US Backs Away From Arab Political Reform

CAIRO – After a year of tough talk from U.S. policymakers about the inevitable “democratization” of the Middle East, Washington appears to be backtracking, along with its Arab friends in the region.

With the reelection of U.S. President George W. Bush and his hardline administration, a shift appears to have taken place in U.S. strategic thinking in accordance with which economic, not political, reform is to be given precedence.

“After the reelection of Bush to the presidency, there’s been a retreat away from the idea of bringing democracy to the region,” says Hefez Abu Seada, general secretary of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), a non-governmental agency based in Cairo.

In February last year, the United States introduced its Greater Middle East Initiative (GMEI), which aimed to compel the region’s authoritarian regimes to liberalize politically, economically, and socially.

The geographical area in question, the “Greater Middle East,” was taken to mean the Muslim countries of the Middle East and North Africa, including non-Arab states such as Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan. Washington policymakers believed that progress in terms of democracy, human rights, and economic liberalization could be made in a traditionally authoritarian region via cooperation between local governments, private sectors, and civil society.

Moreover, within the context of the ongoing U.S.-led war in Iraq, the threat was implicit: change your ways or face regime change, a la Saddam Hussein.

While the smaller, less influential states of North Africa and the Gulf signed on to the program with varying caveats, regional heavyweights Egypt and Saudi Arabia were less accommodating, particularly given the initiative’s ambiguous approach to implementation. “I don’t know,” Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was quoted as saying at the time, “but I sense something strange in the air.”

Arab League head Amr Moussa called the original draft “very vague, and riddled with question marks.”

What is more, Arab public opinion found the still-undefined notion of a “Greater Middle East” disturbing. “This ‘Greater’ or ‘Broader’ Middle East concept is nonsense,” said a 33-year-old Cairo resident. “There’s only one Middle East – not a small one or a big one – and it’s Arab. I’m not talking about Christians and Muslims, I’m talking about Arabs. We speak one language – Arabic.”

Expressing a deep distrust of U.S. intentions, he added, “America is trying to annul the region’s Arab nature by including non-Arab states like Turkey and Afghanistan in this geographical unit.”

The Arab League, at its tumultuous May meeting in Tunis, also voiced strong reservations about the plan. It said the plan was meant to impose Western values on the traditional societies of the region.

Observers were also quick to point out that while Arab and Muslim states of the region were expected to liberalize, no solutions to the increasingly violent Israel-Palestine conflict were offered. “You can’t let [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon wreak havoc in the Palestinian territories, then talk about freedom,” says Mohamed Said, deputy director of the Egyptian state-run al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

Washington, also facing increasingly fierce military resistance in Iraq, backed off in deference to its Arab critics. In partnership with fellow members of the G8 (Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Russia besides the United States), it reinvented the GMEI as the Broader Middle East and North Africa (BMENA) initiative. This initiative was proposed at the G8 summit held in Georgia in the United States in June last year.

The new watered-down version of the initiative – while still avoiding the Palestine issue – conceded that “successful reform depends on the countries in the region and change should not and cannot be imposed from outside.”

Arab League chief Moussa called the revised document “more readable and easy to understand.” For once, he said, “The U.S. was open to our points of view, and the new document was free of the points that aroused the angry attention of those from this region. This better document received a better reception.”

But despite its Arab-friendlier tone, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, along with Morocco and Tunisia, declined to attend the inauguration of the initiative despite the participation of smaller regional actors Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Turkey.

In a sign of its ongoing unease vis-à-vis foreign political interference, Cairo also declined to receive a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) envoy visiting Arab capitals in May to discuss potential Arab-NATO cooperation on reform issues.

According to Said, the Georgia G8 meeting represented the “biggest sign of retreat” from earlier pressures to democratize. “It was where the Europeans and Americans compromised on a gradual, piecemeal approach to reforming the region. The Europeans wanted more of a focus on human rights, while the Americans toned this aspect down.”

The reelection of Bush in November, perceived by some as a fresh mandate from the American public for messianic empire-building, appears to have brought a hardening of this position. “After a lot of tough talk from Washington in terms of political transformation, it had become obvious by the end of the year that smaller issues would receive the most attention; that [the West] was no longer pushing for constitutional reform,” Said noted.

The new shift in emphasis became manifest at the first Forum for the Future conference held in the Moroccan capital Rabat Dec. 10 and 11, where outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell presented Washington’s new take on democratization in his diplomatic swan song.

