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Why Arab democrats are rejoicing over Biden's win

While shifts in US foreign policy will not be radical, the next administration will help to limit the grip of Arab authoritarians
Supporters of US President-elect Joe Biden celebrate in Washington on 7 November (AFP)

The happiness expressed among wide segments of the Arab world in response to Democratic candidate Joe Biden's win in the US election cannot be denied, even though President Donald Trump has not yet admitted defeat. 

This response stems from various issues, including support for the Palestinian cause, which witnessed a major deterioration during the Trump era. Other reasons include the decline of Arab reforms during Trump's tenure and the emergence of a new Arab authoritarianism.

The last four years were bleak for those who dream of democratic Arab systems

Though Biden has touted democratic values as a representation of his country's strength globally, US strategic interests in the Arab world have long cast aside its claimed democratic values. Neither this US administration, nor any future ones, will seek to change the authoritarian reality in the Arab world - nor will the US sacrifice its interests in the region in order to support democracy.

Former president Barack Obama's administration was once regarded as the worst for Arab autocrats. He was accused of sacrificing US allies, including former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and burning the bridges of trust between the US and allied Arab regimes amid the winds of the Arab Spring. 

Obama later abandoned this policy, turning a blind eye to the counterrevolutions designed to bury the popular dreams of democracy, and to the restoration of Arab authoritarianism - especially after the 2012 killing of the US ambassador in Benghazi, Libya. This was considered a turning point in US foreign policy, as it retreated from intervening in Syria, shifting the balance of power in favour of the Syrian regime.

The legitimate question then arises: as US policies are not sincerely aimed at spreading democracy, why have both Arab reformist and Islamist parties exaggerated their welcoming of the new administration, reaching the point of great celebrations among political elites? 

The fundamental reason is that democracy itself was subject to a violent shakeup in the US during the Trump administration, in conjunction with the rise of populist and right-wing movements in Europe. The effectiveness of the democratic system and its future have been questioned globally. 

The last four years were bleak for those who dream of democratic Arab systems - but the restoration of a US administration that values democratic norms, at a minimum on the domestic front, has saved this model from further deterioration.

Return to the status quo

Although US foreign policy will not undergo a significant shift, the return to policies that value - albeit in third or fourth place - ideals such as democracy, human rights, media freedom and good governance, is a return to the status quo.

Historically, US sensitivity towards issues of human rights and freedoms has limited the spread of tyranny and the absolute hegemony of Arab governments. While US pressure has not created fundamental change, it has imposed limits on authoritarian policies. These standards completely disappeared during the Trump era, giving Arab regimes carte blanche to act as they pleased internally, with US blessing and European inaction. 

Biden, then the vice president, is pictured with former President Barack Obama at the White House in Washington in 2015 (AFP)
Biden, then the vice president, is pictured with then-president Barack Obama at the White House in Washington in 2015 (AFP)

This should partially be amended under the new US administration, opening new spaces for reformist and democratic activists to resist authoritarian policies - a shift that will be more evident at the level of civil society.

Democratic US administrations are interested in strengthening civil society, giving political value to its activists. It considers civil society to be the nucleus from which the Arab liberal democratic current can grow, and the most powerful incubator for aiding women’s rights and media freedoms. 

It will thus be difficult for Arab governments to do as they please, without being checked or censored, as was the case during the Trump era.

The difference may not be so great in relation to political Islam, but it will be influential. Trump pushed strongly to classify political Islam, in all its shades, as a terrorist movement. Had he won the election, he would have continued that push, demonising Islamist movements and governments across the region and painting them all with one broad brush, from Tunisia's Ennahda party to the Islamic State.

Reviving the democratic path

Such movements have been used as a scarecrow to resist the democratic path in the Arab world, with claims that democracy would result in Islamic rule that would, over time, turn into a "fascist regime". The logic is that as long as these movements have a democratic presence and can compete, there is no harm in sacrificing democracy itself. This approach is supported by the American right and the team surrounding Trump.

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While Biden will not fundamentally alter this equation, and general US sensitivity towards Islamic movements and agendas will remain in place, he will not continue along the same path as Trump.

The Biden administration will distinguish between movements that follow the democratic path and those seen as "hardliners," opening channels of communication with certain movements. Arab authoritarians will thus lose the pretext of the "Islamic bogeyman" as a means of crushing democratic movements.

Biden will likely stand by the many conclusions reached by the Obama administration, illustrated in the famous Atlantic article "The Obama Doctrine," including holding Arab authoritarian regimes responsible and focusing on the importance of reform. 

Biden's campaign featured similar positions. Shifts in US policy will not be fundamental and radical; traditional interests tend to prevail in US calculations over idealistic values. But the transformation will be useful in reviving the democratic path and limiting the grip of the new Arab authoritarianism. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Mohammad Abu Rumman
Mohammad Abu Rumman is a researcher at the Center for Strategic Studies, University of Jordan. He specialises in political thought and Islamic movements. He has authored numerous books and policy papers.