Has the west given up on democracy?

Tunisian General Rachid Ammar announces his resignation on TV, June, 2013. Demotix/ Chedly Ben Ibrahim. All rights reserved.

Authoritarians are methodically cracking down on opposition elements, restricting civil society activity, swapping surveillance and censorship tips and technologies to keep domestic dissent at bay.

By Mathew Burrows and Maria Stephan

Authoritarianism is on the march. Aggregate Freedom House scores on political rights and civil liberties have declined each of the past nine years. A third of all democratic regimes since the ‘third wave’ of democratization began forty years ago have failed. Authoritarians are methodically cracking down on opposition elements, restricting civil society activity, swapping surveillance and censorship tips and technologies to keep domestic dissent at bay.

It’s true that democracy comes in ‘waves’ of democratization, ebbing and flowing, as described by the late Samuel Huntington. Political scientists including Jay Ulfelder, Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way rightly urge caution when assuming the demise of democracy. We should hardly expect political systems to develop linearly, especially in places like the Middle East, where dictatorships have been rooted for decades usually with strong western support.

Still, growing evidence of democratic backsliding and authoritarian resurgence, chronicled by USIP’s Steven Heydemann is troubling. Russia and Syria are poster children for how authoritarianism has led to international instability. Support for democracy has been a core, bipartisan element of US foreign policy since the time of Woodrow Wilson. While idealism has been a motive; at its core, support for democracy has advanced US national interests. Democracies don’t go to war with each other; they are more reliable partners than tyrannies; they don’t commit mass atrocities; and they are better at reconciling domestic differences peacefully. Systemic corruption and institutionalized discrimination have been key drivers of violent extremism, according to Carnegie scholar-practitioner Sarah Chayes.

Around the world, aggrieved citizens are still standing up to challenge power structures, demanding basic freedoms. The question is. can we avoid citizen challenges leading to bloodbaths and prolonged chaos? How can democratic movements lead to reforms that encourage more durable stability?

Our book, Is Authoritarianism Staging a Comeback? analyzes authoritarian resilience in places like Central Asia, Syria, and the Gulf, highlighting the dilemmas and possible solutions. As Denver scholar Erica Chenoweth demonstrates, mass nonviolent movements, which have historically been major drivers of democratic transitions and twice as successful as armed struggles at overturning dictators, have seen their effectiveness drop in the past few years to levels not seen since the 1950s. According to media expert Zeynep Tufecki, authoritarian regimes are using the internet and state-controlled media to counter challenges to their rule.

What can be done to reverse the tide? First, we should recall that civil society activism, in the form of speech, peaceful assembly, and labor organizing, are protected under international human rights law. Nonviolent activists have a right to receive information and even financial help from external actors, a point underscored by Seton Hall law professor Elizabeth Wilson. Second, the fact that the popular Arab Spring uprisings that toppled four dictators have not produced consolidated democracies doesn’t mean that western powers should give up on democracy in the Middle East – or anywhere else.

It’s hardly surprising that Tunisia, the one Arab Spring country on the best path to democratization, had the most nonviolent and participatory of all the uprisings. Tunisia has a civil society, anchored by strong trade and labor unions, helping to ensure nonviolent discipline during and after the transition. Tunisia’s George Washington, army chief of staff Rachid Ammar, refused regime orders to fire on peaceful demonstrators. This sense of integrity within the ranks of the military, as ex-Director of National Intelligence Admiral Dennis Blair writes about, can be inculcated through contacts with military officers from democratic countries. Military-to-military ties are underappreciated sources of western leverage.

In an era of authoritarian backlash, there is a need for a new breed of diplomacy. Diplomats have a wide range of tools and assets to support pro-democracy movements. Popular uprisings in places like Egypt, which are often led by non-traditional civil society actors took diplomats who are too used to dealing with registered NGOs and CSOs by surprise. Ambassador Jeremy Kinsman and Kurt Basseuner highlight in their Diplomat’s Handbook for Democracy Development Support that everyday diplomatic tools can make a difference. These range from showing solidarity, to physically inter-positioning to deter violence and coordinating allied embassies’ support for democrats. Unfortunately, foreign service officers receive minimal training on how to support democrats.

