Democracy: fragile seeds that fall on stony ground

Democracy: fragile seeds that fall on stony ground

Halfway through his eight-nation tour of the Arab world, President Bush delivered yesterday what his hosts had long expected: a call for democracy to flower in the arid political climate of the Middle East.

Three years ago, when he made the drive for democracy in the region the central pillar of US foreign policy for his second term in office, the impact caused political shockwaves among friends and foes in a part of the world where rulers and dictators have long resisted change.

Yesterday the Bush message was far less strident, in large part because the experiment is widely regarded to have failed and the Administration is seen as too weak to apply any meaningful pressure in its dying months in office.

Egypt, the largest and most influential Arab state, was supposed to have been the test bed for America”s experiment. The pressure on the regime of Hosni Mubarak forced the country to loosen restrictions on political opponents and hold multicandidate presidential elections. The Cairo spring was short-lived. Mr Mubarak won a fifth term, his chief rival for the presidency languishes in jail, the main Islamist opposition is banned and the authorities have once again stifled political debate.

Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy ruled by King Abdullah, never even pretended to buy into the American experiment. It has introduced modest democratic reforms, but change is so sluggish that there is no threat to the existing political establishment, a partnership between the House of Saud and the clergy. One place that Mr Bush wanted to visit was Lebanon. Unique among nations in the region, its street protests in 2005 led to the removal of Syrian troops and the election of a pro-Western government.

However, the dreams of the “Cedar Revolution”, as it was known, have all but evaporated. The country”s infrastructure was devastated during the 2006 war with Israel, which America and Britain supported. The Government has since been unable to function properly because of blocking tactics from the pro-Syrian opposition and assassinations of key figures, for which Syria is widely blamed.

Democracy has also caused as many problems as it was supposed to solve. The election victory of Hamas, which won Palestinian parliamentary polls in 2006, has divided Palestinians and complicated peace efforts.

Even Iraq, a country that has had more elections and referendums than most Western democracies, still has little to show for it. Until violence is halted and real reconciliation can begin between rival sects and ethnic groups, democracy will remain a slogan.

If there is any modest achievement in the region, it lies in the Gulf, where countries such as Kuwait and Bahrain have held multiparty elections and encouraged women to take part.