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These 'Teachers' of Democracy Haven't a Clue

No Arab nation meets Bush's goals for Palestinians.

July 01, 2002|FRIDA GHITIS | Frida Ghitis' latest book is "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television" (Algora Publishing, 2001).

The grand irony of President Bush's plan for the Middle East is that it sets goals for the Palestinians that none of the United States' Arab friends in the region could meet. Bush called on the Palestinian people to "build a practicing democracy based on tolerance and liberty." All three--democracy, tolerance and liberty--are as plentiful in the region as forests are in the desert.

Adding to the irony, the president promised that Arab countries, along with the U.S. and Europe, would help the Palestinian people build their new democratic institutions. To advocates of political change in the Arab world, the promise that the same despotic regimes that put them in prison would help someone else build democracy must seem peculiar indeed.

Are the Palestinians supposed to learn from, say, Saudi Arabia, a country where, according to the Human Rights Watch report for 2001, "freedom of expression and association were nonexistent rights, political parties and independent local media were not permitted, and even peaceful anti-government activities remained virtually unthinkable"?

In fact, before the crisis of the last months, Palestinians living under the rule of the Palestinian Authority enjoyed more political freedoms than did most Saudis. This is particularly true of women, who in Saudi Arabia remain second-class citizens, affording men all the rights of discrimination. Women are not allowed to travel or get an education or a job without permission from a male guardian.

Then there's the matter of freedom of religion, a subject about which the Palestinians could teach Saudi Arabia a lesson or two.

Perhaps the Palestinians can turn to that other good friend of the U.S.--Egypt--in their search for an education in democracy. That's the country in which the president won election for a fourth term in 1999, garnering close to 94% of the vote. Now, there's a popularity rating even President Bush could envy. The Egyptian president, now in his 21st year in power, faced no opposition. No pesky problems with hanging chads and butterfly ballots in Egypt's democratic process.

In terms of liberty and tolerance, it's hard to think of Egypt as the ideal teacher. Religious minorities, political activists and many others are subjected to the harsh rules of the country's state of emergency, in place since 1967. And there too, women face the horrors of so-called honor killings and rampant domestic violence. The U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women recently expressed its grave concern about the government's lack of action to protect women from marital rape, violence in detention centers and other forms of aggression.

Other countries in the region have made modest progress toward democratic reform, but not a single one has reached a level that could qualify it to teach another nation about democracy. In Jordan, a country ruled by one family since independence, the young King Abdullah II has continued his late father's slow and careful march toward greater democracy.

Several Arab countries in the Middle East, particularly in the Persian Gulf region, are making tentative steps toward democracy, but the area remains the least democratic in the world. The wave of democratization that washed over the globe in the last decade somehow managed to bypass the Arab world. The responsibility for that belongs, to a large degree, to the U.S. and much of the West, obsessed with stability in the oil-rich region. Propping up the despotic regimes of "friends" and "moderates" in the region was seen as crucial to protecting the flow of oil.

Claiming now that Arab nations will show the way to democracy in a future Palestinian state is disingenuous at best. The reality is that the prospect of a true Palestinian democracy is a frightening one for many of the region's kings and dictators.

Palestinians working to develop a real democracy, one with personal freedoms, a free press, freedom of religion and tolerance for differing ideas and beliefs, could hardly do worse than imitating the United States' Arab friends in the region.

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