Democracy in the Muslim World: Remarks by Damon Wilson at Center for the Study of Islam & Democracy

On June 1, 2023, the Center for the Study of Islam & Democracy (CSID) gathered experts and policymakers for its 21st annual conference on “Why the U.S. Should Support Democracy in the Muslim World, and How?” Damon Wilson, National Endowment for Democracy (NED) President and CEO, delivered the keynote remarks following a lineup of prominent speakers, including Moncef Marzouki, former President of Tunisia; Dr. Amaney Jamal, Dean of Princeton School of Public and International Affairs and Board Member at NED; David Kirkpatrick of The New Yorker; and Radwan Masmoudi, Founder and President of CSID.

Watch the CONFERENCE HERE AND Read the Keynote Remarks by Damon WIlson

Thank you for that introduction. It is an honor and a pleasure to be with you here today.

I want to offer special thanks to our organizer Radwan Masmoudi. Radwan was one of the first advocates of democracy in the Muslim world who came to see me when I became President and CEO of NED.

Thank you for your friendship and counsel. I am especially grateful for your advice when I visited Tunisia earlier this year to hear first hand about the rollback in democratic gains from our partners on the ground. Sadly, as we convene here, we’re seeing more arrests in Tunisia and worrying signs of a broader crackdown on civil society.

I address this audience with a strong sense of humility. Gathered in this room are some of the leading authorities on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), including NED’s own Board Member, Dr. Amaney Jamal, and the terrific MENA staff at NED. Others among you have been on the frontlines forging hard-won democratic gains in your own countries. Some of you have paid high prices for your belief in democracy.

Because of your expertise, I would never presume to tell all of you what you should think about democracy in the Muslim world. Just as my organization, NED, does not presume to tell the citizens of any country how they should be governed. They are the experts. And despite all of democracy’s challenges, the research tells us that most would prefer to live in freedom.

Today, I’d like to put some of what is happening in MENA, in particular, into context with the forces buffeting democracy globally—and share with you NED’s approach to supporting the courageous men and women working for freedom in some of the world’s most dangerous and repressive places.


Today, we find ourselves in a consequential moment for global democracy. In each of the past 17 years, the number of countries that have moved away from democracy has exceeded the number of countries that have moved towards democracy.

This isn’t happening because people have suddenly stopped wanting freedom—on the contrary. The Arab Barometer survey finds that despite growing concerns about the effectiveness of democracy, substantial majorities in MENA countries still prefer it to a non-democratic system.

These views are borne out by the democracy activism that continues to flare in even the most repressive societies:

  • the protests that erupted in Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini and in which the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) reported that the average of those arrested is 15 years-old, underscoring that the regime has lost the next generation;
  • the Saudi activists, academics, and intellectuals who bravely signed their names to the recently released A People’s Vision for Reform in Saudi Arabia;
  • and more broadly in the Muslim world beyond MENA, just this past weekend, the thousands of Hui Muslims who surrounded a mosque in southwestern China to prevent authorities from removing its dome and minarets, amid a widening crackdown on religious freedoms.

Throughout the world, the demand for freedom remains strong. But, so too is the authoritarians’ determination to defeat it.

No, democracy isn’t perfect. It’s complex and messy, and remains a work in progress. Our experience in the United States shows this. But over the long term, the research tells us that citizens in democratic societies are healthier, happier, wealthier, and safer.

A country that switches from non-democracy to democracy achieves about 20 percent higher GDP per capita in the long run. Research shows democracy is associated with lower inflation, lower political instability, and higher economic freedom. Democracy is also linked to key drivers of economic growth, such as improvements in education and healthcare.

But it’s also true that people, including those in the MENA region, have grown skeptical of democracy’s benefits, particularly in terms of their own economic opportunities.

When government is corrupt, prices are skyrocketing, and unemployment is rampant, the stability and economic growth in places like China can make non-democratic systems start to seem more attractive.

These doubts are further reinforced by the siren song of the autocrats’ narrative which goes like this:

  • Democracy doesn’t deliver.
  • Democracy doesn’t work.
  • Democracy fosters chaos.
  • Democracies aren’t up to the task of keeping us safe.
  • Only strong leadership can provide the stability and order we need to defend against threats.

This sounds familiar if you are Tunisian today. Yet, framing the narrative this way, as Kais Said has, distracts people from the fact that the alternative to often messy democratic deliberations is losing a voice in determining your own future and leaving all decisions to one man or one clique.