The forum, the annual convening of which had been stipulated at the Georgia summit, brought together finance and foreign ministers from 20 Arab countries and the G8, as well as delegates from civil society and the private sector. Sudan and Iran were not represented, but Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which had previously spurned such initiatives, both sent high-level representatives.

The presence of so many finance officials, both from the United States and from Arab participant countries, was telling. The Dec. 11 edition of the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat commented that the preliminary meetings of the forum “were characterized by the ‘marginalization’ of civil society representatives, who had previously been considered one of the three pillars [of reform], along with the private sector and the governmental sector.”

The government-run al-Ahram weekly in Egypt reported that calls for political reform took a back seat before calls for economic liberalization and job creation.

Much talk revolved around the creation of a $100 million fund for small business loans and literacy campaigns, it said. “All the talk was about spreading ‘a culture of entrepreneurship’ and the ‘creation of enterprises’ as a driving force for sustainable development in the region,” with little emphasis on political reform, the paper noted.

On the first day of the event, civil society representatives reportedly went so far as to boycott meetings after complaining they had been denied the chance to express their views.

Abu Seada, who represented EOHR at the forum, expressed disappointment with the event. “If you look at the forum’s agenda, the focus was on development and economic reform,” he said. “Political or constitutional reform was neglected.”

But even before the convention there had been signs that the emphasis was shifting. “Economy before politics” had also been the theme at the annual meeting of Egypt’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) in September. Despite a host of announced economic reforms, relatively little was said at the meeting about political liberalization.

President Hosni Mubarak, who also heads the party, told state broadsheet al-Mayo just before the event, “We cannot bring about the political reform we seek given the economic situation, and we cannot realize social justice without a strong economy that increases gross domestic product, creates new jobs, and increases individual wealth.”

The NDP congress rejected demands by opposition parties and civil society organizations that presidential power be limited, emergency laws repealed, and the constitution amended to guarantee citizens’ rights. Party leaders also refused to broach the question of whether or not Mubarak would seek a fifth presidential term in 2005.

Some observers speculate, particularly since the Rabat meeting, that a new quid pro quo has been struck between Washington and U.S.-friendly regimes in the region. These regimes, no matter how autocratic, would be left alone as long as they play ball on two other fronts: improved relations with Israel, and cooperation in Washington’s global “war on terror.”

“It appears that there is some kind of hidden agenda between the governments of the region and Washington, and that the United States, along with the G8, aren’t into pushing for real steps toward political reform,” said Abu Seada.

Such suspicions have been bolstered further by recent perceived Egyptian concessions to Israel, including a recently signed trade deal between the two countries, Cairo’s release of convicted Israeli spy Azaam Azzam, and Egyptian government silence regarding the allegedly accidental death of three Egyptian frontier guards in cross-border Israeli fire. “If we flatter Israel as the Americans want,” suggested Said, “we’re off the hook.”

While the new dynamic can be seen most visibly in Egypt’s recent political maneuverings, the pattern appears to apply to the entire region. At Rabat, Powell cited Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Morocco, Afghanistan, Bahrain, and Algeria as some of the countries that the United States perceived to be “moving forward on political, educational, and economic reform initiatives.”

This surprisingly upbeat assessment comes at a time when the Arab world continues to suffer to varying degrees under a permanent state of martial law.

In some cases, as in that of Jordan, the political landscape has actually deteriorated with the highly unpopular U.S. invasion of Iraq and the worsening plight of the Palestinians next door. In late December, 15 Jordanian opposition parties united to accuse the government of de facto re-establishment of emergency law after a spate of arrests targeted opposition leaders and union activists.

“This lowering of the ceiling for democratic expectations [by the United States] applies to the whole region,” Said from the al-Ahram Center said. “Each country has its own package, but the lowering of expectations vis-à-vis political reform applies to the whole Middle East.”

Whatever Washington’s motives, most local observers maintain that any kind of bona fide progress on the political front must be the result of homegrown activism. Ahmed Seif al-Islam of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, an Egyptian non-governmental organization devoted to local political issues, rejected the notion that the Middle East must pin its hopes on U.S. democracy initiatives. “The government – and its way of doing things – will change sooner or later,” he said. “To what extent, though, will depend on local pressure.”

In the meantime, Arab public opinion remains highly skeptical of U.S. intentions. A 30-year-old food and beverages specialist from Cairo suggested that the change in emphasis reflected recognition by Washington that in many countries fresh political power vacuums might get filled by Islamist-leaning parties or groups.