Helping populations pivot from protests to politics is no simple undertaking. As Stanford’s Larry Diamond emphasizes, the reality is that democratic institutions, strong political parties, and the rule of law take generations to take root. There is plenty of evidence that technocratic tweaking of institutions without such strong civil society engagement doesn’t achieve democratic progress. Successful anti-corruption campaigns around the world, as chronicled by John’s Hopkins fellow Shaazka Beyerle, combine citizen-led action with engagement with government institutions.

Arguably the most important role outside actors can play is helping civic actors pry open space for political engagement. Democracy support foundations and organizations need to develop innovative ways to support civil society, particularly in restrictive spaces. Such support should seek to advance key aspects of successful nonviolent movements, as Peter Ackerman and Hardy Merriman have stressed: unity around goals and leaders, operational planning, nonviolent discipline, diversified participation, movement resilience, and the ability to prompt loyalty shifts in the authoritarian’s key pillars of support. Engaging with broad array of civil society actors, using small, flexible grants to support credible local mobilizers, encouraging sustainable leadership and movement principles and providing convening spaces for activists, traditional civil society and government reformers to mix it up are a few ways to do that.

Acclaimed strategist and Nobel Laureate in Economics Thomas Schelling once said that in the match between repressive regimes and domestic challengers, each side seeks to impose costs on the other side while minimizing the costs to their own side. “It is a contest and it remains to be seen who wins.” As authoritarians around the world seek to consolidate their grip on power, it behooves western actors to get serious about pushing back against the authoritarians, otherwise we risk the current ebb turning into a growing tide against democracy.


This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 licence.

Mathew Burrows is a senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

Maria J. Stephan is a senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. Prior to government service, she was Director of Educational Initiatives at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict in Washington, DC, an independent non-profit foundation that studies and promotes the use of civilian-based, non-military strategies for advancing rights and freedoms around the world.

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  1. mulp
    May 24, 2015 at 3:04 pm

    There is a difference between republican government and democracy.

    Obama is promoting republican government. Islamic State is a republican government. It is not a government chosen by elections, but by the people who care the most about the government.

    The United States was not formed by democracy, but by a republican movement. There was no vote for “we declare war on England?” Rather, the voices of the rabble rousers was for self government, ie, republican government. Ireland did the same during WWI.

    In Iraq and Syria, many factions have been refusing to be governed by a remote government that exploits and oppresses them. They allied with the faction called Islamic State. There was no democracy, but a quest for self rule: republican.

    In Libya, there are two republican movements in conflict.

    In Yugoslavia in the 90s, there were multiple republican movements that split the state created by dictators.

    The South forming the Confederacy was a republican movement, and Lincoln used war in an attempt to suppress that republicanism.

    Reagan fought republican movements in the Americas, with one of the results being the killing of a priest who supported republicanism caled then liberation theology.

    Republican government was defined by the Greeks who had slaves and raised money by democratic votes to wage wars on other city state to plunder their wealth.

    The US and Europe imposed dictators in much of the world, and what we see today is these dictators falling without the US propping them up. Carter failed to prop up the Iranian dictator, and opposed the USSR propping up the Afghan dictator. GW overthrew the Iraqi dictator who had been propped up by Reagan, HW, and Clinton. Obama refused to support the Egyptian and Libyan and Yemen dictators.

    Republicanism is running wild in much of the world. Obama does not believe the US should be installing dictators, and is only trying to figure out the winning republican government to deal with.

    Republicans want to impose US dictators, but are unwilling to pay the price by hiking taxes and implementing a draft for the millions needed for occupation.

    Republicanism does not mean non-violent or egalitarian, just that the people of the region determine their government. Or not.

  2. angryspittle
    May 24, 2015 at 3:13 pm

    Oferchrisakes, democracy has never been their goal. Fucking wake up.

  3. May 24, 2015 at 3:18 pm

    “Obama does not believe the US should be installing dictators, and is only trying to figure out the winning republican government to deal with.”

    What nonsense is this, and why on earth would you spew it in view of our understanding of the continuity of government?

    Where has Obama stood up to defend democratically elected governments from coup d’etats?!

