Fight for Mideast democracy faltering
Friday, July 14,2006 00:00
By Michael Rubin,



is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and editor of the Middle East Quarterly

’It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world," President Bush declared at his second inauguration.    

Government-controlled newspapers in the Arab world scoffed at the idea of democracy. Egypt’s al-Ahram daily called it "worrying." The United Arab Emirates’ al-Bayan wrote that "the slogan of fighting tyranny is just a pompous expression." Many Bush critics in the United States agreed.

Still, democracy took root in what many once dismissed as infertile ground. Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution drove out Syrian military occupation. Just a year ago, Lebanon’s future looked bright. U.S. diplomatic pressure forced Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak to hold his first contested presidential election. That democracy came to Iraq through war may be unpopular, but it does not cancel the fact that Iraqis went to the polls three times, twice to pick a leader and once to ratify a constitution.

Dissent grew bold. Libyan democracy activist Fathi El-Jahmi publicly challenged Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi to hold elections. Rola Dashti campaigned tirelessly for women’s suffrage in Kuwait. Jordanian columnist Salameh Nematt took the call for democracy a step further when, on Nov. 25, 2004, he called on all Arab states to embrace democracy. "It is outrageous and amazing that the first free and general elections in the history of the Arab nation are to take place... in Iraq, under the auspices of American occupation, and in Palestine, under the auspices of the Israeli occupation," he wrote in the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat.

Dissent in the Middle East was no cakewalk. Gadhafi threw El-Jahmi in prison. Both Dashti and Nematt received death threats. An Egyptian court sentenced activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim for his writings about human rights and democracy. But even as they challenged entrenched leaders, dissidents could count on Washington as an ally. Bush defied diplomatic convention and withheld $130 million in aid until Egypt released Ibrahim. Senators lobbied for El-Jahmi’s release. The State Department chastised Iran’s treatment of its imprisoned civil society activists, and condemned the murder of Lebanese journalists.

No longer. Where just last year, the White House condemned the murder of Lebanese writers, it now remains silent as Libyan security agents kidnap and kill journalists. Hezbollah might not have sparked the latest violence had Washington kept up pressure for its disarmament. El-Jahmi is back in prison. At the Palestinian Authority’s request, the State Department banned liberal Palestinian activist Issam Abu Issa from the United States after he blew the whistle on corruption.

Not only adversaries get a free pass. In the face of Bush’s reversal, U.S. allies who once considered reform now abandon it. Take Mubarak: In recent months, his regime has imprisoned the opposition candidate, an arson attack has destroyed the opposition headquarters, Mubarak has canceled municipal elections, and his security forces have arrested judges who dared to complain. Last week, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh - who wields absolute power - reversed his decision to step down and now says he will run again. Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali - who won his last election with more than 94 percent of the vote - has waged a wholesale assault on independent civil society. In the midst of a crackdown on journalists and bloggers, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited Tunis to meet Ben Ali. Many Tunisians compare the photo of the meeting to Rumsfeld’s 1983 handshake with Saddam Hussein. Iraqi Kurdish leader Masud Barzani now casts democracy aside as he builds a personality cult and transforms Iraqi Kurdistan into his own personal fiefdom. Even in democratic Turkey, the White House remains silent as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan refuses to implement supreme court rulings that say he has overstepped his power.

That Bush betrays his rhetoric is tragic. While he once spoke of freedom, he now courts those who oppose it. Fighting terror and supporting reform need not be mutually exclusive. Last year Bush promised, "America will stand with the people that desire a free and democratic Iraq." Now his administration talks of withdrawal, leaving those who put their lives on the line for democracy to wither. Just as his father once called on Iraqis to stand up and fight dictatorship only to abandon them to Saddam’s gunships, so too does George W. Bush now abandon Arab freedom-seekers, only on a much larger scale and with far more dire consequences for both Middle Eastern democracy and U.S. credibility.

Contact Michael Rubin at [email protected]