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Arab reform and the West

Dialogue no. 3, June 2005, between Danielle Pletka and Mustafa Hamarneh


Pletka: No small amount of ink has been dedicated to the idea of democracy in the Arab world. President Bush has made it a centerpiece of his foreign policy; the Group of Eight has embraced the Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative dedicated to furthering political and economic change in the region. For their part, reformers, opposition parties and others in the Middle East have seized the opportunity to challenge the status quo.

But surprisingly little has been done to define this grand agenda, to shape what could be the centerpiece of a new century.

In fact, "democracy" has been ill-defined by its proponents. Worse, the idea has been corrupted by its opponents. Dictators, autocrats and tyrants throughout the region have successfully portrayed efforts by the United States and Europe to promote reform as something else, something sinister. Democracy has come to mean everything but liberty; instead it includes relations with Israel, relations with the West, values, religion.

It is incumbent upon those within the region and those outside who support them to more aggressively define the framework for change. After all, at a certain moment, isn't it appropriate to question what the 300 million people of the Middle East and North Africa want?

What they need is political and economic reform. What they want is hope for a better future, security, accountability, jobs, quality education, opportunity. In much of the region, and even in the most prosperous nations, these staples of a decent life are missing. Can the reforms necessary be generated from within? Yes and no. In the first instance, it is clear that the engine of reform must come from within the Arab world. But it is demonstrably false to assert that such change can come without outside pressure. Half a century without progress toward democratic and economic change is proof enough.

The West must hold open the door. The ideas, initiatives and energy that flow through must come from the people of the region.

Hamarneh: In history, periodization is important: it's not totally accurate to assume that the era of Arab collective action in support of democracy and reform begins with President Bush’s public declarations after the events of September 11. One of the reasons for what appears to be lack of Arab public acceptance of American “pro-democracy” declarations so far is the fact that the United States of America lacks credibility in the region. Generally speaking, poll after poll shows that only a minority of the public in the region believes that the United States is interested in promoting democracy here.

The majority in the region, like elsewhere, wants better and cleaner governments, more effective parliaments, more freedoms for an independent and critical media, and of course better quality of life in general. So far, the majority in the Arab countries, where the process of political liberalization started in the late 1980s and early 1990s, feels that the process has been neither deep enough nor wide enough, and the situation can be described as at a standstill. Because the regimes are not very democratic in their structure, the elites within these state systems do not implement policies that advance the process of reform. And, unfortunately, the thrust of the political actions of the elites outside the state systems has not been to promote a democratic agenda.

It is a combination of foreign factors--not only the US, but also Europe and the global implications of the entire WTO structure--that becomes crucial in advancing reform and democratization in the Arab world. It is organizations, institutions, and activists on both sides, Arabs and the US, who share the same values that will form an alliance to push the reform agenda forward.

The United States of America with its policies on the ground in the region can only cause harm to the process of reform.

Pletka: You put forward several important arguments--important less because they are substantive reasons for the United States to absent itself from the evolution of the Middle East, more because they are so commonly heard in the region.

In summary:

  • People in the Middle East think the United States lacks credibility as a promoter of democracy.
  • The political liberalization that began in the 1980s and 1990s in the region is desirable to the people, but remains at a standstill because neither the state nor the elites are committed to reform.
  • The United States, Europe and the engines of globalism (WTO) are “crucial in advancing reform”; we, working with those in the region, can form an alliance to advance a reform agenda.
  • The United States has “policies” that are detrimental to the cause of reform.

The suggestion that the United States lacks credibility with reformers is a fair one. After all, the last half century has been characterized by a search for “stability” and policies that perpetuate the status quo. In addition, the United States has expressed devout wishes for reform in the past (most notably in 1991), and failed to follow through. That said, it would be the height of foolishness on the part of regional reformers to spurn the support of the world’s only superpower. Test America. Be cautious with America. But don’t cut off your nose to spite your face.

In addition, we must recognize that there is a gap that must be bridged. Reformers in the region can’t succeed on their own, but are desperate for change.

