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Policy Podcast: Democracy Promotion in the Middle East

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Kent Patton, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs
Sean McCormack, Department Spokesman

MR. MCCORMACK: Kent Patton, welcome to the Policy Podcast. Appreciate your joining us.

MR. PATTON: Thank you very much, Sean. It’s good to be here.

MR. MCCORMACK: Now, just to explain to people, you’re the person in our Middle East Bureau who has the democracy promotion agenda, is that right?

MR. PATTON: Correct, it is.

MR. MCCORMACK: You know, I want to talk about, at first, a little bit about the state of democracy promotion in the Middle East and in your area of responsibility. But let me start with a more fundamental question first, and that is, how do you define democracy promotion? I mean, this is more than just about elections, right?

MR. PATTON: Absolutely. And this is, I think, one of the misconceptions that we often hear, not only from people in the Middle East, but also Americans who are interested in the Middle East, is that elections tend to get a lot of attention because everybody is focused on them and they are the moment of change.

As we know, in the United States, we’re entering a very important electoral cycle and tons of media attention, personal attention, financial attention on those elections. But in fact, elections really – are really just a high point of a process of building institutions. Elections are electing individuals into something, be it a presidency, a parliament, mayoral positions, city council positions.

And what we look at when we say we’re trying to advance democratic reform is really working with partners on the ground, be it Jordanians, Egyptians, Moroccans, Emirates, and looking at their particular circumstances and saying, you know, all of these countries have institutions, democratic institutions. Some are further along, some are not quite so far along. And we say, how can we help build those institutions. Day in and day out, it doesn’t get a lot of attention. But this is actually where most of our effort is invested.


MR. PATTON: And frankly, one of the areas that I think is least understood -- people understand what a parliament is or a president --

MR. MCCORMACK: Right, right.

MR. PATTON: -- but civil society, nongovernmental organizations; many say, well, we don’t quite understand what that means in the Middle East. Here in the United States, we understand very well. That means any of your large nongovernmental organizations. And most people could – you know, everywhere from churches to community groups that do civic awareness raising, to groups that are advocates for causes, those are all nongovernmental.

In the Middle East, this is actually the space that we’ve had the most success over the last 5 to 7 years. Because the more you carve out space for people who are passionate about an issue, they want to be advocates, they want to build organizations, they want to work on making their community better; that’s the fundamental building block – blocks of democracy.

MR. MCORMACK: Right. Well, let me ask you, how do you go about doing that? Now, to me it would seem common sense, well, these are organizations that spring up out of the interests of people in a town, a city, or community or a state. How do you go about creating these things? And doesn’t that start to look a lot like, hey, here’s our model we’re going to impose upon you, you know, we’re going to try to fit a square peg into a round hole? How – what do you say to people who --

MR. PATTON: It’s actually – again, this is one of the most rewarding parts of what we do, I think, as a government and as a State Department official, which is -- there are so many people on the ground. So many people are passionate about a particular issue, they’re passionate about building democratic institutions. We work with them. And frankly, we often don’t work directly with them. They are large organizations, both in the Middle East and North Africa and back here in the United States, who we give financial resources to or just give expertise to. They are the ones who actually go out and do the hands-on. And frankly, let me explain a little bit about how some of this is done.


MR. PATTON: Much of it is really in transporting technical expertise. So let say, for example, there’s an organization in Saudi Arabia that wants to do awareness on breast cancer. So what we did, as the State Department, was we found the Susan Komen Foundation here in the United States, which has done breast cancer awareness raising domestically, and we said, hey, there are some people in Saudi Arabia who believe that this issue is a very important issue. It helps empower women. It helps Saudis become better advocates for issues they care about. It starts to build an organization institution that can have some say in what an issue is very important to women.

So we’ll say, can you take your expertise, go to Saudi Arabia and, frankly, throughout the region, and offer your expertise on how to do awareness raising and on how to organize women and how to make them better advocates for issues they care about? So we’re the facilitator of that.

But we find people on the ground who are really interested in this. Some, it’s an individual. So there was someone who was working in Casablanca a couple of years ago, a high school student. And he said, “You know what, I really think that we should have a mock election in our high school.” And so he said, “But I don’t know exactly what to do.” He met someone at our consulate in Casablanca who said, “Let’s try to get some experts here who can help you understand better how to do a mock collection, how to register people to vote, how to get young people engaged.”

MR. MCORMACK: Right. Let me – let me stop you there.


MR. MCORMACK: Nobody – nobody is going to argue with the idea that raising awareness about breast cancer is a good thing.


MR. MCORMACK: But let me understand, is this something, like, we say, hey, we’re looking for opportunities to raise awareness about breast cancer or some other issue, or is this something that’s generated from in the country and we identify an opportunity? And then also, how do you differentiate between, you know, which projects you’re going to support and which projects you’re not going to support?

MR. PATTON: That’s a great question, Sean. I think one of the things that we do -- and at least for the amount of time that I’ve been working on this in the State Department -- there are so many people who want to do projects. We don’t have the resources to fund everything people would like to do.


MR. PATTON: So there’s a group of very active and strong women in Saudi Arabia, who actually approached one of our staff members and said, we’d really like to do this, we’ve seen it done elsewhere --


MR. PATTON: -- can you help us get the expertise? And so we matched, then, their desire --


MR. PATTON: -- and their motivation --


MR. PATTON: -- and energy to experts on this side.


MR. PATTON: I wish – you know, all of the complaints that we hear about the U.S. imposing, I think some of that is a little bit of political spin for those who may not support democratic --


MR. PATTON: -- promotion. But we work with people on the ground, sometimes individuals, sometime groups, sometimes very large groups to advance their agenda. And I think --

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, what do the governments think about that?

MR. PATTON: They think --

MR. MCCORMACK: You know, I can imagine if I’m in one of these governments --


MR. MCCORMACK: -- I say, well, look, I don’t like you messing around in my political space --


MR. MCCORMACK: -- what are you doing?

MR. PATTON: And we hear this, actually, quite often. And this is one of the things, though, that I think takes a modern sensibility. You know, I think for too often -- and I think both the President and Secretary Rice have talked about this – for too often, we were so concerned about our relations with a foreign government that we forgot about relations with the people of the nation. And so if we had good relations with the government, sometimes maybe we didn’t address some of the issues that the people of that country cared about. And so what we’re trying to do, I think, is make up for a little bit of lost time. It’s 2008 now. We’ve got tools of communication. It’s no longer the diplomat on horseback riding out from one king to another to deliver a message.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right, right.

MR. PATTON: Now we have tools that the American people, American Government officials, we can all be advocates for our ideals and the interests of our country and countries in the region. So often, what we find is I can have discussions with the government official who says, we’re a little bit uncomfortable with this. But every government in the region, almost without exception, has said, we want to move forward with democratic reforms. And they’ve turned to us and said, help us figure this out. Now sometimes, they may not like every exact decision we make. But in the long term, we know it’s to their benefit.

You know, what’s the alternative? If there isn’t democratic reform in the region, what is the alternative? We’ve seen the alternative. People driven underground without political outlets for their desires is a dangerous situation, and that’s what we’re trying to avoid. We’re trying to bring people to the surface to say, if you have legitimate democratic aspirations and you have legitimate policy needs, what we would like to see is you take those legitimate needs and invest them in the system, invest them in a process of change that hopefully will help you achieve your political goals. Of course, those who are advocating violence are not part of this process and that’s a separate issue.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right, right. Well, let me ask you your assessment – and we only have a few minutes left – let me ask your assessment of how successful we have been, and specifically look at places like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and so forth and – you know, there’s a common accusation out there that, look, we push hard but we let our friends off the hook, you know, and that specifically comes up in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. What do you say? What’s your assessment of how successful we’ve been, how much work is left to do, and do we give our friends a free pass on this stuff?

MR. PATTON: I think it’s – if I had to grade us in general, I would say we’re probably about a B or B-plus.


MR. PATTON: You know, there’s always been the perception that there was a Middle East exception; we worried about democratic reform in Latin America or Asia or former Soviet Union, but the Middle East, as long as they gave us their oil, then maybe we wouldn’t care quite so much about it. That exception is – no longer holds. So for a country like Egypt, we’ve had a longstanding relationship with Egypt, we’ve had a strategic relationship, and we need them for many of our own policy priorities in the region. But also, as we saw in the 2005 presidential elections, President Mubarak came out and said, I want freer elections.

Now I think what our job is, is to hold the Government of Egypt to the commitments that they’ve made to the people of Egypt, because it’s in the long-term interests of the United States to have a more dynamic and a more representative Government of Egypt. These are slow processes. The United States isn’t a perfect democracy.


MR. PATTON: Because these are human endeavors. So we have the failings of any human endeavor as well as the successes of any human endeavor. So we will continue to work with Egypt on our full range of issues. Yes, we want to see Egypt move forward on democratic reform. I don’t believe we’re going to get there tomorrow, but I think there are signs of freer media. There were multiple candidates in the presidential election. We’re seeing the space for civil society. Sometimes, it’s one step forward, one step back, but there are now advocates on the ground that are able to push the issues at the grass roots level that we didn’t see maybe a few years ago. So there’s still some way to go. Nobody gets a pass.


MR. PATTON: That’s for sure. Our tools sometimes aren’t adequate to every circumstance, but I think with our intention, at least for this Administration, is to continue to push as hard as we can with all the tools at our disposal. And we believe, from what we’ve seen from the next – or the campaigns for the next president, that we’ll probably also see this same effort move forward. I think there’s been an acknowledgement that we didn’t do enough of this in the past, either as a government or as the American people reaching out to the Middle East. And so we’re hoping that the progress we’ve made today can just be built on for the next administration.

MR. MCCORMACK: Great. Kent, thanks very much for joining us.

MR. PATTON: Thank you very much, Sean. It’s a pleasure.

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