There is another narrative—one that I’m sure you’re very familiar with:

  • The Middle East is unfit for democracy.
  • It’s a quagmire. Unsolvable. Unfixable.
  • Islam is incompatible with democracy.
  • They don’t want freedom. They want iron-fisted rulers.
  • Dictators and the military provide stability.
  • Democracy leads to anti-American Islamic regimes.

At NED, we believe the desire for freedom is universal and both the MENA region and the broader Muslim world are no exception—a view we share with many distinguished scholars and activists, some of whom are in this room.

Not only do hundreds of millions of Muslims live in democracies today, but there is a historical legacy from the golden age of Islam starting in the 8th century that witnessed a convergence of a pluralistic intellectual climate with scientific, cultural, and economic achievements.

Many of you have argued that there are no inherent contradictions between democratic and Islamic values, and that Islamic principles recognize individual freedoms, rights, human dignity, rule of law, justice, and consultative decision making. And that obstacles to democratization in the region are more a product of political, historical, and economic factors than religious exceptionalism.

That view is borne out in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia in Asia, Albania and Kosovo in Europe, and Cote d’Ivoire and The Gambia in Africa where hundreds of millions of Muslims live in democracies, even if imperfect, with many more living in flawed democracies ranging from Nigeria and Turkey to Pakistan.

Even where democracy has been less successful, the desire for freedom has been demonstrated over the past two decades in waves of popular uprisings, as people have risked their lives calling out for political change.

But we cannot be naïve. Democracy faces serious headwinds around the world, and nowhere are the challenges greater than in the MENA region.

Autocrats are doing everything they can to persuade democracy advocates to throw up their hands and give up. But giving up is not compatible with the yearning of the human spirit for freedom.

Sitting on the sidelines and pretending it’s not our problem when people are repressed, arrested, and tortured is not an option. It is in the interests of the free world to support democracy and democracy advocates even in places that for now seem almost impossible—like Iran and Afghanistan.

The autocrats are playing a tough offense. The democratic community must sharpen its game and do the same.

We must adapt, innovate, learn, and work in common cause. And that’s what we’re doing at NED.


My perspective is driven by the work we do at NED.

For those who don’t know us, NED was created with Congressional backing 40 years ago as a bipartisan, nonprofit foundation dedicated to strengthening democratic institutions and values around the world. We bring together diverse domestic constituencies from both political parties, business, and labor through our support of the NED core institutes:  the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institutes, the Center for International Private Enterprise, and the Solidarity Center.

In 2022, we made nearly $300 million in grants to 1,500 civil society and media organizations working in more than 100 countries. And while we care deeply about democracy everywhere, including the United States, our remit is entirely outside U.S. borders.

NED is that rarest of creatures in Washington. Throughout our history, we’ve enjoyed strong bipartisan support in both the White House and on Capitol Hill. And while we’re funded by American taxpayers, we are independent from the U.S. government, which allows us to be flexible, nimble, and responsive to crises, unconstrained by the diplomatic, security, or other considerations that affect government or other official actors.

Our independence means we can be consistent, not zigzag with policy decisions or competing priorities, and remain singularly focused on democracy and freedom.

When the United States pulled out of Afghanistan two years ago, we were able to stand by our partners and evacuate them to safety, even as we doubled down on support for Afghan democrats remaining inside the country under the Taliban. Afghanistan remains one of NED’s largest programs, underscoring our ongoing commitment to democracy advocates in the toughest places.

Wherever democracy and human rights are at risk in the world, you’ll find NED grantees working in support of civil society, human rights, religious freedom, and independent media. But we don’t run programs or tell our grantees what they should do. We support their ideas. We stand by them in their struggle.


I am an optimist by nature, but these are challenging times in the Middle East and North Africa for even the most fervent believers in the power of democracy.

  • Gulf countries portray themselves as modernizing and friendly to the West, but underneath the shiny exterior they repress citizens who speak out and are playing an outsized, corrosive role in the region to stifle freedom and democracy.
  • According to the Iran Human Rights group, Iran has so far this year executed an estimated 277 people accused of participating in mass protests, including at least 90 in the last four weeks, making May the country’s “bloodiest month” in five years.
  • The Taliban continue their assault on the rights of Afghan women, denying them education and employment; those who resist the government’s repression and violence are disappearing.
  • Tunisia has weakened and eroded democratic gains, arresting political opponents, lawyers, journalists, and capturing or dismantling democratic institutions.
  • Egypt is closing public space under the pretext of national security as part of a larger push to eliminate dissent that may challenge or threaten the regime.
  • Turkey, once a promising model of democracy for the region, has experienced a decade of democratic backsliding and pressure on media. In the latest election, President Erdogan faced the toughest challenge to his two-decade rule from a coalition of diverse opposition groups. He won, but the degree of opposition reflects an urgent need for democratic reforms and political pluralism, including within the ruling AKP.

