Global Policy Forum

"Evolution" Preferred Over "Revolution" in Arab Lands


By Jim Lobe

Inter Press Service
June 9, 2005

The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush should back up its pro-democracy rhetoric in the Middle East with more action and consistency, according to new bipartisan report that also urges Washington to encourage "evolutionary," rather than "revolutionary" change in Arab lands. The 65-page report by an independent task force sponsored by the influential Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and chaired by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman, also urged Washington to support the full political participation of Islamist groups, so long as they renounced violence and were committed to the democratic process.

At the same time, however, it said the U.S. should promote constitutional mechanisms, such as an independent judiciary or specially chosen legislative chambres to guard against "the tyranny of the majority" and prevent Islamist movements from "overwhelm(ing) more open political systems." "For better or worse, Islamist movements and political parties are likely to play a prominent role in a more democratic Middle East," according to the report, "In Support of Arab Democracy: Why and How." "The United States must remain vigilant in opposing terrorist organizations. That being said, it should not allow Middle Eastern leaders to use national security as an excuse to suppress nonviolent Islamist organizations."

The report comes amid growing uncertainties over the direction and seriousness of the administration's pro-democracy push in the Middle East where, according to senior officials, the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq has created unprecedented political ferment. In addition to elections over the past six months in Palestine and Iraq itself, Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon, municipal elections in Saudi Arabia, and so-far cosmetic constitutional reform in Egypt, according to the administration, have at least opened up the prospect of transforming the region.

Yet despite his soaring pro-democracy rhetoric, Bush and his top aides have appeared less than fully committed. The potential weakening of traditionally pro-U.S. elites in Saudi Arabia and other major oil exporters and the possible rise to power of strongly anti-western Islamist movements represent serious risks for Washington in a region that has been considered by U.S. presidents from both political parties to be a vital national security interest for decades. While the Bush administration has so far spent more than 200 billion dollars to sustain its military operations in Iraq, for example, its budget for democracy-promotion in the Middle East has not exceeded 100 million dollars a year; in fact, it has actually fallen in since 2003. On a democracy-promotion trip to the region late last month, First Lady Laura Bush stunned Arab activists when she praised Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for taking a "very bold step" in a sponsoring a constitutional reform that most experts denounced as cosmetic at best.

Of particular concern is the conviction that the immediate beneficiaries of reform have been and are likely to be anti-American Islamists, including the Sunni Muslim Brothers in Egypt and Syria, Hamas, a brotherhood offshoot in Palestine, and the Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon which has long been supported by the Islamic Republican of Iran (IRI). The IRI, of course, also supported the Shiite parties that swept Iraq's elections in Iraq last January. The risks of empowering radical Islamists through democratic reform have clearly been a major source of concern and debate within the administration and even within particular ideological currents that have backed Bush's hawkish policies.

Neo-conservatives, for example, have split between those, like the director of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), Gary Schmitt, who has called for Washington to directly engage the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, and harder-line figures, such as Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum, who strongly oppose such a move and now consider "slowing down the democratization policy in Iraq and elsewhere" to be a major priority of his work. U.S. policy toward armed Islamist groups -- namely Hamas and Hezbollah, both groups that are on the State Department's terrorism list -- is also a serious point of contention. It is no secret that the administration raised no objections to the decision of Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to put off legislative elections scheduled for next month, in major part due to fears that Hamas was likely to do very well.

It is in that context that the 24-member CFR task force, which met in Cairo with Arab experts and activists, reached its conclusions, the first of which was that the Middle East should no longer be considered an exception to U.S. democracy promotion abroad. "Although democracy entails certain inherent risks, the denial of freedom carries much more significant long-term dangers," according to the report. "If Arab citizens are able to express grievances freely and peacefully, they are less likely to turn to more extreme measures."

As to how to promote democracy in the region, however, the report is more cautious, stressing that such efforts should be carried out "over the long term, mindful that democracy cannot be imposed from the outside and that sudden, traumatic change is neither necessary nor desirable." "America's goal in the Middle East should be to encourage democratic evolution, not revolution," it said, adding that, while basic principles should be emphasized across the region, reform should be promoted through a "country-by-country strategy" that takes account of specific issues and problems.

While the report comes down clearly in favor of full participation for non-violent and unarmed or disarmed Islamist movements, it also hedges that recommendation by calling on Washington to persuade local governments to adopt constitutional arrangements that will "restrain the power of majorities to trample the rights of minorities." "It is important to recognize that there is no incompatibility between being a devout Muslim and a democrat," according to the report. "Yet it is equally important to understand that while Islamist organizations may support democratic procedures as a route to power, they also tend to have a majoritarian view of democracy."

As to "hybrid" Islamist organizations -- or those like Hezbollah and Hamas that have both an armed wing and which participate in democratic politics -- the report is considerably more ambiguous. On the one hand, U.S. officials should not directly engage such groups unless they disarm; on the other hand, "policymakers must recognize, in any case, that armed organizations such as Hamas and Lebanese Hizballah are already participants in the democratic activities of their societies." As to other recommendations, the report calls for the administration to encourage Arab leaders to develop public, detailed "pathways to reform" that include specific benchmarks to which they can be held accountable by their publics. It also urges the administration to promote economic and political reforms simultaneously, arguing that success of one is dependent on that of the other.

The report also assesses the development of alternative Arab media outlets, including Al Jazeera, whose coverage of U.S. policies and operations in Iraq has drawn loud complaints from U.S. officials, as a "positive development" that should be promoted rather than criticized. Washington should instead promote the expansion of the private media market in the Middle East to provide more voices and exchanges with U.S. journalism schools and media to "enhance the professionalism of Arab journalists," according to the report. It also notes that Washington's own broadcast initiatives, including al-Hurra, its Arabic satellite channel, and Radio Sawa have largely failed in their mission to affect Arab attitudes towards the U.S.

U.S. credibility in the region is also affected by the Arab-Israeli conflict, the report notes, arguing that renewed diplomatic engagement to achieve Israel's withdrawal from Gaza and adherence to the "Roadmap for Peace" "will help ameliorate Arab mistrust of U.S. intentions in the region."

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