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After Abu Ghraib

Article by Rob Blackhurst

September 15, 2006

Though Egypt’s President Mubarak ridiculed the State Department’s Middle East Plan as “push-button democracy” that would “open the door to chaos”, and this year´s Arab League collapsed for daring to mention democracy in the mildest form, leaders that are bellicose in public are presiding over quiet reform. Despite Mubarak´s anger, he has freed the press by suspending jail terms for libel, and has even suggested that political parties will be legalised. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and others are reportedly preparing an Arab declaration to “spur individuals through participation” – shorthand for granting more political rights. Even in Saudi Arabia, it has been described as the “year of the petitions”, such is the increased pitch in lobbies to the King. Some Commentators have claimed that change is fomenting on a scale unheard of since the 1950s.

But at the same time as these home-grown trends, US politicians espousing a democratic revolution have never been more distrusted. The dilemma for President Bush is stark: how can he hope to promote democracy when (even before the war) only 11% of the people in the region trust him? Won’t any policy championed by the West become tarred with accusations of imperialism and backfire? Ironically, the Bush White House has made considerable progress on previous US administrations in correctly diagnosing the ills of the Middle East, even if their chosen course of treatment has prevented them from alleviating the symptoms. They rightly saw that the marginalization of young Arabs from the economic growth and political liberalization shared by the rest of the world was breeding terrorism. According to the UN´s 2002 Arab Human Development Report, 51% of Arab youths say they want to emigrate, and the Arab League have predicted that in ten years there unemployment will rise by more than 300%.

Despite Bush´s unpopularity and the universal cynicism about Western foreign policy, many young people see Western societies as attractive and full of opportunity. The USA, Japan, Egypt, UK and France were named by Young Arabs as the country’s they value most highly after their own – four of them among the world’s five largest economies. And almost 80% of Iranians were in favour of restoring ties with the United States even though less than 5% regard the US as friendly. Instead of preaching about abstract values, there is a whole range of services that the West could offer which would be promote reform and be appreciated in the region. An EU/US initiative to distribute tens of thousands of personal computers free of charge to Arabs under 25 could, for instance, improve the reputation of the West and kick-start some of the entrepreneurialism needed to promote growth. Though Arabs represent 5% of the world’s population, they make up only 0.5% of its internet users.

Education was described by the Arab Human Development Report as the Middle East’s “Achilles heel”. Funding should therefore be made available for free English lessons, Western government could give special incentives for American or European countries to invest in the region, and a regional venture capital fund could promote entrepreneurship and business development. But economic progress won’t be enough if the humiliation felt in the Arab world through political impotence is not addressed. The frustrations of living in a region where autocratic rule is aggravated by a feeling that Arabs are subservient to US interests. The grainy image of an Arab man at the end of a leash held by an American soldier corresponds powerfully to the perception that the region as a whole is tied to a leash that leads all the way to the Pentagon. And given the patronizing and righteous way in which we have communicated with the Arab world for so long, it is hardly surprising that this view is so widely held.

Iraq’s transition to democracy has been compared by the Bush administration to a child riding a bike who one day needs to take the stabilizers off, and any group opposed to the occupation have been branded as “jihadists” and “terrorists”. Though this might play well for Bush in his re-election campaign, lumping them all together dilutes the gravity of the term and makes it more difficult to resolve complex problems with the sensitivity required. There needs to be a change in language, and more of an effort to communicate seriously with Arab public opinion. Though the West pays lip-service to “dialogue” in the Middle East, the language of condemnation has been far more prevalent. The recent imposition of further US sanctions is hardly going to aid the forces of reform. Instead of proselytizing about the glories of the West, it would be better to discuss issues of mutual concern, such as development, and not just hold up the West as providing a model. It would be useful if successful societies in the region – like Malaysia, Bahrain, Dubai and Qatar, were used to discuss issues like educational reform.

Above all, the West needs to be seen as respecting the right of free speech even if it hurts. The closure of demagogic cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr’s newspaper on the grounds that it “incited violence” succeeded both in increasing his influence and deepening cynicism about US motives. It would help dispel these impressions if the EU, with less of a propagandist reputation than the US, were to fund internet access for schools and libraries in the region. Allowing democracy and free speech free rein in the Middle East is not without its risks in the short-term. But it is the only approach that has a change of success.

Rob Blackhurst is Editorial Director at the Foreign Policy Centre.

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