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A club to foster Middle East reform

By Rouzbeh Pirouz. Source: Financial Times, 16 February 2005

The heartening spectacle of millions of Iraqis defying violence to go to the ballot box recalls similar scenes in Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories.

Voters in these places have disproved the cynical prediction that free elections in the Middle East would bring to power anti-western and extremist leaders.

Hamid Karzai, who is closely allied with the US, received a strong mandate as president in Afghanistan; Mahmoud Abbas was elected leader of the Palestinian Authority despite, or perhaps because of, his perceived moderation; and in Iraq even the campaigns of the religious parties struck a restrained note.

The winning Shia United Iraqi Alliance is committed to forging national unity and bringing Sunni Muslims into the political process. When given the chance, the peoples of the Middle East are eager to prove wrong those arguing that Islam and democracy are incompatible and to fulfil their aspirations to freedom and self-rule.

Western nations have so far dismally failed to support them. US-led coalitions resorted to regime change to deal with threatening governments in Afghanistan and Iraq, but they are quiet on, and even acquiescent to, authoritarianism and corruption in the rest of the region.

The red-carpet reception given to Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, in London in December reminds us of the double standards at play. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001, the US and Britain have declared Pakistan a valued ally, lending their tacit sanction to Mr Musharraf's monopoly on power.

Strategic imperatives - namely preventing the emergence of a fundamentalist, nuclear-armed alternative government to Mr Musharraf's in Pakistan - are held to outweigh more enlightened ones. But even in the short term the argument is flawed. Compare Pakistan with Turkey. Both are predominantly Sunni Muslim states on the fringes of the Middle East. Both have fiercely secular and politically powerful militaries and both are allies in the "war on terror".

Yet the west has not used its influence to promote democratic reform in Pakistan, with serious consequences for the country's stability. By accepting Mr Musharraf unconditionally, the west won his co-operation in the invasion of Afghanistan and the hunt for Osama bin Laden. But popular outrage strengthened support for extremists and fuelled the civil troubles.

The decision of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, to stand firm against US pressure for access rights in the invasion, meanwhile, was a setback for Washington but won Mr Erdogan the respect of voters and strengthened the democratic consensus in Turkey.

Refusing to put democracy first for fear of bringing anti-western governments to power is short-sighted. Domestic legitimacy frees states from the "with us" or "against us" labels. Again, look at Turkey: a friend of the US and Israel while critical of some of their policies; a secular ally of the European Union while maintaining an Islamic identity. Turkey is also a striking example of the potential of club membership as an incentive for reform. The prospect of European integration has been a force for political change, helping to entrench Turkey's political pluralism and allowing moderate Islamic groups into power.

The EU should offer similar incentives for change in Syria, Egypt and Lebanon. Middle Eastern accession to the EU is not a serious proposal but Europe could initiate a new club of reform-minded states, with a clear institutional identity and attractive economic benefits - a sort of "EU-lite".

Membership of the club must first offer tangible incentives - and not just to pliant leaders - in return for political change. Bringing together the benefits offered to North African and Middle Eastern states under the EU's Barcelona process would achieve this. Their aid, trade and travel advantages would give significant leverage. Europe donates some Euros 1bn (Dollars 1.3bn) a year to the Middle East and North Africa in non-military aid alone and another Euros 2bn in soft loans.

Second, the club would need an effective compliance mechanism. Under the EU-lite's constitution, states breaking membership conditions - which would include progress towards free elections and devolution of power to a legislative parliament - would have privileges rescinded. Compliance would be monitored by a board that could include a new EU foreign minister and the European Commission president.

Committing to democratic governance means accepting that there is no single model for democracy and that Islamic groups can become positive forces in a healthy democratic process. If the EU is serious about becoming the foremost global champion of democracy, it must engage with the peoples and leaders of the Middle East, to reverse the decades-long failure to harness their aspirations to democracy and justice.

Rouzbeh Pirouz is a senior partner at Pelican Partners and chairman of the Civility Programme for Middle East reform at the Foreign Policy Centre