pre-democratic political forms in the Arab world have helped to sustain and promote the Arab-Israeli peace process and are likely to continue to do so.