Saturday, March 20, 2004


By William Fisher

Is it possible that President Bush’s Greater Middle East Initiative to bring democracy to the area – roundly condemned by most Arab governments – is actually having some positive impact on democratic reform in this troubled neighborhood?

Reform-talk is nothing new in the Middle East and North Africa. The rhetoric of reform has been heard throughout the region for many years, though there are few tangible gains to show for it. But both the pace and the decibel level of discussion appear to have increased since the US plan to ‘democratize’ the region was leaked to a London newspaper.

The Middle East initiative is aimed at the arc of countries extending from Morocco to Pakistan and urges them to undertake major political and economic reforms, especially those that would advance women, and guarantee human rights. The Bush administration had planned to present its proposals at the G8 summit of industrial nations in June, but has now abandoned this action in the face of widespread Arab criticism.

Much of the Arab world’s reaction to the plan is summed up by Syrian Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam. The plan, he said, was “reminiscent of past colonial scheming. This initiative reminds us of the situation before World War I, when major powers were seeking a way to fragment the region and divide it among themselves,” he told reporters. “No one can impose anything on Arabs … Arabs can choose for themselves.” Other Arab critics question whether the plan was presented properly. ”It seems to have been announced in the (Bush) administration’s typical high-handed way, without serious prior consultations. So this cannot be presented as a genuinely cooperative enterprise….” Critics say the US plan demonstrates its lack of sensitivity to the social and cultural differences between America and the Arab world.

Faced with flat-out rejection from some of its closest allies, the United States has belatedly said the plan is only a suggestion. US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Marc Grossman said the best ideas for reform will come from the region.

Thus reform is likely to be high on the agenda of the Arab League when it meets in Tunis later this month. This comes as something of a surprise because little achievement was expected from the forthcoming Arab League Summit. For example, because of the deep differences among member states, none of the League’s 22 members have ever ratified the organization’s 1994 Declaration of Human Rights. Moreover, many of the countries in the Arab Middle East and North Africa have autocratic regimes that operate under so-called Emergency Laws that give their governments sweeping powers to strip citizens of their human and political rights.

Yet there is some evidence that some Arab countries are taking reform seriously. Here are some of the more recent: Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Morocco have formed human rights committees, attached to their governments but promising independent action. Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak has talked of a wide-ranging reform agenda, starting with a promise to stop jailing journalists, though the country’s Emergency Law remains very much in force. Saudi Arabia’s crown prince has created an Advisory Working Group to study the major challenges facing the kingdom, including the implementation of municipal elections, with full voting rights granted to women. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan have committed to radical modernization of their education systems, with special emphasis on women’s right to education. The Algerian Government has created a ‘mechanism’ to try to discover what happened to the thousands of ‘disappeared’ citizens. Saudi Arabia’s first elections will take place in 14 municipalities in October – in which women will vote for the first time – and Saudi analysts say they should lead to general elections.

While these events might be seen as baby steps toward comprehensive reform, as the Beirut newspaper The Daily Star points out, “For a part of the world that has resisted change for decades while breeding poverty, religious extremism and terrorism, that is already progress of a sort.”

But many obstacles threaten to derail progress toward homegrown reform. For many years, the Arab League has been considered reactionary, virtually irrelevant because of the deep divisions among its member states, and totally preoccupied with the Israeli-Palestinian issue. It has often been accused of using this explosive issue to justify its inaction in other areas. The importance of the issue to Middle East Arabs was again underscored by Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa. ``As far as the Greater Middle East Initiative is concerned, ” he said recently, “it should not be confined to developing the societies but also to achieving stability in the region. This stability cannot be achieved without a fair, correct and balanced treatment of the Palestinian cause and the Iraqi issue.'' In countries like Saudi Arabia, fundamentalist clergy are creating multiple obstructions. A number of governments in the region, including Egypt and Syria, are continuing to use the threat of terrorism to justify their continuation of draconian Emergency Laws. And America’s Iraqi adventure further clouds the Arab perception of America’s track record in the area.

According to a recent editorial in the Jordan Times, “The continuation of conflicts in the Middle East, especially the Arab-Israeli deadlock and the Iraqi occupation, leads to radicalization of the entire region and makes the endeavors to reform it that much more difficult. The rise of political violence and even terrorism is directly linked to these festering conflicts and without security and stability, no political and economic reforms can be pursued with much success…the real reason why these conflicts exist in the first place is the absence of reforms. Had the countries directly or indirectly affected by these conflicts undergone meaningful reforms decades ago, the conflicts in question may not have reached their present stage of urgency. “

So at the level of realpolitik, there seems to be no viable alternative to accepting homegrown reforms, however slow and frustrating. The role of the United States, the European Community, and all others who enjoy the fruits of democracy, can only be as partners and helpers – not as prescriptors.

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