    “Obama refused to support the Egyptian and Libyan and Yemen dictators.”

    El Sisi not a dictator? The KSA and Bahrain monarchs not dictators? Obama is leaving failed states where once secularist and left leaning states existed. He is an authoritarian Republican in drag, mulp.

  4. Hugh
    May 24, 2015 at 5:32 pm

    This post shows the perils of what happens when you don’t define your terms. What is the democracy that the authors are talking about? They come closest to describing it, I suppose, when they speak of “democratic institutions, strong political parties, and the rule of law”. The problem is that democracy being made up of democratic institutions is tautological.

    We have strong political parties in the US, but as Emma Goldman said if voting changed anything they would make it illegal. Where is the democracy if the only choice we have is in picking the public face of our looters. As I have written in the past, the Democrats and Republicans are like two football teams. They will trash talk each other and slug it out on the field for bragging rights. But in the end, it’s all football. It is not like one team is pro-football and the other is anti-football. And if the problem is football, what has your cheering one side or the other really gotten you?

    Finally, we have the rule of law, but as Glenn Greenwald, myself, and many others have pointed out we have a two-tiered system of justice in the US which is antithetical to the rule of law. Those in the banking industry and on Wall Street from around 2000 to the meltdown in September 2008 committed the largest, interconnected frauds in world history. Yet not one of them was ever charged or prosecuted for these crimes. After 9/11, government employees engaged in a large program of torture and rendition to countries for torture. The telecom executives aided and abetted the government in large, multi-year, and highly illegal mass surveillance programs. In both cases, those involved were granted immunity for their actions. And the police can kill any of us, so long as we are not important, and get away with it. This is the “justice” system of the rich, the powerful, and the connected. It is made up of “Get Out of Jail Free” cards.

    The system the rest of us have is something out of the Old Testament or Dickens. It steals our houses in rocket dockets. It sends tens of thousands of us to prison in its War on Drugs. It will kill an Afro-American for doing pretty much anything or nothing while black. It is constantly cutting back on our rights of free speech, assembly, to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures, and our Miranda protections.

    So if we do not have these attributes of democracy here, what in the world are the authors talking about spreading them elsewhere? As I see it, they are recycling liberal Establishment memes from 50 years ago. And if anything, the discrepancy between the reality at home and the prescriptions abroad are even greater now than they were then. Today we live in a world of kleptocracy, where the rich and elites loot the rest of us. This manifests in the massive wealth inequality we see, and it is maintained both by the class war they are waging against us and the police state they have constructed to contain us. In the face of this stark reality, we should accord the writers of this post no benefit of the doubt. They are not well meaning but divorced from reality. They are seeking to perpetrate a deception and a con. We should recognize this and move on.

  5. dubinsky
    May 24, 2015 at 8:29 pm

    interesting that the authors are complaining that the West is not doing more to involve itself in the political structures of non-Western nations.

    more interesting is that the article seems to appeal to some of the same people who complain about Western subversion and interference

  6. dubinsky
    May 24, 2015 at 8:31 pm

    if you’re complaining about the US not supporting the democratically elected Morsi as he worked to subvert democracy in Egypt, you really should re-think things.

  7. May 24, 2015 at 8:38 pm

    Because the unelected El-Sisi is…..?

  8. dubinsky
    May 24, 2015 at 8:48 pm

    out of the two choices, there was not one decent one.

    when there is no democracy, merely two lousy authoritarian alternatives, your complaining is silly

    complain that there isn’t anything democratic not that Obama didn’t support something that wasn’t there.

  9. May 24, 2015 at 8:57 pm

    There was a democratic election in Egypt. Your preferences, or the US’s for that matter, have only bearing if we opt for authoritarianism and global dictatorship.

    What you are proposing is that whomever loses next time around should pick up arms and correct the “error.”

  10. dubinsky
    May 24, 2015 at 9:09 pm

    yes, there was a democratic election…and a person was elected who didn’t want to ever have another democratic election in Egypt.

    the US respected the result of the election and conducting diplomatic relations with Morsi….