International institutions can be part of that change, but neither the United Nations, the WTO, nor any other international body has a mind of its own. These organizations are made up of nation-states that create and drive policy initiatives. And the most important driver in most of them is…the United States. Finally, the time has come to jettison the silly rhetoric of the 1960s. The United States has worked to build credibility in the region. Leaders have spoken out on behalf of Iraqis, Lebanese, Egyptians, Bahrainis, Saudis and Palestinians working for a better life. America is beginning to use its influence constructively. Let’s renew our shared faith that the people of the Arab world are committed to change; together we can make it happen.

Hamarneh: I think that you misunderstood my remarks. I was not being “foolish” to "spurn the support" of the world's only superpower. On the contrary, the general sense among reformers in the region is that outsiders can be of great help.

This is not particular to the region. In Europe, for example, in the 1970s, outside help--especially European intervention--was very instrumental in the early stages of transition in both Portugal and Spain. Furthermore, there is the Eastern European model of the 1990s. And the incentive to join the European Union has had a positive impact on Turkey's domestic structures. The problem is not with the regional reformers as much as with American actions. The success of American and European intervention in the aforementioned areas is due to the fact that outside forces formed alliances with social and political groups to effect change. The US thus far has not sought to build such an alliance in the Middle East region. Take Iraq as an example: the entire war alliance was predicated on the US choosing a handful of individuals of varying credibility who lived outside Iraq.

Surveys in the region show that the majority does not reject the declared goals of United States policies toward the region. Rather, it is US actions in the region that are contributing to the existing situation of animosity. No amount of public relations or declarations, "even strong ones", by American officials can turn around anti-American sentiment in the region.

The Arab world is not a closed region. By being more sensitive to the history, culture and needs of the majority, the US can in effect begin building bridges with reformers. Action on the Arab-Israel conflict, i.e., a more evenhanded approach, would be the most adequate and rewarding realm or area to start with. Meanwhile, as a result of American policies, liberals, democrats, and reform-minded individuals in the region find it both politically and morally difficult to openly embrace modern universal values for fear of being associated with American policy by the dominant political and cultural currents in Arab societies.

Pletka: Allow me to turn to another topic and seek your opinion.

In the last word department, I am stunned to hear that would-be liberals associate liberalism with the United States and are thus afraid to appear… liberal. This is manifestly untrue, and thousands of liters of ink spilled in Arabic papers on the question of reform and democracy, not to speak of numerous regional conferences and vibrant democracy movements in places like Lebanon should provide proof positive of that fact. Enough said.

On another topic entirely, but one that I trust will pique your interest, we at the American Enterprise Institute (and I trust at many other such research institutions) are in the throes of a debate about the role of Islamic parties in the Middle East. Should such parties be part and parcel of the push for pluralism? Should there be any disqualifying factors (for example, a platform denying women the right to vote)?

A colleague of mine at AEI, Reuel Marc Gerecht, the author of a monograph entitled “The Islamic Paradox”, argues that far from sources of intolerance, religious leaders and their political parties can be the key to opening political systems. He points to Shi'ite Ayatollah Ali Sistani and the role he has played in pressing for democracy in Iraq and against the corrupting role of velayat e faqih in Iran.

I am not entirely persuaded I agree with him, but am interested in the arguments. Are most Islamist parties of the “one man, one vote, one time” variety, liable to exploit political opening to impose their own brand of dictatorship? Surely we should be able to judge and to take chances.

Hamarneh: The Arab world is not one monolithic entity. The domestic scene changes from one region to another, and in some instances the differences are quite fundamental. A brief comparative glimpse of the Lebanese scene and the Saudi scene, or the Jordanian and Algerian scenes, can easily illustrate the discrepancies.

There are definitely Islamic parties that are fully engaged in the political, social and cultural debates throughout the Arab world, but the level of engagement is really determined by the varying domestic scenes, with foreign intervention a complicating factor. Mainstream Muslim Brotherhood organizations do not enjoy the same treatment or status everywhere. They occasionally act as moderating forces within civil society, ready to engage politically when the conditions allow it. Jordan is an example of such a scenario. Another is Iraq, where recently we have not only the Muslim Brotherhood, but other political groups as well, and as you rightly maintained, the constructive role Ayatollah Ali Sistani has been playing since the occupation.

