Democratization as hypocrisy

By Fawaz A. Gerges, The Daily Star, 7 July 2003

With US President George W. Bush vowing to bring democracy to Iraq and the Middle East, Arab governments have begun professing a willingness to play along. Kings, emirs and dictators alike suddenly appear to have discovered the value of human rights and civil society and are trumpeting initiatives to promote them. The problem is that there is a huge gap between the rhetoric used and the reality of how Arab regimes respond to peaceful dissidence and to opposition groups. For every democratic or democratizing action, there's an authoritarian reaction.

In Morocco, King Mohammed VI has been trying to shed his country's autocratic image and embrace democracy. Yet a court recently imprisoned a journalist for daring to criticize the monarch. In Saudi Arabia, the royal family said it would confront religious hard-liners and open up the political system after terrorist bombings in May that killed 34 people. Yet two weeks later the Saudi government ordered the dismissal of Jamal Khashoggi, the editor in chief of the daily newspaper Al-Watan, after he published articles criticizing the clergy for propagating extremism. His dismissal revealed that the royal family was more interested in appeasing the conservative religious establishment than in engaging in genuine reform.

In Jordan, King Abdullah II, who dissolved Parliament in 2001, organized legislative elections in June. However, a court barred Toujan Faisal, a democracy advocate and the only woman who had ever won a seat in the Parliament, from running. It ruled that she was disqualified because she was convicted last year for insulting the dignity of the state by exposing government corruption. In Egypt, the ruling party has proposed democratic reforms that include the establishment of a new National Council for Human Rights and the abolition of state security courts and hard-labor sentences. At first glance the moves appear promising, but they are deceptive. By establishing its own human rights council, the government is seeking a way to force out existing independent human rights organizations.

These groups often complain of intimidation by the Egyptian authorities. Some human rights advocates have spent time in prison. It took three years of American and European pressure to free democracy activist Saadeddin Ibrahim, who was arrested in 2000 and sentenced to seven years with hard labor for daring to monitor parliamentary elections. Egypt would be more convincing in its talk of democracy if it abolished the emergency laws in effect since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Using these laws, the authorities have arrested dissidents under the pretext that they were endangering public peace and impoverishing intellectual and political life. This is not to say that the gap between rhetoric and actions is any smaller in countries that aren't US allies.

Syrian President Bashar Assad has promised political and economic liberalization. However, last year 10 people, including two members of Parliament, received 3 to 10-year sentences for advocating wider political freedoms and criticizing the authorities. It's clear that people in the Middle East want democracy. Thousands of courageous people, Christians and Muslims alike, have paid dearly for speaking out against state oppression and religious fanaticism and for demanding political enfranchisement. These democrats hold the key to Arab world's future and deserve America's support. It's also clear that Arab autocrats—even those who gratify the West with democratic language—won't do anything unless they're pushed. Shamefully, Bush and his senior aides spent most of their meetings last month with the leaders of Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia pressing them to fight terrorism.

What they should have been talking about was the importance of promoting democracy and reform. Washington's emphasis on terrorism sends the wrong message, reinforcing the widely held perception that the US uses democracy in the Arab world as a whip to punish its enemies, while conducting business as usual with its autocratic allies. If this indeed the US approach it is shortsighted. If the US wants to end terrorism, it needs to understand that democracy and respect for human rights and the rule of law are the most effective ways of undermining extremism. Change will come about only when the US begins exerting pressure on its allies, not just its foes.