Hard luck for Arab democrats

Last year, celebrating the second anniversary of the fall of Baghdad, US President George W. Bush promised a “wave” of democratic reform that would bring down “the last stronghold of world tyranny” – the Arab world.

The toppling of Saddam Hussain’s statue in Baghdad was ranked by Bush with the fall of the Berlin Wall “as one of the great moments in the history of liberty”.

The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East “will be a crushing defeat to the forces of tyranny and terror and a watershed event in the global democratic revolution”, Bush told flag-waving troops in central Texas during the celebration.

Last September and in a speech before the 61st session of the UN General Assembly, Bush reiterated his commitment to the cause of freedom and democracy in the Arab world. But, the tone this time was different, the expectations were lower and his enthusiasm about democratic reform seemed, even for the casual observer of US policy, to have vanished.

In US political circles, as well as in the media, everybody seems now certain that the US has abandoned its commitment to democracy in the Middle East.

The Los Angeles Times reported this week that former US secretary of state, James Baker, who also chair a bipartisan panel reassessing Iraq strategy for Bush, is going to propose in his report, due to be released after the US mid-term elections, that Washington drop the objective of democracy in Iraq and the greater Middle East in favour of “representative” governments.

According to the paper, all current governments in the region will be considered “representative” as long as they maintain order and stability in their own countries.

The prevalent view today in Washington is that the president may have rocked the boat too much. Given the ill-fated venture in Iraq and the outcome of the Palestinian and the Egyptian elections, US officials believe the Arab world is not ready yet for democracy.

A stable political culture must be built before free elections in Muslim countries are held. It is, hence, safer and wiser for the US to leave Arab governments heed the call for democracy at their own pace.

Indeed, these same officials know very well that the Arab world has long moved “at its own pace” towards democracy. The result was almost no democracy at all. But, this might be exactly what the US seeks right now.

This new thinking in Washington caused panic among Arab democrats who have for long aspired for US help to promote democracy in the Arab world. One hundred and three Arab and Muslim intellectuals wrote a letter to Bush that was published in the Washington Post last week.

The intellectuals expressed their concern about the shift in US policy regarding democracy promotion. “We know that some in the United States, worried by recent Islamist gains among voters in Palestine and Egypt, are having doubts about the wisdom of pushing for freedom and democracy in the Middle East. These worries are exploited by despots in the region to perpetuate the untenable status quo,” the intellectuals argued.

Highly sensitive

Touching on a highly sensitive issue for most Americans – the September 11 attacks – they then tried to influence US policy.

“Democratic participation is the only way to combat extremism and pressure all groups, including Islamists, to moderate their stance in order to maximise their share of the vote.

“The United States should continue to press for an end to repression by governing regimes of democratically minded liberal and Islamist groups and it should emphatically distance itself from such repression and condemn it in the strongest terms whenever and wherever it occurs.

“We are confident that if Arab citizens are able to have their choice, they will choose democracy, freedom, peace and progress,” the Arab intellectuals concluded.

Will the US administration listen to the voice of moderation in Arab world? The events of the past few months suggest that the US prefers to deal with dictators than politicians worried about re-election. The US had done this before and will continue to do it whenever its interests deem that necessary. Does this surprise anyone?

Dr Marwan Al Kabalan is a lecturer in media and international relations, Faculty of Political Science and Media, Damascus University, Syria.

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