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Abdullah Points the Way

It’s good to see that King Abdullah II of Jordan gets it. Now if only he’d share his insight with the Saudi and Egyptian autocrats. In an interview on CNN two weeks ago, Abdullah said that the January elections in the Palestinian territories and Iraq were part of a “process that the Middle East needs, and one that needs to be taken seriously.” He undoubtedly delighted the White House when he said the balloting will “help countries such as Jordan to be able to push the envelope” of democracy.

Jordan has a freewheeling parliament and appears positively enlightened compared with its Arab neighbors. But it ensures that the kingdom’s press toes the line, and even members of parliament know better than to criticize the monarchy too vociferously. Still, the king deserves credit for his announcement days before the Iraq election that he wants to decentralize political power by creating elected regional councils.

Abdullah and his relative openness contrast sharply with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who is floating the idea that he’ll run for a fifth term this year. He has maintained an iron grip on power since 1981, when he succeeded assassinated President Anwar Sadat. Mubarak’s government Monday jailed an opposition leader, Ayman Nour, who called for democratic elections in the country. Six years ago, Mubarak was alone on the presidential ballot and captured 94% of the vote.

Egyptian officials warn that full democracy could give power to Islamic fundamentalists who would rig elections once in power, or not hold them at all. But the government would be better off if it gradually opened the political process and encouraged public debate. The status quo only contributes to the radicalization of opponents.

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Mubarak is hosting an Israeli-Palestinian summit on Tuesday, and the Bush administration clearly values Egypt’s mediation. That doesn’t mean Cairo should be given a free pass on human rights, and the State Department was right to express concern about the arrest of Nour, founder of the Ghad party. Even more notably, President Bush, in his State of the Union address, challenged Egypt and Saudi Arabia to institute democratic reforms.

Saudi Arabia also is hearing voices of opposition, and is quick to oppress them. This week the country starts three months of elections for local councils that will advise municipal governments. The nonsensical refusal to let women vote will sharply vitiate what could have been a historic move toward representative government.

There is no reason to think the Middle East is exempt from the wave of political liberalization that has transformed Eastern Europe and much of the rest of the world. Rulers hate to give up power, but they should understand they’re better off riding this wave than letting it crash over their heads. The alternative to gradual democratization is certainly not today’s status quo.


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