Arabian Rights

The White House is “scaling back” its Middle East democracy initiatives. Will anyone notice?

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On Sunday, the New York Times reported that the Bush administration would slow down its attempts to advance democracy in the Arab World. To many readers, this might look like a radical change in the president’s foreign policy. But on the contrary, the announcement was in fact only the climax of the White House’s long, steady drift away from the promotion democracy and reform in the Middle East. For all Bush’s bold rhetoric about “freedom on the march,” the region has not seen much in the way of results lately, and Bush has not done much about it.

When the Greater Middle East Initiative was released way back in March, many Arab leaders denounced it outright. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak declared any attempt to impose reform “delusional.” Syria’s Vice President, Abdel Halim Khaddam, said that the Initiative was “reminiscent of the situation after World War One, when major powers sought to care up the region.” Since then the United States has continually tried to scale back the initiative, focusing more on social and economic reforms than on real political change. But the watered-down version has not accomplished very much: Tamara Cofman Wittes, a research fellow at Brookings, has observed that the president’s development initiatives take a “scatter-shot approach to promoting reform” and “reveal the deep ambivalence with which the president’s forward strategy of freedom is being implemented”.

Arabs themselves find this a pretty congenial state of affairs. According to a recent Zogby poll, Arabs in Jordan, Morocco, Saudia Arabia, UAE, and Lebanon rated “improving quality of life” more important than “political reform”. The vast majority of respondents also insisted that U.S. help in promoting democracy would be unhelpful. On the other hand, however, simply tinkering with the economic and social state of affairs in the Arab World may not be enough to induce drastic change. As Steven Cook, a fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, told the Times: “What is missing is not technical and financial know-how, it is the political will to reform.” Most experts observe that Arab despots have a less-than-noble interest in keeping the U.S. out of the region, and that without some sort of American involvement, the prospects for democratic reform are dim.

So how has the Bush administration fared on this front? It’s worth looking back at the last year, in the months since the White House announced its Greater Middle East Initiative, to see how far the Arab World has come along on the path to reform, and how far it has yet to travel.

Perhaps the most troubling news is that Saudia Arabia has become even more reactionary of late, after a banner year for reform in 2003. That year marked, most significantly, the government’s announcement that it would finally hold municipal elections in early 2005. Other developments included: women began signing reform petitions; the government held a second National Dialogue, with participants from different religious and intellectual schools; an international human rights conference was held in Riyadh; and Prince Sultan Abdulaziz, the defense minister, told the Shura Council that the municipal elections “will be the beginning of the Saudi citizens’ participation in the system.”

This year, however, the momentum towards reform has stalled, or even reversed. In March, a dozen political activists were arrested. In August, the nation’s first ever public trial for dissidents began, as three of those arrested reformists took the stand, after refusing to sign “no-protest” oaths. In September, the Council of Ministers decreed that it would henceforth be illegal for government employees to sign petitions, or to speak critically of the government. Some analysts have suggested that the rise in oil prices may allow the Saudi regime to quell unrest in the kingdom through better services, rather than through political reform. At this point, real change seems unlikely, even though the municipal elections will take place as scheduled in January and February. Khalid Al-Dakhil, an assistant professor of sociology at King Saud University in Riyadh, notes that the government “has not yet laid out a vision for reform, the goals it will achieve, or how it will be implemented.”

Egypt, another staunch American ally, has also showed little movement towards reform in the months since the GMEI was made public. In July, the marginalization of the country’s opposition parties was highlighted when the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and its affiliates won 87 of 88 contested seats in the Shura Council elections. After an outcry from opposition leaders (and perhaps some pressure from the United States), Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, finally agreed to hold a conference on reform in September. Although the NDP considered several reforms — including proportional representation, ending criminal penalties for breaking press laws, and giving the parliament actual legislative powers — nothing came of it. To Mubarak’s credit, this was the first time these taboo subjects had even been breached. Still, opposition leaders demanded more, including term limits on the presidency, direct elections, and an end to the state of emergency that’s been in place since Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981.

As with Saudi Arabia, the ruling party has shown that they will at least consider reforms — Mubarak has even said he would “spread the culture of democracy” — but many reformists are frustrated with the NDP’s dallying and prevaricating. The Egyptian weekly Al-Ahram recently reported that opposition leaders will press for more drastic changes when they meet with the NDP next month; they have already publicly denounced Egypt’s Interior Ministry for twice rejecting the opposition’s right to rally in downtown Cairo. Perhaps most encouragingly, the American ambassador to Egypt, David Welch, recently met with the opposition parties to discuss politics — a crucial step towards real reform. Nevertheless, without a more forceful impetus for change, the status quo could easily persist in Egypt indefinitely.

Other Arab countries have offered mixed signals, and some are taking cautious steps towards liberalization. In Jordan — perhaps the most liberal of Arab countries — Prime Minister Faisal Al Fayez recently called for reform of the country’s political parties, and the country recently entered an “economic dialogue” with the EU, to discuss political changes. (It should be noted, though, that these EU dialogues usually amount to very little.) Yet Jordan still has a long way to go. In June, for instance, the lower house rejected amendments to the country’s “personal status law”. Islamists, conservatives, and tribal members of parliament rejected expanded rights for women — including the right to divorce and a codified marriage age — on the grounds that they would “encourage moral disintegration [and] tear down family values.”

Bahrain, another relatively liberal country, has taken similarly wavering steps towards democracy. In March, four opposition groups voiced their objections to the 2002 Constitution, on the grounds that it had been decreed by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, rather than written by a representative legislature. Last year, the King hinted that he would not oppose the idea of legalizing political parties, but would leave a final decision up to the legislature. Unfortunately, in March, Bahrain’s parliament rejected the proposal, and further attempts at reform have largely stalled.

Other countries, meanwhile, are not moving towards democracy at all. In Syria, there was some hope for reform when Bashar al-Assad ascended the throne in 2000 and started appointing reform-minded advisors to various positions in his Cabinet. But in late 2001, the government arrested two reformist Parliamentarians, and the executive branch now appears unlikely to relinquish its monopoly on power anytime soon. At present, the Syrian government regularly rejects American calls for democratic reform in the Middle East.

It appears, then, that for all its bold rhetoric about “Transforming the Middle East,” the Bush administration has not pushed the Arab World very far down the path towards to democracy. (Iraq’s fate, obviously, is still up in the air.) As Marina Ottaway and Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment write, the irony here is that the Bush administration has managed to anger Arab leaders while not producing much in the way of actual change. But Ottaway and Carothers also note that it doesn’t have to be this way. The biggest obstacles to change, at the moment, include the White House’s refusal to negotiate regional security assurances, and its even more prominent refusal to discuss the Arab-Israeli peace process with Arab leaders. There may yet be a better way forward — but the White House would need to get serious about pursuing real reform in the Middle East.


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