    ….. but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s a creep and opposed to democracy.

    your logical error is trying to assert that because the creep was elected the US is somehow obliged to do more than to work with him…..

    the US has no obligation to support him or to protect him….when he’s unworthy of support or protection.

    no reason for that when he’s opposed to democracy.

  11. May 24, 2015 at 9:15 pm

    They work with the backward Kingdom of Saudi Arabia(Saudi Arabia Beheadings On Track For Record Year, 85 People Executed By Islamic Kingdom In 2015 – )
    , with Qatar and Bahrain, among a slew of other undemocratic regimes…

    Can you see some principle at work in US’s behavior?

  12. dubinsky
    May 24, 2015 at 9:23 pm

    foreign policy decisions, as I’ve been trying to impress upon you, are not going to be made by choosing between two alternatives, one that is obviously good and ethical and another that clearly is unethical and bad.

    life would be too easy if everything was structured that way.

  13. May 24, 2015 at 9:29 pm

    Ok. So our putative “democracy” – an oligarchy, as per Gilens and Page – is governance by self-interested scoundrels and war criminals. We should just learn to live under them.

    Got it, dub.

  14. dubinsky
    May 24, 2015 at 9:33 pm

    do you generally stick to wading in the shallow end of the pool or will you go in a little deeper as the weather warms up?

  15. May 24, 2015 at 9:50 pm

    You’ll just keep to your piss puddle, so what does it matter to you, dub?

  16. dubinsky
    May 24, 2015 at 9:58 pm
  17. mulp
    May 25, 2015 at 6:05 pm

    Let’s see, the Obama administration recognized Morsi, the first elected president of Egypt.

    On the ratification of the constitution which was opposed by liberals for failing to ensure civil rights for all but instead was too embracing of sharia, the Obama administration stated “[m]any Egyptians have voiced deep concerns about the substance of the constitution and the constitutional process” and further stating that “President Morsi, as the democratically elected leader of Egypt, has a special responsibility to move forward in a way that recognizes the urgent need to bridge divisions, build trust, and broaden support for the political process.”

    As wikipedia puts it, the Egyptian military backed protests against Morsi in 2013:

    ‘ ‘ In Tahrir Square and other protest locations across Egypt, there were large banners expressing love for the American people but hatred towards the US administration. Anti-American posters were common among anti-Morsi demonstrators with some having Patterson’s image plastered on banners crossed out with a blood-red X or smeared with insults, the most common being “Hayzaboon” (Arabic for “ogre”). Others portrayed US President Barack Obama with a Salafist beard and captioning it with “Obama Bin Laden”, in reference to former Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden. ‘ ‘

    I suppose you will argue that no Egyptian military leader involved in running Egypt for 30 years can possible plot to reinstate military rule without advice from the obviously super competent Obama administration, CIA, NSA, and US military because Obama controls absolutely everything in the world.

    President Barack Obama remarked on July 1 in a press conference in Tanzania that “our number-one priority has been making sure that our embassies and consulates are protected. Number two, what we’ve consistently insisted on is that all parties involved – whether it’s members of Mr. Morsi’s party or the opposition – that they remain peaceful. And although we have not seen the kind of violence that many had feared so far, the potential remains there, and everybody has to show restraint…”

    Do you have evidence that the anti-Morsi protests by Egyptian Americans at the White House Jun 30 2013 were organized by the FBI and CIA? see

    Do you think Obama should have sent US military into Egypt to fight the Egyptian military to keep Morsi in power by US military occupation?

    Care to lay out exactly what Obama and the administration did to overthrow Morsi? Or what you would have done if you were president to keep Morsi in power?

  18. May 25, 2015 at 6:26 pm

    Let me ask you, mulp, why would the US government under Obama not declare the El-Sisi coup was a coup, and opt instead to not“…release $575m (£338m) in military aid to Egypt that had been frozen since the ousting of President Mohammed Morsi last year.”

    The news came as Secretary of State John Kerry visited Cairo just two weeks after former army chief Abdul Fattah al-Sisi was sworn in as president.

    After talks with the new leader, Mr Kerry stressed the importance of upholding the rights of all Egyptians.

    Mr Sisi won May elections, vowing to tackle “terrorism” and bring security.**.


