Saturday, March 20, 2004


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By William Fisher

Two recent events illustrate the unfortunate penchant of Arab regimes to shoot themselves in the foot. On March 16, Saudi Arabia detained several prominent reformers. A week earlier, Syrian police broke up a peaceful demonstration by some 20 human rights activists seeking political and economic reforms.

Why are these kinds of events so damaging to Middle East Arab governments? Because they undermine the credibility of many promises -- and a few actions – these governments have taken to bring greater transparency and political participation to their citizens.

Arab governments are virtually unanimous in their condemnation of the Middle East Initiative proposed by President George W. Bush to ‘democratize’ the region. They view the policy as a neo-colonial attempt to impose ‘American-style’ democracy on the area, and contend – with some justification – that democracy cannot be imposed externally and must be homegrown and suited to each country’s history and culture.

While talk of ‘reform’ fills the Middle East and North Africa, some Arab states have taken the first baby steps toward beginning to protect their citizens’ civil and political liberties. Saudi Arabia is one of these. The Kingdom’s first independent human rights organization recently won Royal approval; the government has promised municipal elections, opened a reform dialogue with leading intellectuals – several of whom were among those arrested last week – and introduced changes to its education and religions institutions, which promote an austere version of Sunni Islam and are blamed by Western critics for creating a fertile environment for militants.

Syria has done far less. President Bashir Assad, who took office when his father died in 2000, has taken limited steps to loosen Syria from the totalitarian system he inherited. He released hundreds of political detainees and initially allowed political discussion groups to hold small gatherings indoors. But in 2001, Assad began to clamp down on pro-democracy activists, raiding their meetings and jailing two lawmakers and other activists. They were convicted on a charge of trying illegally to change the constitution.

The protest by the 20 Syrian activists was against the continued use of the so-called Emergency Laws in force since 1963. The measures allow Syrian authorities to restrict the right to freedom of expression by permitting the censorship of correspondence, communications and information media. They also allow for the establishment of special courts for the trial of state security and political cases without recourse to ordinary court procedures and guarantees, and give the government sweeping powers to arrest and detain citizens with charge, trial or legal representation. The Syrian response was to have police disperse the 20 protesters, angrily tell reporters to leave, and take several protestors into custody.

The Saudi incident was triggered by a petition to Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler of the Kingdom, urging the government to provide a timetable for the implementation of reforms. The police arrested eight of the petitioners because, according to the official Saudi Press Agency, the signatories’ actions “do not serve national unity or the cohesion of society based on Islamic Sharia law.''

President Assad’s knee-jerk reaction against this tiny protest is a backward step that should be condemned by Arab leaders who recognize the need to move forward by instituting their own reforms. The Saudi action, said one academic with ties among the detainees, “will make people lose trust in the government and their promises. It contradicts 100 percent what they have been promising.'' Crown Prince Abdullah vowed that his country will press ahead with reforms but rejected any ``reckless adventure,'' saying change will be measured and studied. Syria has not commented on the arrests.

But the reactions of both governments are more likely to strengthen human rights activism and give advocates the gift of international media attention. Syria’s actions can only bolster US resolve to impose sanctions on the country.

In their over-reactions, the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Syria have, yet again, shot their countries in the foot. They have invited condemnation by internationally respected groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International and, sadly, given aid and comfort to the Bush Administration’s doomed Greater Middle East Initiative.