For Arab democracy

November 12, 2003|By Robert O. Freedman and Mohamed E. Hamdi

ESTABLISHING A genuine democracy in the Middle East is essentially the responsibility of the Arab masses and Arab elites. But in the age of the global village, the West can and ought to help and support the drive for democracy in that part of the world.

In this context, despite the impassioned words of President Bush, who said Thursday that the United States would work to spread the "global democratic revolution" to the Arab world, democracy is not likely to come to the Arab world unless the United States matches its words with deeds.

To be sure, democratizing the Arab world will not be easy.

Whenever Western nations such as the United States urge democracy on the Arabs, Arab rulers, seeking to rally the support of their people, denounce such calls as "Western interference in their internal affairs" or "neocolonialism." Yet when the concept of democracy is broken down into its component parts, such as respect for human rights, freedom of the press and fair and free elections, it is much more difficult for authoritarian Arab leaders to oppose them.

As a start on the road map to democratization, both the United States and the European Union should make economic aid to the Arab world conditional on the establishment in recipient Arab countries of genuine freedom of the press. Such a policy would have four major advantages, because a free press:

Would limit the authoritarian nature of a regime.

Would mean that opposing corruption would not be left only to radical Islamists, who put it at the top of their political agenda.

Would mean multiple voices in the public arena - secular and Islamic - that could compete openly for the public's attention. Islamists would have a stake in the existing system.

Would inspire the creation of political parties, which often are focused around newspapers. Independent political parties would be another check on authoritarianism.

Both the Palestinian Authority, which has pledged to democratize as part of its commitment to the U.S.-engineered "road map" to an Israeli-Palestinian peace, and Iraq, which is under U.S. military control, would appear to be the best candidates to try conditioned U.S. and European Union financial aid. If the experiments there were successful, they would have a very positive demonstrative effect elsewhere in the Arab world.

The question is whether Mr. Bush, despite his verbal commitment to democratization, has the will to implement the concept. And does he have the diplomatic skill to coordinate the conditioning of aid with an EU that is increasingly unwilling to follow the U.S. lead in world affairs?

Nonetheless, Mr. Bush's failure to work for democratization in the Arab world could imperil the success of the other elements of his Middle East policy. That would be a tragedy, not only for the United States but also for the Middle East.

Finally, there is another vital factor for the success of this policy: The United States must stick to its democratic values even in times of crisis and must not opt for extraordinary measures that would enable authoritarian rulers to compare their treatment of dissent to the way the United States treats some issues that arose after 9/11.

Military courts, secret hearings, secret evidence and arresting people without charge and without presenting them to independent courts are the normal practices of a number of Arab governments. If they are able to argue that the U.S. government is doing the same, then the United States won't be in a position to lecture others on democracy.

Robert O. Freedman is a professor of political science at Baltimore Hebrew University. Mohamed Elhachmi Hamdi is the director of the London-based Arab TV network Al-Mustakillah.

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