Democratic reforms in the Middle East and North Africa are both warranted and wanted—not only among the leaders who gathered earlier this month on Sea Island for the G8 Summit but also by the majority of the region’s citizens.

While there is little agreement on what form change should take, the most shocking dimension of the Bush plan for regional reform, The Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative, or BMEI, is the administration’s continued partnership with authoritarian regimes and the exclusion of democratic reformers.

It is refreshing that the U.S. government is finally taking seriously the need for democratization in the Middle East and its very real potential to be realized. One of the lessons of Washington’s backing for Saddam Hussein since the Reagan administration is the folly of supporting autocratic regimes as “stable allies.” The U.S.-allied regimes of King Fahd in Saudi Arabia, Yasser Arafat in Palestine, Husni Mubarak in Egypt, and Ali Abdallah Salih in Yemen, among others, have consistently suppressed democratic movements, tortured opposition voices and violated international standards for human rights. At the Tunis meeting of the Arab League meeting in April, the group shunned even vague rhetoric calling for democratic reforms.

In November, Bush promised to stop supporting friendly but non-democratic regimes in the region, a vow omitted in the language of the new initiative. Yet, invitations to the Sea Island discussions were extended to only a select few American allies—many of whom are hardly paragons of democracy in the region. Yet, even many of these usual suspects were reluctant to attend, including self-proclaimed proto-liberalizers like Egypt and Tunisia to patently undemocratic Saudi Arabia. The widespread aversion to U.S.-led democratization let these regimes off the hook and enabled them to appear independent while putting off a discussion of reforms.

Among those snubbed were Qatar, host to the al-Udeid U.S. Air Base, which was not invited because of its support of the al-Jazeera satellite network. While Qatar is not exactly a burgeoning democracy, it has recently promulgated a constitution that provides for a partially elected legislature and has, in its support for al-Jazeera, facilitated the most progressive development in the region in decades.

The administration accuses al-Jazeera of inciting anti-American violence, but the station has revolutionized Arab media by bringing critical coverage of local politics to citizens accustomed to hearing “news” from state propaganda machines. Few in the United States know that authoritarian Arab regimes have been among al-Jazeera’s frequent targets and strongest critics—even supposedly “pro-democratic” Jordan temporarily expelled the local correspondent for “insulting the monarchy.”

Moreover, reform processes that are not state-led remain outside of the administration’s limited vision—particularly when they take place on the turf of Washington’s regional allies. The administration routinely ignores citizens’ campaigns for greater civil rights in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan and Morocco.

The administration ignored the arrest in Jordan of Tujan Faysal, a former parliamentarian and democratic reformer convicted of a misdemeanor in 2002 after questioning whether the prime minister had abused his position for personal gain. It failed to comment on the imprisonment of Egypt’s Saad Eddin Ibrahim on treason charges (later dismissed) until Congress took up his case. And it has a particular blind spot for the pluralist coalitions that have emerged among parliamentarians in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and Yemen because joining secular With the United States unwilling to risk strained relations with regional allies, the real voices for democratic reform in the region have been entirely excluded. Only after early drafts came under criticism did the administration insert perfunctory language that “change should not and cannot be imposed from the outside.”

Meanwhile, tremendous skepticism remains regarding the intention and ability of the United States to lead ambitious reforms. Even pro-democracy trends both inside and outside government channels will be hard pressed to carry the banner of democratization when it is emblazoned with the words, “Made in the USA.”

The renewed emphasis on democracy in the Middle East is long overdue. But the selective blindness toward existing reform measures and the continued exclusion of non-governmental voices indicate that the administration is unwilling to put forth a truly new initiative. Sadly, the BMEI in this form can only produce more of the same.

How to cite this article:

Margaret Milligan, Jillian Schwedler "Middle East Reform: Right Idea, Wrong Plan," Middle East Report Online, June 20, 2004.
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