A dampened outcome for meetings on Mideast democracy


Two years ago, when Western governments conjured a conference on democracy in the Middle East and North Africa, an air of optimism and promise held sway. The Iraqis and Afghans soon held elections. So did the Palestinians, who chose the moderate Mahmoud Abbas as their president. Change was also on its way to Egypt and Lebanon.

But with the recent setbacks to democracy throughout the region, the goals at this year’s conference here over the weekend were often smaller and, presumably, a bit more attainable.

“They actually have a paragraph in there that says, ’We support increasing literacy for women,’” said Sanem Gunes, a program officer for a Turkish advocacy group, rolling her eyes and dismissing the line as “almost like a beauty pageant answer.” She added, “It doesn’t take scores of foreign ministers coming from all over the region to come up with ’education for women.’”

Such was the Forum for the Future’s third annual meeting. When the Group of 8 summit meeting took place in 2004 in Sea Island, Georgia, the Bush administration and its European allies came up with the idea for the conference. An offspring of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, its purpose was to prod the Arab and Muslim world’s autocratic governments toward democracy and stronger civil society, as sort of a bulwark against the hopelessness and disenchantment that could lead to extremism.

It was an ambitious goal, and things seemed promising at first.

Democracy protests pushed Syria out of Lebanon. In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak allowed opposition candidates on the ballot.

But that was the new Middle East, before the old one quickly reasserted itself. After the Muslim Brotherhood won many seats in Egypt’s parliamentary elections last year, Mubarak’s government postponed municipal elections for two years. Parliamentary elections in Qatar were also postponed.

Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon? All are struggling desperately against violence or sectarian division.

The Palestinians had another election and voted Hamas into power, prompting a Western aid boycott. Yemen’s government cracked down on the news media that had criticized the government. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah refused calls to have the country’s consultative council be elected. This summer, Bahrain, host to the forum last year, unceremoniously expelled a representative of an American democracy advocacy group.

On Friday, security was ultratight, the road in front of the King Hussein Bin Talal Convention Center virtually empty. After making their scheduled – and brief – speeches in the convention hall to the 40 or so nongovernmental representatives who attended, most of the foreign dignitaries quickly retired to private salons to talk to one another.

A session on political participation, elections and the news media was under way in the main hall, while in a nearby hall, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held talks with her counterparts from Britain, Italy and the European Union on matters like Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

On the other side of the convention center, in front of the darkened and empty Aqaba Hall, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov of Russia, a host of the conference, and six chatted among themselves, then sauntered to the terrace to smoke.

A few yards away Mansour Ahmad Khan, representing Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry, was talking up his country’s democratic record to a reporter.

Khan had just gotten to the part about how much Pakistan’s military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, has been doing to encourage democracy and women’s rights when his boss, Foreign Affairs Minister Khusro Bakhtyar, appeared and said, “Reform is not just an option, but a necessity in this part of the world,” Bakhtyar said. “Our governments are heeding the winds of change.”

Rice had been diplomatic the previous night when a reporter asked her whether it was incongruous that Russia, which passed a law restricting nongovernmental organizations, was a host of a democracy conference in Jordan. “We’re using this international forum to push political change,” she said, delicately. “It doesn’t mean everybody that’s sitting around the table is a perfect example of democratic development.”

As much as they criticized the lack of progress at the conference, the nongovernmental organizations were quick to say that they were glad to be there and supported its ideals, though some were unable to speak with the foreign dignitaries. “We don’t get too much access to the officials, actually,” said Jamil Mouawad, a youth organizer and program manager for the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. “And an action plan would be nice.” The conference did not issue such a plan.

“Hey, is that Elliott Abrams?” asked Khalil Gebara, an executive director of No Corruption, a Lebanese organization pointing to Abrams, the top White House adviser for Middle East affairs, who was standing near the coffee-and-Danish table talking to two fellow U.S. officials.

“Can you introduce me to him? He’s a big guy, I hear.”

But the Abrams retinue quickly swept around the corner, back into the embrace of the U.S. officials.