By Nir Boms and Erick Stakelbeck
Published July 14, 2004, The Washington Times
One of the more intriguing aspects of last week’s transfer of power in Iraq was the reaction it drew from neighboring governments in the region, particularly those that, traditionally, have been anything but democracy-friendly.
Iran’s mullahs, for instance, “welcomed” the transfer as giving “sovereignty back to the majority of the Iraqi people.” Likewise, Jordanian government spokeswoman Asma Khader labeled the move “a step toward rebuilding political, economic, security and social institutions in Iraq,” while Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher called it “an opportunity for [the Iraqi people] to take control of their own affairs and restore complete sovereignty.”
Senior Syrian Information Ministry official Ahmad Haj Ali voiced similar concern for the welfare of the Iraqi people, telling al Jazeera, “There will be great security problems as a result of the U.S. presence and problems created by the Americans themselves.”
Judging by these comments, it seems that some of the same Arab and Muslim governments that for years largely ignored the atrocities committed under Saddam Hussein’s regime have now become staunch advocates for democracy and human rights in Iraq.
This is no accident, as the ruling elites in these countries are acutely aware that the U.S. drive to democratize the Middle East has brought the reform debate to the forefront in their own backyards. And like the new reality in Iraq, it is here to stay.
Indeed, while most governments in the Middle East maintain that they will never accept reform dictated from outside sources — particularly the United States — widespread internal debate over the issue is already underway. Conferences on reform have been held this year alone in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar and Tunisia, and media outlets throughout the region discuss the issue on a daily basis.
Reform also has become an integral part of virtually every speech made in recent months by Arab leaders, including Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and members of the Saudi royal family.
“People won’t admit it, but three years ago reform was something few talked about,” a Jordanian diplomat told Newsweek recently. “Today it’s everywhere.”
Just last month, more than 100 Arab democracy advocates, political leaders and reformers participated in the Doha Conference on Democracy and Reform in Qatar. Its concluding declaration contained the strongest language seen thus far from an Arab or Muslim source concerning Mideast reform, asserting, “Democratic change has become a non-negotiable choice that cannot be postponed.”
Similarly, in May, several Arab foreign ministers met in Cairo to draw up a joint reform plan based on proposals from a number of countries, including Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Tunisia and Yemen.
The 22-member Arab League, however, has approached the reform issue much more warily. Given that pro-democracy movements are perhaps the most serious threat to the survival of the highly autocratic structure that exists throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds, it’s no surprise that the league’s members did not intend to put reform on the agenda of their latest summit.
The conference — which was originally scheduled for March — ended up being postponed until May due to disagreement over the content of the U.S. Greater Middle East Initiative for democratic change in the region. In the end, though, despite several contentious moments, the Arab League ultimately adopted a 13-point program that represented the first joint pledge for reform in its history.
While it has received a chilly reception from Arab leaders, the initiative has succeeded in spurring heightened competition from Europe in the area of democracy promotion. The European Union has increased funding for “The Barcelona Process,” an outreach plan that was originally launched in 1995 and targets 12 Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and the Palestinian Authority.
The European Union recently allocated $6.6 billion to the program to help “establish a common Euro-Mediterranean area of peace and stability based on fundamental principles including respect for human rights, democracy, rule of law, the need for good relations between neighbors.”
Whether Middle Eastern governments will be willing partners in the EU plan remains to be seen. Still, although the recent talk of reform by Arab leaders may merely be cosmetic, it does offer an entry point for the promotion of genuine change in the region.
The distinction between “imported” and “homegrown” reform is secondary to the fact that the discussion is finally on the table throughout the Middle East, creating a unique window of opportunity for the United States and its democratic allies to advance liberty in countries where freedom is forbidden.
Nir Boms is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democraciesandco-founderof www.pulseoffreedom.org. Erick Stakelbeck is senior writer for the Investigative Project.