Can a superpower that has long supported Arab autocrats
promote democracy in the Middle East through military action? The US-led
invasion of Iraq has clouded the debate among Arab pro-democracy activists and,
in the short run, given their rulers fresh reason to clamp down on civil
Military action can't promote democracy
By Paul Taylor
CAIRO: Can a superpower that has long supported Arab autocrats promote democracy
in the Middle East through military action? The US-led invasion of Iraq has
clouded the debate among Arab pro-democracy activists and, in the short run,
given their rulers fresh reason to clamp down on civil liberties.
Some reformers believe a combination of external pressure and popular anger at
the war may in the longer term force Arab governments to loosen their iron grip,
but religious movements are more likely to benefit than pro-Western modernisers.
"Do you think democracy will come to Iraq on the wings of a B-52 (bomber)?
Or on the back of a tank? Or with an armoured division?" Arab League
Secretary-General Amr Moussa asked.
"Normal development, especially after globalization, would have led to
democracy. But it shouldn't have been done through war," Moussa told BBC
Many intellectuals, angered by the attack on an Arab nation, question US
sincerity in urging greater political freedom in an area where it has long
backed unelected monarchs or strongmen for the sake of stability and cheap oil.
The fact that the new democratic agenda is being pushed most aggressively by US
officials closest to Israel, who have vowed to make a democratic Iraq an example
to other Middle East states, makes it doubly suspect in Arab eyes.
INDULGENCE FOR AUTOCRATS: "We don't trust American talk about democracy.
The US has supported very much this (Egyptian) regime that has oppressed,
tortured and imprisoned people and stopped newspapers and closed
associations," said Farida Naqqash, a leader of Egypt's leftist opposition
Tagammu Party and a feminist human rights campaigner.
"How can we believe the United States is suddenly coming now to support
democracy in the Middle East? They are still friends with the Saudi regime,
which is the model despotic regime in the area. Look at their record in Chile,
Venezuela or Indonesia."
Acknowledging its past indulgence for autocrats, the United States said last
December it would promote democracy more actively across the Muslim world.
State Department official Richard Haass said Washington had "learned the
hard way" with the September 11, 2001, attacks that Muslim states under
authoritarian rule could become breeding grounds for militants who attack the
United States because of its support for those governments.
US officials talk openly of applying pressure for reform on traditional allies
such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and not just on adversaries such as Syria, Libya
The war has brought hundreds of thousands of Arabs into the streets in
anti-American protests, challenging the legitimacy of Arab leaders seen either
as impotent for having failed to stop the conflict, or as actively collaborating
with the US attack.
Governments have fallen back on security services to stifle protests and stop
mosques boiling over after Friday prayers. But some pro-democracy activists
believe that when the wave of anger has blown over, rulers will realize they
"Once the dust settles... other Arab leaders will not fail to read the
writing on the wall, that their time is over and the only way to survive is to
initiate reforms," said US-Egyptian civil rights campaigner Saadeddin
"If they don't they will face both internal pressure and external
TOKEN REFORMS: Several Arab states have taken steps towards greater public
participation over the last decade. Kuwait, Bahrain, Jordan, Yemen, Morocco and
Algeria have held elections, although critics say in no case would voters have
been able to oust their rulers.
Egyptian political analyst Hala Mustafa, editor-in-chief of the quarterly
journal Democracy, the first of its kind in the Arab world, welcomed US pressure
for change but said reforming education and the media must prepare the ground
for elections. -Reuters
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