Mar 7, 2004 3:53 pm


Here is another insightful analysis by Barry Rubin though I must say that I only partially agree with his conclusion - change must come from within but one must emphasize that they will not be led by the current regimes:

The United States plans to present a major plan on democratization of the Middle East to a summit of industrialized states in June. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab countries have rejected the proposal before they read it. The reasoning here tells us a great deal about how the contemporary Middle East works.

In a meeting between Egyptian President Husni Mubarak and Saudi Arabia's rulers, these leaders' joint statement affirmed, of course, that they want to"proceed on the path of development, modernization and reform in keeping with their people's interests and values" but only if it is compatible with"their specificities and Arab identity."

This stance would, of course, be quite understandable if it were not a complete and total lie. Now it is not hard to understand why the leaders of dictatorial regimes in which power and wealth is monopolized by a small group do not want to give up their privileges. This is the way dictatorships have always worked throughout the world.

But these are not the rationales used by the regimes and their supporting bureaucrats, intellectuals, or media to justify their refusal to fight corruption, permit civil liberties, allow free speech, stop repressing moderate dissidents, and the many other ways they stay in power. In the Middle East, though, a great deal of sand is thrown into the air which succeeds in obscuring these simple facts. Precisely because they are able to persuade their people on these points--partly due to endless repetition of their arguments and discrediting or silencing all alternative viewpoints--the Middle East has remained a zone of dictatorships while other regions have proved far more flexible toward change.

What are the main excuses used to reject not just the U.S. plan but all serious efforts to bring about change? These are the four horseman of the Middle Eastern apocalypse which help account for the region's chronic disaster:

--The Arab-Israeli conflict paradox. Nothing can change unless this issue is resolved but Arab states ensure that it is not solved by refusing compromise, backing terrorism, and letting Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat sabotage any chance for progress. Thus, even the moderate Egyptian intellectual Muhammad Sid-Ahmed said in al-Ahram that under the U.S. plan,"The Palestinian cause would lose its specific character and central position" and leave the"region prisoner to interminable violence."

Yet what possible real connection does this issue really have with a better educational system, fair elections, freer speech, and less corruption in the Arab world?

--America and state-sponsored xenophobia. The pretense here is that the United States wants to impose a detailed program of specific changes on the Arab world. This is rejected as unwarranted (read"imperialistic") interference in sovereign states by a country with a record that makes it unworthy as a sponsor for democracy.

Former Arab League Secretary Esmat Abdel Meguid told the United States,"How can you speak about democracy when you have these things that are happening in Palestine, and in Iraq? This is something that is very surprising to us," he said."If [President Bush] would like to see democracy, that means equality, liberty, respect for others, then this should be applied to what is happening in Palestine."

Again, this is just what is called in American slang,"blowing smoke." Are Arab regimes doing the United States a favor if they consider treating their own people better? Moreover, as Secretary of State Colin Powell said in response to Arab criticisms of the U.S. plan,"We're not looking for something to impose on the region, we're looking for things we can work with the region on." Powell told a new, U.S.-funded Arabic television channel:"I agree with the Egyptians and the Saudis: (reform) can't be imposed from outside. It has to be accepted from the inside."

The leaks about the contents of the plan indicate that this is what it is, a series of mild, do-good programs to help civil society, train parliamentarians, and other such things that would lay a long-term foundation for progress toward democracy. Whether or not it is a good program, there's certainly nothing extreme or demanding in it.

--Arab and Islamic"specificity." When it suits them, mainstream Arab intellectuals and journalists rage that the West talks about them as if they are"different." But at other times, the nationalists claim that the requirements of the Arab identity and Islamic religion require a different system of government and society.

For example, the Egyptian academic and editor Osama el-Ghazali Harb, who takes some liberal positions, protests that the United States long supported traditionalists against reformers against the"long-term interests of the Middle East's peopleto further U.S. interests in fighting communism, protecting the oil supply, and defending Israel's security." This was done on the basis of stability being more important than democracy as well as under cover of"deference to the 'traditions and local traits' of traditional societies.

But which is it? Is the problem that the United States supports the regimes, which makes it an imperialist boss, or that it challenges them, which makes it an imperialist aggressor?

--Iraq. The Saudi-Egyptian statement demands the withdrawal of U.S.-led occupation forces as soon as possible and a greater role for the UN. Again, though, is this an issue which should delay any change or even serious examination of the well-known shortcomings of Arab states and societies? Is reform doing America a favor for which some price should be extracted?

The truly important issue is not what U.S. policy should be on promoting democratization but rather what is the policy of the Arab rulers. On this point, Powell is right: change must come from the inside and that is exactly why there isn't going to be any for a long time.

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