Arabs debate political reforms

An upcoming Arab League summit will try for a regional accord, spurred in part by Bush proposal.

When details of President George W. Bush's ambitious plan to promote democracy in the greater Middle East were leaked to the media, the reaction from Arab leaders was swift and unequivocal.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a key US ally, dismissed it as "delusional," while Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri called the plan "dangerous and sensitive."

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, encapsulating the indignation felt by Arab officials, charged that "Those behind these plans ignore the fact that our Arab people have cultures rooted deep in history and that we are able to handle our own affairs."

Yet, even though President Bush's Greater Middle East Initiative has met with near universal rejection from Arab leaders, it has re-energized the debate on political, economic and social reforms in the region - and the role that outside pressure may play in promoting (or retarding) them.

Areas of Reform

The need for reform was set to replace the Middle East peace process as the main item on the agenda at a summit of Arab heads of state in Tunis last week, before a last minute postponement by the Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. Arab foreign ministers met beforehand and, according to Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher, almost reached consensus on an unprecedented pan-Arab framework for reform.

"We came extremely close to agreeing on principles for reform before Tunis took its decision to postpone the summit," he says.

Mr. Muasher says the agreed areas of reform are public freedoms, women's rights, educational and judicial reform, a commitment to fighting terrorism and the liberalization of economies.

"After the Arab summit, hopefully, there will be a new yardstick by which everyone can measure reform, so that we don't just talk about reform as a lip service," he says.

President Bush's Greater Middle East Initiative calls on Arab and south Asian countries to adopt major political and economic reforms in exchange for greater cooperation from the West such as increased aid, security arrangements and access to the World Trade Organization. The president intended to present the finalized initiative at the Group of Eight (G-8) nations summit at Sea Island, Georgia, this summer.

But the plan was leaked to the media, apparently by the German foreign ministry, in February, sparking a critical backlash from Arab governments. Embarrassed Bush administration officials said it was an unfinished document and that they intended to discuss its contents with Arab governments. Nonetheless, the hostile reaction from Arab leaders appears to have forced the Bush administration to abandon the original version.

Arab governments say that the United States has no right to impose its version of democracy on the region. Such is the Arab distrust of Washington that US attempts to promote democracy in the Middle East can end up undermining the efforts of genuine homegrown Arab reformists.

Mr. Muasher says that foreign intervention was "unhelpful" and should be limited to supporting Arab initiatives.

"We are faced with a situation today where [Arab] reformists are being labeled as US agents," he says. "If the international community helps us achieve reform after we come out with [our own] blueprint in the Arab world, then that is welcome. But in terms of a blueprint initiated by the outside world, I don't think that will be helpful."

Still, some regional analysts argue that external and domestic pressures work in tandem to spur reluctant Arab governments to embark on reform programs.

"These two trends overlap with each other," says Shafeeq Ghabra, president of the American University of Kuwait. "They will succeed in some places and may collapse and cause strife and anarchy in other places."

Reform Dilemma

The dilemma for Arab regimes mulling reform is that the greater the move toward democracy the greater the risk of losing power.

The pan-Arab framework for reform under discussion by Arab leaders does not include a plan of action for individual countries. The speed and manner of reform will be left to each country to decide.

Jordan, says Mr. Muasher, has tailored specific reform policies to the specific circumstances of the country.

"What we do in Jordan could not expect to be replicated in other Arab countries," he says. "Each country has to decide on its pace depending on its conditions."

And that pace is usually slow. Most governments that have pledged reforms have done so tentatively and with a demonstrated readiness to reverse the process if it appears to be gaining an uncontrollable momentum of its own.

Syria, for example, flirted with loosening political restrictions shortly after Bashar al-Assad took office in 2000. But political discussion forums were soon closed down, reformists arrested, and today the emphasis is on reforming the civil administration first.

Grappling with its own homegrown terrorism, Saudi Arabia has begun toying with reform, liberalizing its educational curricula and promising municipal elections for the first time. But some Saudi liberals have been arrested, and critical newspaper columnists have lost their jobs, underlining the limits the country's rulers are willing to accept.

US Intervention

Michael Young, opinion editor of Beirut's English language Daily Star newspaper, argues that Arab governments ultimately are only concerned with staying in power and are incapable of ushering in genuine reforms.

Instead, Mr Young advocates a tougher approach, using the implicit threat of US troops in Iraq to coerce unwilling Arab regimes to hasten the process of internal reform.

"This notion of the piecemeal domestically-generated reform to me is nonsense," he says. "It is a useful period to use the presence of American forces and use the message of Iraq to goad Arab regimes into changing. It's a combination of outside pressure, domestic pressure and eventually a threat of force."

But the hesitancy of Arab regimes is not the only obstacle on the path to full democratic reforms. The festering Arab-Israeli conflict also exacts a toll. Some governments say reforms are impossible while Israel remains a threat.

Critics argue that this is merely an excuse to put off unwelcome changes. Nonetheless, the impact of Israeli-Palestinian violence has a powerful resonance with ordinary Arabs. The failure to resolve the conflict has fueled extremism and hardened anti-Western attitudes making reform much riskier for some regimes.

"You can't be having war in one place [in the Middle East] and peace in another place," Ghabra says.

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