Bush Fires Up Mideast Reform

Neil Hicks is director of international programs for Human Rights First.

Reformers in the Middle East are caught in a tight bind. On principle, they oppose the highhandedness of U.S. policy in the region. But they have to admit it’s had some positive effects.

Not only has President Bush gotten rid of Saddam Hussein, the region’s most brutal dictator, but his relentless promotion of democracy in the Middle East has also turned up the heat on other regional autocrats and jump-started the reform debate. These days, no Arab government can afford to simply quash increasingly persistent and widespread demands for reform.

Ibrahim Eissa, a young Egyptian satirical novelist, was one of the first to have broken what is almost a public taboo in Egypt and the Arab world: He spoke well of Bush at a conference on reform in the Middle East. Eissa is no enthusiast for U.S. policy. He was willing, though, to state a truth that few liberals in the West or in the Arab world will acknowledge: “Every Arab government is hoping for the defeat of George Bush.” Authoritarian Arab leaders, he noted, would love to see a return to the pre-9/11 days when the U.S. turned a blind eye to the undemocratic practices of its regional allies.


But failing that, governments are having to pay heed to reformers. Take the case of Egypt. After decades of simply dismissing calls by nongovernmental organizations for change in government policies, President Hosni Mubarak in March addressed a major conference on Arab reform convened by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria. His speech was not revolutionary, but he did embrace reform as long as it was not in response to foreign pressure and was at a pace suited to Egypt. Since Alexandria, there has been a flurry of conferences on reform in the Arab world, including a summit meeting of the Arab League. All have endorsed change, though with varying timelines.

Some, like the more cautious agenda proposed in the Alexandria conference’s declaration, emphasize that political reform “should not be at the expense of pressing regional issues,” such as the Palestinian cause. This is a convenient formulation ensuring that change can be postponed indefinitely on the pretext that there are other, more pressing issues to attend to. But not all the conferences have taken such a guarded stand. The Doha Declaration for Democracy and Reform issued in June states boldly: “Hiding behind the necessity to resolve the Palestinian question before implementing political reform is obstructive and unacceptable.”

At a conference held in June at the Ibn Khaldoun Center for Social Development Studies in Cairo, activists went so far as to reject “rule by a royal family” and spoke of the need to shake off “50 years of dictatorship.” They called for an end to the Mubarak regime when the president’s current term ends in 2005 and for a very different kind of presidency to follow. They laid responsibility for the region’s problems firmly at the feet of “authoritarian regimes which led in turn to the emergence of extremists and fanatics.” The conference was significant not only because it was tolerated by the government but because it marked the first anniversary of the center’s reopening after its founder, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, was released from prison and acquitted of charges of “defaming Egypt’s reputation abroad” for his work promoting democracy and minority rights. Some of the credit for the shift must go to Bush. Since Sept. 11, Middle Eastern heads of state have found that a visit to Washington can be a bit unsettling -- nothing like the back-slapping affairs that used to take place during the Cold War. Ever since President Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David accords in 1978, the Egyptian head of state has made an annual pilgrimage to White House, where he has been greeted warmly. But this year, Bush wanted to talk about more than the nearly $2 billion in aid the U.S. provides Egypt. He warned Mubarak that Egypt’s ability to deliver on promises of reform was a national security concern of the U.S.

And when Tunisian President Zine el Abidine ben Ali called on Bush in February, he received a public dressing-down for his lack of initiative on democracy and human rights. “I look forward to talking to you about the need to have a press corps that is vibrant and free, as well as an open political process. There’s a lot we can talk about,” Bush told Ben Ali in front of a group of reporters.

Despite the faults one might find with the Bush administration’s policy toward the region -- and Arabs find many in his perceived blind support for the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon -- the president deserves credit for having broken through the permafrost of entrenched authoritarian Arab governments. He has gotten their attention. Of course, he alone cannot be credited with this achievement, as each country is also responding to internal dynamics. But it is hard to deny that Bush’s insistence on reform has contributed to what Mohamed Fayeq, the secretary-general of the Arab Organization for Human Rights, referred to as a “historic juncture.”

The new, more vigorous debate in Arab countries is focused not only on governments but also on religion. The Ibn Khaldoun conference, for example, spent an entire session debating reform within Islam. Sadiq al-Mahdi, the former prime minister of Sudan, stated unequivocally his view that “there is a culture within Islam that has a built-in bias toward dictatorship, fanaticism and against women’s rights. This culture must be rooted out.” The novelist Seyyed al-Qemni condemned authorities who had banned one of his recent books, but he also acknowledged the stirrings of change. “Before Sept. 11, 2001,” he said, “those of us who dared to talk about Islamic reform were dubbed as heretics.” Now he was speaking openly about the subject in a public forum.

The positive signs of greater freedoms, of which the Ibn Khaldoun Center conference was just one example, are as yet small green shoots of hope in what remains stony soil for reform. Having helped to create a crack in the oppressive edifice of the Egyptian state and elsewhere in the Middle East, there are limits to what the U.S. and the West can do to promote further change. U.S. intervention in the reform debate finds few public friends, and naturally the major responsibility for shaping Egypt’s future rests with the Egyptians. Nevertheless, the experience of the last few years has shown that what the U.S. president says about freedom and human rights makes a difference.

For this reason, reformers in the Arab world are watching the U.S. presidential elections unusually closely. In a speech last November, Bush noted how “60 years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe -- because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty.” Arab reformers are hoping that, whoever wins in November, the U.S. will continue to make clear to authoritarian governments in the Middle East that repression is no longer an acceptable way to govern.