    “Sisi’s victory, however, won’t be due to a groundswell of popular support. In fact, a Pew Research poll conducted in April found that only a narrow majority of Egyptians support him. [1] Instead, Sisi will win because he has banned the main opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, the organization from which the legitimate president, Morsi, sprang. Just as importantly, Morsi supporters are boycotting the vote, reasoning that they already have a legitimate president, even if he has been illegally locked away in the regime’s prisons. [2] So, with the only substantial opposition viciously suppressed, and Morsi supporters staying away from the polls, a Sisi landslide victory is a virtual certainty. But it will confer no legitimacy on the Egyptian strongman.

    If you’ve forgotten how closely Sisi cleaves to the model of the brutal authoritarian tyrant that Western governments and media profess to abominate, think back to last summer. Here are New York Times reporters Kareem Fahim and Mayy el Sheik describing one Sisi-led massacre:

    The Egyptian authorities unleashed a ferocious attack on Islamist protesters early Saturday, killing at least 72 people in the second mass killing of demonstrators in three weeks and the deadliest attack by the security services since Egypt’s uprising in early 2011.

    The tactics — many were killed with gunshot wounds to the head or the chest — suggested that Egypt’s security services felt no need to show any restraint.

    In the attack on Saturday, civilians joined riot police officers in firing live ammunition at the protesters as they marched toward a bridge over the Nile. By early morning, the numbers of wounded people had overwhelmed doctors at a nearby field hospital. [3]

    Carried out by Muamar Gadaffi, a brutal crackdown on this scale would have been enough to raise alarms of an impending genocide and calls for humanitarian intervention. When it happens in Egypt, it’s mentioned in the back pages of some (though not all or even most) newspapers and forgotten the next day.”

    Stop running away from reality, mulp:

    The CIA first aligned itself with extremist Islam during the Cold War era. Back then, America saw the world in rather simple terms: on one side, the Soviet Union and Third World nationalism, which America regarded as a Soviet tool; on the other side, Western nations and militant political Islam, which America considered an ally in the struggle against the Soviet Union.

    The director of the National Security Agency under Ronald Reagan, General William Odom recently remarked, “by any measure the U.S. has long used terrorism. In 1978-79 the Senate was trying to pass a law against international terrorism – in every version they produced, the lawyers said the U.S. would be in violation.”

    During the 1970′s the CIA used the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as a barrier, both to thwart Soviet expansion and prevent the spread of Marxist ideology among the Arab masses. The United States also openly supported Sarekat Islam against Sukarno in Indonesia, and supported the Jamaat-e-Islami terror group against Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in Pakistan. Last but certainly not least, there is Al Qaeda.

    Lest we forget, the CIA gave birth to Osama Bin Laden and breastfed his organization during the 1980′s. Former British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, told the House of Commons that Al Qaeda was unquestionably a product of Western intelligence agencies. Mr. Cook explained that Al Qaeda, which literally means an abbreviation of “the database” in Arabic, was originally the computer database of the thousands of Islamist extremists, who were trained by the CIA and funded by the Saudis, in order to defeat the Russians in Afghanistan.

    America’s relationship with Al Qaeda has always been a love-hate affair. Depending on whether a particular Al Qaeda terrorist group in a given region furthers American interests or not, the U.S. State Department either funds or aggressively targets that terrorist group. Even as American foreign policy makers claim to oppose Muslim extremism, they knowingly foment it as a weapon of foreign policy.

    The Islamic State is its latest weapon that, much like Al Qaeda, is certainly backfiring. ISIS recently rose to international prominence after its thugs began beheading American journalists. Now the terrorist group controls an area the size of the United Kingdom….

    read on:

    Obama had been working with Turkey and Qatar to get the Muslim Brotherhood into control of Syria; and, now, Obama is switching to support the Saudi-backed ISIS, because the Muslim Brotherhood (Syria’s Qatari and U.S.-backed ‘moderates’) have simply proven ineffective. Syria, it turns out, is not just another Egypt.

    And get ye: The Sorrows of Empire, and Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, for starters:

    Your cognitive dissonance is a piece of artful kitsch, mulp.