It is essential that political organizations including Islamists agree to the basic concept of rotation of power. Equally important is for the players to agree on legislation that calls for cultural pluralism, tolerance and gender equality. Here, reformers within the region believe that outside allies can be of crucial help. Unfortunately, the gap between US action and attitude is a complicating factor, especially in relation to Muslim groups like Hizballah in Lebanon and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine. These organizations are considered terrorist by the US and some of its allies, while the majorities not only of the people of Lebanon and Palestine but the region as a whole do not share the US categorization.

The use of violence by these organizations, although morally debatable, is a collective reaction to foreign interference and occupation. I believe if we address the core issue, the transformation of these organizations into full-fledged political parties is possible.

To conclude, the discussion and debate about how to widen and deepen reform in each Arab country should continue. Outside pressure on the regimes can help. The strength of the non-religious currents in the region is one of the best guarantees for erecting the edifice of pluralism. Unfortunately, some of our western colleagues for the most part are ideologically driven, while we are reform driven.

Pletka: I am thrilled to hear that Mustafa Hamarneh and his pro-democracy compatriots in the Arab world are “reform driven”, not “ideologically driven”. This is an important transition from the sad days of the past, when Arab intellectual thought was divided between derivatives--derivative of the Soviet Marxist ideology or derivative of the fascist totalitarian ideology. (Bernard Lewis has written brilliantly about the problem.)

Indeed, it is absolutely right for Arabs to look for new ideas. A new Middle East won’t look like America and it won’t look like Europe. Whatever shape it does take must be based on rule of law, acceptance of “cultural pluralism, tolerance and gender equality” and, the sine qua non, an end to terrorism.

I am a little bit disappointed not to have received a bolder answer to the question of the role of Islamist parties in the new politics of the Middle East. I recognize that it is a tough question, but we must understand that these parties do not respect “cultural pluralism, tolerance and gender equality”, at least not as we would define it. If that disqualifies them from participating in Arab politics (though, of course, there will be differences from nation to nation), then it is clear that Islamist parties can have no role. It’s not a simple problem, and to my mind the answer must come from the region.

As to the role of Hizballah et al, I think we are going to have to agree to disagree. The position of the United States government has been clear, and it is one that I support. At the end of the day, what we all want to see is a political party base in each Arab nation (not to speak of Iran) that provides real choices to the Arab people. Right now, the prevailing choice (in most Arab nations) between ruling party and Islamist extremist opposition does a terrible injustice to all.

Hamarneh: The complex issue of reform tops the domestic agenda in almost all Arab societies today. This in itself is a very significant development. However, the public debates on the various issues unified under the theme of reform have thus far not been enriching.

Take Jordan, for example. For the past few years a small group of mostly young ministers has been implementing liberal economic policies that were applauded by the World Bank, IMF, and donor countries. But they have been widely criticized by an important segment of political society. The criticism is centered around the fact that the majority of the population has not felt any positive impact on its quality of life, and that economic liberalization has not been matched by a process of political liberalization. The very boisterous public debate is at times loaded with personal animosities and accusations of caving in to foreign influence, and claims that ultimately this process of reform will lead to the dismemberment of the state itself.

Some of the most damaging criticisms levied at the neo-liberals have come from parties who are themselves leading pro-democracy activists in the country. The neo-liberals’ inability to widen and deepen the process of democratization, coupled with the popular perception that they openly embrace unpopular American policies in the region, has limited their ability to mobilize the embryonic, progressive political forces in support of a genuine process of reform.

Hence the neo-liberals in power must democratize the system, the pro-democracy activists must not throw the baby out with the bathwater, and America must be more evenhanded with the region. If these three conditions are met, we can look forward to a healthier debate on reform and ultimately the implantation of a process of political and economic reform that addresses local needs.

Danielle Pletka is vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC. Mustafa Hamarneh is director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan.