In February 2022, the Atlantic Council published an overview of what many experts see as a troubling development in the Middle East, as Russia and China both look to expand their influence there.
When ‘democracy’ isn’t democracy
The non-partisan international leadership organization noted with particular concern the latest development, in which these two giant authoritarian-led nations decided to flex their muscles by issuing a joint statement that aims to completely overhaul post-World War II international notions of what democracy is.
Given the increased push on the part of the United States to emphasize support for traditional Western-style democracies abroad, the statement appears designed to help consolidate authoritarian rule and to challenge the now-fragile structure of post-war capitalism and open-society democracy.
Even more alarming to anyone who would support the spread of genuine democracy in the Middle East, the China-Russia statement appears to lend support to current and would-be tyrants in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region as well, at a time when the Mideast is also rethinking how it views democracy and human rights.
Russia and China debuted the statement on the occasion of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s trip to China for the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing. The fact that the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Canada all participated in a diplomatic boycott of the Games over China’s massive human rights abuses only threw the China-Russia declaration into high relief.
‘One-size-fits-all’ model of democracy
The Russian and Chinese authors of the joint declaration have tailored it to allow them to cram the authoritarian, repressive practices of their own nations into a freakishly altered definition of democracy. The declaration seems, in the view of most Western analysts, to be designed to further the interests of Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and other autocrats and oligarchs throughout the world.
In the statement, which runs to more than 5,000 words in English, China specifically states its support for Russia’s goal of halting the expansion of NATO, with obvious reference to one of the pretexts for Putin’s subsequent invasion of Ukraine. In addition, the Russians and the Chinese also condemn American multinational military alliances with the UK, Australia, and nations in the Indo-Pacific sphere, a region China seeks to dominate.
Among the cornerstones of civil society that the declaration seeks to redefine are freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and independent journalism. Russia and China state their mutual condemnation of the “one-size-fits-all” model of democracy championed by the U.S., and seek to redefine human rights as being only safeguarded in respect of “the specific situation in each country.”
One doesn’t have to have a vivid imagination to see how such a statement seeks to reframe China’s own human rights abuses against its Uyghur population, an estimated 1 million of whom are imprisoned in concentration camps in the western part of the country.
Russia and China further pledge to stand together against nations’ “interference” into the internal policies of fellow countries under the “pretext” of standing up for human rights.
These specious arguments are meant to counteract the traditional Western defense of fledgling or struggling democracies—think Ukraine and Taiwan first of all—around the world.
Helping the rule of strongmen and tyrants
So how does all this play out for democratic movements in the Middle East?
Analysts note that the Chinese-driven model redefining democracy, with Russia following its lead, offers strong appeal to three main types of autocratic nations in the MENA region: Islamists seeking to embed their brand of religious fundamentalism into governments; nationalists hoping to cement their own type of ethnocentrism; and monarchies looking to secure their dynasties’ unquestioned rule.
For any of these types of authoritarians, the China-Russia model could allow cover for redefining “democracy” with a view to the “exceptionalism” allegedly a core part of the Middle East. Namely, the same bone-deep influence of religion and traditional social norms that continues to hinder the progress of individual human rights, including women’s rights, the rights of LGBTQ people, freedom of the press, freedom to worship, and other rights the U.S. sees as inalienable for all people.
With the vast majority of Middle Eastern nations already built around a national identity that includes a strong component of traditional religion, supported by the coercive force of the state to enforce its norms, such a view of “democracy” would indeed mean that democracy in the Western sense would never even get off the ground.
Silencing the change agents
One of the key problems here is that the very people with the intellectual and moral capital to make the case for how the universality of Western democratic values could be applied in the Mideast are in jail, or otherwise silenced. Recent headlines offer numerous examples, including that of the wave of pre-election arrests of members of the press in Algeria, and the case of the Saudi women’s rights activists imprisoned for advocating that women should be allowed to drive.
The very real personal threats that authoritarian rule poses to these civil society advocates are enough to keep most from being as effective as they could be in calling for real democracy. And the Middle East loses the chance to create a more open—and truly democratic—society.