Arabs Skeptical About US Mideast Reform Initiative

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:14 PM EDT

( - A U.S. initiative to promote democracy and economic reform in the Middle East is not an attempt to impose change from outside, a senior American envoy has assured skeptical Arab governments, which want to keep the focus on Israel.

News of President Bush's Greater Middle East Initiative has drawn a strong response from leaders in a region where democracy is either absent or deficient. Opposition has come both from hostile regimes and those considered friendly to the U.S.

Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Marc Grossman has been holding meetings with leaders in Morocco and Egypt, and will also visit Jordan, Bahrain, Turkey and then Europe to discuss the initiative.

Visiting Morocco, Grossman said the U.S. would not impose change upon the Middle East, but would support anything liable to help realize reforms.

Bush first spoke about freedom-based reform to transform the Middle East during speeches in the U.S. and Britain last November.

Details of the initiative have not been released, but reports say the U.S. hopes the G8 industrialized nations will finance democratization, media freedom, judicial and economic reforms, and improvements in human rights and the status of women.

The U.S. would also like to see NATO involved, perhaps in developing security relationships with Mideast countries, the State Department indicated last week.

Washington is expected to seek support for the initiative at a G8 summit to be held in Georgia in June.

In Cairo, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher said after talks with Grossman that Arab countries would not allow others to dictate to them how they should reform, although he said he welcomed input from countries wanting to cooperate.

But he said reform in Arab countries would respond to Arab culture, needs, religion and heritage.

Earlier, Egypt put forward its own proposal calling for reform and modernization and circulated it among Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo, ahead of a full Arab League summit late this month.

The proposal, according to Egypt's official MENA news agency, said Arabs states were determined to "continue the process of modernization and reform."

But they wanted to avoid "anything which is not in line with the trends derived from the inherent culture, religious traditions and enlightened nationalism of our Arab societies," it said.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak warned Monday that any attempt to push rapid change would result in anarchy.

"Nobody imagines that we can press a button and freedoms will arrive," he said. "Otherwise it would lead the country to chaos, and that would be a danger to people."

Mubarak, 75, has been in power for almost 23 years, and is widely expected to run for a fifth six-year term in elections due next year. He has ruled since 1981 under emergency laws and, according to the State Department's latest assessment, "the government's human rights record remained poor [in 2003] and many serious problems remain."

Some analysts note that the autocratic style of government has enabled Mubarak to keep in check radical groups like the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, a group allied to al-Qaeda. Others argue that it is precisely the lack of political freedom and economic opportunities that lies behind the fact so many of Osama bin Laden's recruits are Egyptian.

Egypt is not alone among Mideast autocracies in resisting Western-style change.

Saudi Arabia, Syria, Sudan, Lebanon, Iran and Bahrain have all raised doubts or voiced outright opposition to the U.S. initiative.

"No regime would accept the implementation of reforms under external pressure or diktats from abroad," Syrian Information Minister Ahmad al-Hassan told the Arabic al-Hayat newspaper.

Iran's defense minister Ali Shamakhani suggested that the U.S. was using the slogan of spreading democracy as a pretext to threaten Iran, Syria and Lebanon in particular.

Morocco's King Mohammed VI told Grossman he would study the proposals, but insisted on the need to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.

What about Israel?

Other Arab nations have also sought to link democratic reform in the region to a resolution of the conflict with Israel, and Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa said the absence of the Arab-Israeli conflict raised doubts about the credibility of the U.S. initiative.

"Arabs rightly believe that the U.S.'s failure to press Israel to commit itself to peace, combined with popular anger at the U.S.'s unjustified war against Iraq, had undermined the Bush administration's standing throughout the Arab region, and it is quite normal to see them look with much suspicion at anything that comes from it," Syria's state-run Syria Times opined at the weekend.

A U.N.-commissioned document released in 2002, the Arab Human Development Report, warned that Arab societies were being hamstrung by lack of democratic freedom, the repression of women, and falling educational standards.

It raised questions about the region's focus on Israel.

"In most Arab states, occupation [by Israel of territory claimed by Arabs] dominates national policy priorities," said the report, compiled by Arab academics.

"It provides both a cause and an excuse for distorting the development agenda, disrupting national priorities and retarding political development."

Nonetheless, one of the authors of the U.N. report, Egyptian social scientist Nader Fergani, recently criticized the use of the report to back up the U.S. initiative.

Fergani wrote in the Al-Hayat newspaper last month that "any honest reading" of the U.N. report would show that it said "the Israeli occupation is the greatest obstacle to human development in Arab countries."

Israeli governments have long disputed the notion that the Arab-Israeli question is the core of the region's problems.

Numerous conflicts not involving Israel affected stability in the greater Middle East during the second half of the 20th century.

These include the Lebanese civil war and Syrian occupation of Lebanon; the jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and subsequent civil war; the conflict in Western Sahara; the 1970 "Black September" conflict between Jordan and the PLO; Indo-Pakistan wars over Kashmir; the Iranian uprising against the Shah; the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war; civil wars in Yemen, Sudan and Algeria; wars in Somalia and between Ethiopia and Eritrea; and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and 1991 Gulf War.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow