Mideast democracy

February 04, 2005

THE POLITICAL map of the Middle East is not going to radically change any time soon, despite President Bush's goal of "ending tyranny in our world." The fact that Iraqis, a people braving a violent insurgency, and Palestinians, who are living under occupation, successfully held national elections recently is a testament to Iraqi fortitude and Palestinian resilience. But votes alone don't ensure democracy, liberty, freedom of expression or human rights. That's been shown throughout the Middle East.

Mr. Bush may believe that the expansion of freedom is in America's best interest. Ideally, that may be true. But realistically, democratic change could yield Middle East governments that hold views Americans would find undemocratic. In Kuwait, for example, an elected parliament refuses to give women the right to vote. Mr. Bush can urge American allies in the Mideast to initiate reforms, but he should acknowledge that the democracies that evolve won't resemble our own.

The Iraqi and Palestinian experiences offer a chance to gauge how these democratic experiments will unfold and their impact on U.S. interests. Palestinians are much further along on this track. They have elected a president twice now and a legislature. The late Yasser Arafat proved to be a tyrant who relied on Islamic militants to battle the Israelis. Newly elected President Mahmoud Abbas is proving to be a responsible leader engaged in the political and social struggles of his people. He is responding to voters' demands for government accountability, an end to the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian towns and progress in the stalled peace process - and getting results.

The winners in the Iraqi election face the formidable task of forming a transitional government to represent three distinct ethnic groups while the U.S. military remains entrenched in battles with Iraqi insurgents who claim more lives every day. Their successes should intensify demands for change. But their failures could solidify undemocratic regimes nearby.

Should the Iraqi and Palestinian elections make the autocrats, monarchs and mullahs ruling parts of the Mideast pause? Absolutely. Reforms implemented judiciously could quiet rebels. Oppressed reformers in Iran could benefit from a Shiite-dominated Iraq that values in practice a free press, human rights and personal freedom. But a new Iraqi government won't be in power for months.

The Bush administration, however, won't have to wait long to see if democratic sympathies are taking hold elsewhere. In his State of the Union speech Wednesday night, Mr. Bush made a point of calling on Egypt and Saudi Arabia "to show the way toward democracy in the Middle East." Beginning Thursday, Saudi Arabia will hold its first local elections in 45 years. Parliamentary elections are planned later this year in Lebanon and Egypt. All will serve as a barometer of the people's will and their governments' desire to accede to it. And it will be a test for Mr. Bush, who pledged not to ignore the oppressed or excuse their oppressors.

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