I could go on, but no doubt you all understand what’s going on in the region as well or better than I do.

While others have pulled out of MENA as the work become more difficult, NED has doubled down and will continue to support democrats in the region.


Every country tends to think that what’s taking place within its border are specific and unique to its own history and circumstances. And to some degree, that is true. It’s why at NED we prioritize country expertise. But make no mistake—the current threats to democracy in the Muslim world are not happening in isolation.

They are directly linked to events taking place in Nicaragua, Venezuela, South Africa, North Korea, Belarus, and Ukraine. They are connected to a global collaborative of authoritarian actors who are actively working to undermine democracy where it exists and stop it from taking root where it doesn’t.

In recent years, authoritarian regimes, with China and Russia in the vanguard, have banded together, taking their fight against freedom to new and dangerous levels. While sharpening their repression against their own people at home, they’ve embarked on a sophisticated effort to corrupt and destabilize democracies elsewhere, their activities and ambitions turbo-charged by technology.

  • Their influence can be felt in MENA, as the Arab League welcomes Syria’s Assad back into the fold with open arms and, by proxy, embraces his close ally Vladimir Putin—despite Moscow’s bloody record of bombing hospitals and targeting civilians in Syria’s war.
  • We see China’s hand in the failure of the broader Muslim community to rally in support for the 1 million Uyghurs who have been the victims of a Chinese Communist Party-led genocide over the past decade.
  • We find Chinese smart cities and facial recognition technology proliferating, enabling regimes to more effectively monitor their own populations.
  • And we know that Iran sends weapons to Russia in support of the war in Ukraine to try and crush the hopes of its own people for freedom.

As long as democracy persists, authoritarians can never feel entirely secure because they know that, despite their rhetoric appropriating democracy and human rights, they don’t govern with the consent of their people. They fear their people.

The commitment of democracies to the open exchange of ideas renders them particularly vulnerable to an insidious form of influence known as “sharp power,” a concept introduced by Chris Walker, NED’s Vice President of Study and Analysis.

Hard power uses force to achieve an outcome; soft power relies on persuasion. Sharp power is when authoritarian states seek to undermine democracy in other countries by capturing elites, inducing censorship, and stoking polarization through the spread of disinformation.

This approach is particularly effective where democracy is struggling to take root or hasn’t yet delivered the benefits people were expecting. The autocrats’ compulsive need to undermine free societies provides confirmation—if you needed it—of the power and allure of democratic ideals.


In 2021, the Washington Post published an article about the “the unfinished business of the Arab Spring” arguing that the “forces that unleashed uprisings across the Middle East remain as potent as ever.”

QUOTE: “On the face of it, the Arab Spring failed, and spectacularly so — not only by failing to deliver political freedom but by further entrenching the rule of corrupt leaders…yet, as long as the conditions that provoked the original uprisings persist, the possibility of more unrest cannot be ruled out. For many in the region, the Arab Spring is seen less as a failure than an ongoing process. Demonstrations that toppled the longtime presidents of Algeria and Sudan in 2019 and protest movements in Iraq and Lebanon serve as a reminder the momentum that drove the revolts of a decade ago has not gone away.” UNQUOTE

Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, believes the upheaval of the past decade represents the start of a long process of change that will eventually lead to a transformation of the Middle East. As he puts it: “I don’t think we’re going to see any stability as long as dictators and military intelligence agencies continue to suffocate society.”

There’s no way of knowing when democratic momentum will be enough to defeat the autocrats, but I do know that the desire for freedom still burns in even the most repressed places:

  • Last week in Iran, women political prisoners in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, including Sepideh Gholian, Bahareh Hedayat, Faezeh Hashemi, and Narges Mohammadi, held a protest against the execution of three protesters and the regime’s increasing use of the death penalty. NED partners are helping to ensure that Iranians have access to information during the crisis and that the world knows what is happening inside Iran.
  • Sudanese resistance committees continue to campaign for peace, expanding and deepening networks of democratic solidarity across the country. NED will continue to support Sudan civil society as it campaigns for full civilian, democratic rule.
  • Morocco is one of the few countries in the region where there is still space for democratic reforms post-Arab Spring. NED remains committed to supporting efforts in Morocco to further institutionalize and expand gains granted by the 2011 constitution.
  • Despite the dire human rights situation and terrible risks involved in activism, Egypt’s civil society remains resilient and adaptive, representing the only check on centralized authoritarian power. NED remains deeply committed to supporting those in this struggle.
  • Democratization in Iraq, albeit messy, is ongoing and unfolding. The Iraqi people have shown a desire and willingness to fight for their rights and protect their freedoms. This spirit drives activists and democracy actors to advocate for better services, more accountability, and better management of resources. NED has remained consistent over years in supporting Iraqis on their democratic journey.

