Even the word 'democracy' now repels Mideast reformers

For much of the past decade, we've worked to promote democracy in the Middle East, largely with funding from US government grants. Since 9/11, the Bush administration has moved the promotion of democracy in the Middle East to center stage, dedicating unprecedented funding and political rhetoric to it - and, ironically, our work has never been harder.

Across the region, we've encountered increasing reservations about the new American initiative to support political reform. The primary reason is a growing perception that the Bush administration acts in a way that is inconsistent with the democratic values and respect for human rights that it rhetorically espouses.

This isn't just about the Iraqi prisoner abuses, which seem only to have confirmed a regional perception of American double talk on democracy and freedom. Incommunicado detention of terror suspects and the muted criticism of human rights violations by American allies are cited as reasons for hesitation in cooperating with US organizations promoting democracy and human rights.

The perceived gap between rhetoric and deeds isn't mere fodder for Bush critics; it has had a tangible adverse effect on the work of Americans attempting to assist Middle Eastern democratic reformers. In many previously friendly quarters, the US has become positively radioactive. Ties to America - always the subject of some suspicion in the Middle East, prone to conspiracy theories as it is - now certainly damage the credibility of legitimate activists.

On a recent trip to Syria, Bahrain, and Jordan, reformers told us, with great distress, they can no longer even use the words "democracy" and "human rights" in their communities, let alone work publicly on US-funded democracy promotion projects.

Sadly, these terms have become synonymous with military occupation, civilian casualties, and abuse of prisoners in Iraq and around the globe.

The instability in Iraq is also making our jobs harder, because law and order are the foundations for democratic systems. The fighting there has bolstered arguments against reform elsewhere. Autocrats in the region point to Iraq as a sign of what can happen when the old order is upset. The chaos in Iraq has also made it next to impossible for US organizations promoting democracy to work there.

On a recent trip to Jordan, we encountered a number of Americans who'd been bravely working with nascent Iraqi political parties and civic organizations, but who had been evacuated from Baghdad because of deteriorating security conditions.

We offer no silver bullet. But there are ways the US can regain some credibility:

• Increase the UN role in Iraq. Many Middle Easterners view the lack of a UN resolution for the invasion of Iraq as a contravention of democratic principles. They believe other states should have had input into a decision of such magnitude. A greater UN role in Iraq would be seen as a stronger US commitment to democracy.

• Increase the diplomatic and political focus on democratic institutions and processes. For decades, US policy fixated on individual leaders, many of whom have been dictators, and none of whom have been poster children for democracy and human rights. This redefinition of diplomacy should include the regular rebuke of those foreign officials with poor records on democracy and human rights. People in the Middle East simply don't believe the US is committed to reform when it appears to cozy up to the Saudi royal family, Muammar Qaddafi, and Ahmed Chalabi (who, as is well known, was convicted of bank fraud in Jordan).

• Criticize all violations of human rights and rule of law on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Arab world wants a wholesale change in US treatment of the conflict. In the fight against terror, desperate times may require desperate measures, but failing to criticize egregious violations of human rights and rule of law undermines any US effort to serve as an honest broker in the peace process.

• Ensure proper treatment of foreign prisoners. It's obvious that to prove its commitment to human rights, the US must conduct a thorough, transparent, and credible investigation of the treatment of prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo Bay, punish those responsible for any abuses, and implement procedures to ensure that mistreatment will not occur again.

If there's a glimmer of hope, it's the activists and organizations that do continue to work with us. People-to-people connections may be what get us through this period. Despite the danger, there are individuals in the Middle East willing to look beyond what they perceive as American double talk to work for reform in their societies.

We can only hope that if the news continues to get worse, their desire for greater democracy and freedom will continue to override their reservations about working with Americans.

Mikaela A. McDermott and Brian Katulis both travel extensively in the Middle East on democracy-building projects for Freedom House, a nongovernmental organization that promotes freedom worldwide. The views expressed here are their own, not those of their employer.

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