A dimmer view

April 14, 2005

In honoring the service and sacrifice of American soldiers in Iraq, President Bush used his address at Fort Hood this week to reiterate his greater objective in the region: a democratic Middle East. By the administration's measure, democracy is afoot there. "If we can start to change the most powerful country in the Middle East," Mr. Bush said of Iraq, "the others will follow." Mr. Bush's predictably positive view of democratic inclinations turns on the Iraqi elections and massive street protests in Lebanon that led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops. But a truer picture of the region emerges in the third annual U.N. Arab Human Development Report.

It's a reality check with a grim conclusion - rights and freedoms in the Arab world remain "poor." According to the Arab scholars, businessmen, activists, social scientists and journalists who authored the 2004 report, authoritarian regimes and a culture of tradition and tribalism (often in the guise of religion) are to blame. The threat of terrorist networks also provide Mideast governments with a handy excuse to restrict freedoms in the name of security, even more so since Mr. Bush's declared "war on terrorism." Many of these regimes rely too much on intelligence services and emergency laws to undermine citizen debate and protest. Some outlaw opposition parties; others require a less than independent judiciary. Whatever the means, the end - thwarting freedom - is never justified. Not if Arab citizens are to develop democracy on their terms.

And that's how it must be, for democracy to thrive across the Arab world, from Morocco to Oman, Syria to the Sudan. At the very least, opposing voices must be free to speak out, not silenced. As the report rightly points out, cracking down on opposition movements can drive them underground and radicalize them. Mr. Bush likes to talk about the impact the elections in Iraq have had across the region. But Algeria, Sudan, Yemen and the Palestinian territories are the only areas in which free presidential elections were held with more than one candidate. And none of these is a bastion of democracy.

There are signs of change: a new family law in Morocco should improve women's rights in marriage, divorce and child custody. Families of torture victims in Bahrain have spoken out about compensation. Syrian civic groups have sought an end to the decades long state of emergency. But the substantive, systemic changes necessary to revitalize citizen participation and transform governments won't come easily.

The United States and Europe must speak out on behalf of democracy movements, while privately pressing their allies in the region to ease restrictions on personal and political freedoms. They should push for educational reforms that encourage freedom of expression and ideas. And they should also insist on meaningful political reforms that will stimulate civic participation. Through a concerted effort, democracy can grow and mature in the slow, steady way of the lotus tree, a potent symbol in the Arab world.

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