There are other signs of longer-term democratic gains in the MENA region which tend to be less visible and obvious when the situation seems so bleak overall.

One example is the growth of civil society and independent media compared with 20 years ago. Just think back to what the landscape looked like then.

The region has also benefited from periods of significant democratic experimentation, learning about designing constitutions and electoral systems, protecting rights and civil liberties, and managing social and political cleavages. Even the failures are important to the region’s learning in support of democracy. They provide the foundation for the next chapter.

Although women face increased repression in many places, they have increasingly been at the helm of civic movements demanding reform and change across the region, as demonstrated in 2011, 2019, and more recently in Afghanistan and Iran.

In an article published just before her death last year, former NED board member, NDI chair, and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wrote about a period during the Cold War when many thought Soviet-style governments would last forever because of their willingness to quash dissent before it could take hold. Then the Iron Curtain lifted and the Berlin Wall fell, taking the theory of “totalitarian permanence” with it.

“Democracy,” she argued, is “not a dying cause, but is…poised for a comeback,” in part because “the world’s two most prominent authoritarian states, China and Russia, have squandered their best chance of offering an appealing alternative to liberal democracy.”

There’s no way to predict when a democratic breakthrough might occur and the future of any nation must rest in the hands of its own people. But as we saw during the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Arab Spring, when there is momentum for change there can be a domino effect.

And unlike open societies, which have built-in shock absorbers providing outlets for peoples’ frustrations, repressive societies can seem stable when, in truth, they are actually quite brittle and combustible.

This year, on the anniversary of Egypt’s January 25th revolution, a writer who’d just been released after seven years in prison reflected on Egypt’s liberation struggles from 1919 to present day, describing each struggle as a building block towards a future more democratic state.

He wrote:  “Let us let time do its thing, and let us play the role that the next generation, and the generations that follow it, will not forgive us if we overdo it or fall short of it. We have an experience to teach, a story to tell, and wounds to heal. In our hearts is a love for our children that overshadows the hatred of our opponents and the enemies of our revolution. We have a future that distracts us from ruminating on sad memories of the past and swimming in the seas of bitter tears.”

These are indeed challenging times for those of us who believe in democracy, but I remain optimistic.

More democratic states may be under threat, even as the majority of people in most countries still prefer the dignity that comes with freedom—and many are willing to risk everything in its pursuit.

But the environment remains hostile and the autocrats are playing the long game. So must we.

In an era of repression, polarization, nationalism, and rising illiberalism, reversing the tide will depend on a good defense and an even better offense.

To defeat autocrats, democracies must unite in a focused and coordinated countermobilization against sharp power globally.

Just as democracies must work together to help Ukrainians defeat Russia and Taiwan safeguard its freedom, we cannot give up on the Middle East simply because it’s difficult and messy.

At NED, we’re aiming to help our partners outpace and outflank the autocrats by investing in democratic networks that will share new ideas and best practices across movements and regions with new approaches to fighting disinformation, protecting the integrity of the information space, tackling transnational kleptocracy, leveraging technology for democracy, and fostering democratic unity.

We’re positioning ourselves to take advantage of emerging opportunities by investing in social movements and democratic organizing in the lead up to elections, whether or not they are likely to be free and fair.

And we will continue to provide moral and material support for those fighting the good fight on the autocrats’ home turf. This includes standing with the growing number of democracy advocates forced to flee their homeland to escape persecution.

Yes, democracy makes the world safer and more peaceful for all of us, but the struggle for freedom is not linear. While democratic aspirations of recent decades have not yet produced intended results and have been met, in some cases, with even sharper repression, they remain resilient and persistent.

Democratic openings and experience, even when they fail or are crushed, provide the crucial foundation for the next chapter of democratic experimentation offering an ever-greater prospect of success.

We owe it to the courageous men and women fighting for freedom in the MENA region to stand with them in their efforts to forge a path forward towards liberty and justice. It won’t be easy.

But I believe ordinary people doing extraordinary things around the world will write democracy’s next chapter.

Thank you.

~ NED President and CEO Damon Wilson at the CSID 21st Annual Conference