This week at the Channel City Club, the topic presented was the sustainability of democracy in the Middle East and post-Arab Spring status reports.
The discussion on Monday was made in tandem by a team consisting of Leslie Campbell of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) for International Affairs and Scott Mastic of the International Republican Institute (IRI).
Campbell is the director of the Middle East and North African division of the NDI for International Affairs. He joined NDI in 1994 and has been director of programs since 1996. Mastic joined the IRI in 1998 and became regional director of the Middle East and North African division in 2009.
It was very refreshing to listen to two people from different sides of the political spectrum talk about international affairs without contentious debate. The conversation instead centered on universal values that both of the organizations support. Campbell and Mastic discussed different nations that were a part of the Arab Spring with a hopeful outlook for the state of the Middle East.
When discussing Tunisia, “I am the most optimistic about Tunisia today,” Mastic said at one point.
According to Mastic, Tunisia was a very stable, autocratic society for a long time and the revolts against, and removal of, Ben Ali came as a surprise to many. Although Tunisia is on a relatively solid track to democracy, politics are still intensely polarized between extreme Islamist and more secular views. Mastic also talked about the part the International Republican Institute plays in Tunisia. The IRI helps political parties get organized. They have set up training and consultation programs for political figures. Their programs also include public opinion polling to assist politicians in policy making.
Regarding the question of whether people in the Middle East really want democracy, both Mastic and Campbell agreed upon the answer. The people of the Middle East want something different. They want to move away from their autocratic past and towards democracy. They want to be part of the rest of the world. One of the public opinion graphs Mastic brought showed that Tunisians would rather have an initially unstable democratic society than a stable autocratic one.
Libya, a very oil-rich nation, has the potential to produce as much as the Gulf states, Mastic said. However the presence of many armed extremists make that nation highly unstable. According to Campbell’s statistics, 81 percent of Libyans remain optimistic about their current situation and still believe democracy is the best form of government.
When discussing the situation in Iraq, Campbell stated that “politics in Iraq are much more normal that you’d think.” At the moment, elections for the next prime minister are being held. In the past couple of years, Iraqis are seeing improvements in almost all major issues.
Both organizations are very committed to promoting women’s rights and the role of women in society. Campbell pointed out that 35 percent of the seats in the parliament of Yemen go to women, while 25 percent of the seats of the Iraqi parliament go to women.
The optimism decreased, unfortunately, when the subject of Egypt’s current situation was presented. Campbell gave light to the fact that there are almost no international organizations allowed in Egypt. Mastic and Campbell’s enthusiasm dwindled with recent events in Egypt; both believe it is a very difficult situation. They also believe that Saudi Arabia’s conservatism and its alignment with Egypt makes for a very reactionary axis in the Middle East.
The overall consensus was that while states of the Middle East are taking steps towards democracy, there is still much progress to be made. In the optimistic views of Campbell and Mastic, a sustainable democracy is possible, especially with the help of the international community as a whole.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the establishment of both the NDI and the IRI. Both organizations are funded by the National Endowment for Democracy, a private non-profit foundation looking for the growth and strengthening of democratic institutions worldwide. The IRI and the NDI have similar goals: to advance democracy and strengthen democratic institutions around the world.
— Grace Strelich and Lia Milar are juniors at Anacapa School.