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FOREIGN POLICY

Bush Fires Up Mideast Reform

Democracy advocates hope trend persists.

August 08, 2004|Neil Hicks | Neil Hicks is director of international programs for Human Rights First.

NEW YORK — Reformers in the Middle East are caught in a tight bind. On principle, they oppose the highhandedness of U.S. policy in the region. But they have to admit it's had some positive effects.

Not only has President Bush gotten rid of Saddam Hussein, the region's most brutal dictator, but his relentless promotion of democracy in the Middle East has also turned up the heat on other regional autocrats and jump-started the reform debate. These days, no Arab government can afford to simply quash increasingly persistent and widespread demands for reform.

Ibrahim Eissa, a young Egyptian satirical novelist, was one of the first to have broken what is almost a public taboo in Egypt and the Arab world: He spoke well of Bush at a conference on reform in the Middle East. Eissa is no enthusiast for U.S. policy. He was willing, though, to state a truth that few liberals in the West or in the Arab world will acknowledge: "Every Arab government is hoping for the defeat of George Bush." Authoritarian Arab leaders, he noted, would love to see a return to the pre-9/11 days when the U.S. turned a blind eye to the undemocratic practices of its regional allies.

But failing that, governments are having to pay heed to reformers. Take the case of Egypt. After decades of simply dismissing calls by nongovernmental organizations for change in government policies, President Hosni Mubarak in March addressed a major conference on Arab reform convened by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria. His speech was not revolutionary, but he did embrace reform as long as it was not in response to foreign pressure and was at a pace suited to Egypt. Since Alexandria, there has been a flurry of conferences on reform in the Arab world, including a summit meeting of the Arab League. All have endorsed change, though with varying timelines.

Some, like the more cautious agenda proposed in the Alexandria conference's declaration, emphasize that political reform "should not be at the expense of pressing regional issues," such as the Palestinian cause. This is a convenient formulation ensuring that change can be postponed indefinitely on the pretext that there are other, more pressing issues to attend to. But not all the conferences have taken such a guarded stand. The Doha Declaration for Democracy and Reform issued in June states boldly: "Hiding behind the necessity to resolve the Palestinian question before implementing political reform is obstructive and unacceptable."

At a conference held in June at the Ibn Khaldoun Center for Social Development Studies in Cairo, activists went so far as to reject "rule by a royal family" and spoke of the need to shake off "50 years of dictatorship." They called for an end to the Mubarak regime when the president's current term ends in 2005 and for a very different kind of presidency to follow. They laid responsibility for the region's problems firmly at the feet of "authoritarian regimes which led in turn to the emergence of extremists and fanatics." The conference was significant not only because it was tolerated by the government but because it marked the first anniversary of the center's reopening after its founder, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, was released from prison and acquitted of charges of "defaming Egypt's reputation abroad" for his work promoting democracy and minority rights. Some of the credit for the shift must go to Bush. Since Sept. 11, Middle Eastern heads of state have found that a visit to Washington can be a bit unsettling -- nothing like the back-slapping affairs that used to take place during the Cold War. Ever since President Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David accords in 1978, the Egyptian head of state has made an annual pilgrimage to White House, where he has been greeted warmly. But this year, Bush wanted to talk about more than the nearly $2 billion in aid the U.S. provides Egypt. He warned Mubarak that Egypt's ability to deliver on promises of reform was a national security concern of the U.S.

And when Tunisian President Zine el Abidine ben Ali called on Bush in February, he received a public dressing-down for his lack of initiative on democracy and human rights. "I look forward to talking to you about the need to have a press corps that is vibrant and free, as well as an open political process. There's a lot we can talk about," Bush told Ben Ali in front of a group of reporters.

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