In Arab Spring, truth can beget freedom

From Syria to Morocco, repressive leaders at least now admit the woes their regimes cause. That admission can lead to success for pro-democracy protests.

The only real harvest from the Arab Spring so far has been in Egypt and Tunisia, where revolutions have led to emerging democracies. Yet in a few other Arab countries, ongoing protests have at least yielded a small crop of truth-telling from autocratic leaders.

In Syria, for example, President Bashar al-Assad admitted Monday that corruption within his government “has left a great deal of sorrow,” with the economy near collapse. Last week, a widely despised and wealthy businessman, Rami Makhlouf, announced he was quitting business to deal with charity.

In Jordan, King Abdullah II said in a speech June 12 that “no one in Jordan has a monopoly on reform or its promotion.” That’s a small step in admitting the monarchy shouldn’t have absolute powers.

But it is in Morocco where protests have especially forced a new official bluntness about the country’s woes, especially the link between a lack of jobs and a lack of political rights.

Last Friday, after months of limited concessions, King Mohammed VI proposed a new constitution that would, among other things, enshrine “all human rights as they are universally recognized.” And in a rush to head off more protests, he ordered a July 1 referendum on the document.

The proposed reforms, if approved, would mean a transition to democracy rather than a full democracy. The popular king would still appoint a prime minister to govern after an election, for example, and retain military control.

Such a move, if imitated elsewhere in the Middle East, would shift the Arab Spring from attempted revolution to top-down reform. A necessary first step in that direction would require rulers to start telling the truth – for in truth there is freedom.

When protests first erupted in Egypt last January, President Obama initially called on President Hosni Mubarak to reform. But as violence against protesters increased and Mr. Mubarak seemed to ignore reality, Mr. Obama changed course, calling on him to leave.

The United States still pushes reform in other Arab countries, especially where Washington has practical interests, such in Bahrain, which hosts an American naval base. In Syria, the US has not directly called on Mr. Assad to leave but is pressuring him to end violence and to reform. Assad appeared to offer a few concessions in his speech this week, but not enough to quell protests.

Saudi Arabia is the regional leader in arranging a counterrevolution against pro-democracy forces. It sent troops into Bahrain to help suppress protests and has given money to Jordan to boost its economy. And it invited Jordan and Morocco to join the Gulf Cooperation Council, which is seen as a Sunni-only club of monarchs. Its leaders tightly control the domestic media.

The Arab Spring is a long way from fruition. So when buds of truth emerge that suggest tyrants are worried, those buds need to be nurtured.

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