If Bush is Serious About Arab Democracy...

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Democracy requires that the results of a properly certified vote be accepted, no matter how unpalatable the outcome. So, if President Bush's promise to make democracy the guiding principle in U.S. dealings with the Middle East signals an intention to press regimes to subject themselves to the popular will, and also a readiness in Washington to respect the resulting political choices of Arab citizens, that would indeed mark a revolutionary break with the past. But the skepticism with which the President's comments were greeted among the freedom-starved peoples of the Arab world is not without foundation.

The reason every U.S. administration since FDR's has excused Arab autocracy and authoritarianism is not simply a product of what the President described as "cultural condescension" — a notion that Arab societies are unable to support democracy. No. The reason the U.S. has found itself propping up royal autocrats in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Gulf emirates and pre-revolutionary Iran, and military autocrats in Egypt, Algeria and (looking further east) Pakistan is that it prefers governments that will do Washington's bidding over the bidding of their own citizens. During the Cold War, these governments served as a bastion against leftist and nationalist currents hostile to Washington and also as guarantors of a smooth flow of oil to the West. Today, it is the war on terrorism that functions to excuse the authoritarianism of many of Washington's allies in Arab and Muslim lands.

Democracy in the Middle East and nearby Muslim lands would almost certainly restrain cooperation with the U.S. war on terror. Just look at what happened in Turkey on the eve of the Iraq war: Washington had simply assumed that Ankara would jump into line once the U.S. was on the march to war — after all, the country had been effectively ruled since World War II by generals closely aligned with Washington. But Turkey is far more democratic today, and when it was left up to the elected parliament to choose, the U.S. request to invade Iraq from Turkish territory was declined. And it's a safe bet that if Jordan and Saudi Arabia had put the matter of their own cooperation with the Iraq invasion to a freely elected legislature, the response would have been the same as Turkey's.

President Bush's handling of the Palestinians tends to feed Arab skepticism of his pronouncements on democracy. "For the Palestinian people, the only path to independence and dignity and progress is the path of democracy," said the president. "And the Palestinian leaders who block and undermine democratic reform, and feed hatred and encourage violence are not leaders at all. They're the main obstacles to peace, and to the success of the Palestinian people." In the Arab world, however, the U.S.-Israeli effort to sideline Yasser Arafat looks decidedly hypocritical — for all his warts, Arafat remains the democratically elected president of the Palestinian Authority (and as such, the only democratically elected leader in the Arab world). One reason the U.S. has steered conspicuously clear of demanding that Israel take the necessary steps to allow the Palestinians to hold new presidential elections is precisely because the smart money says Arafat would be easily reelected, despite considerable hostility among his own constituents to the corruption and ineptitude of his regime. Moreover, the suggestion that the only thing standing between the Palestinians and their freedom is Yasser Arafat is taken, in the Arab world, as an Orwellian attempt to distract attention from the reluctance of the Bush administration to restrain Ariel Sharon's creeping annexation of an ever-growing portion of the West Bank.

Washington's war against al-Qaeda has given new luster to such poster-children of democracy as Pakistan's General Pervez Musharraf, the army chief who anointed himself President after taking power in a coup. Musharraf talks the language of Western modernity and eloquently denounces extremism, but democracy in Pakistan is rationed by his hand. President Bush may rail against Syria's ruthless dictatorship, but his own security agencies happily cooperate with Syria's unlovely secret police in fighting al-Qaeda — Canada is up in arms, right now, over the case of a Syrian-born Canadian arrested in transit in New York on suspicion of al-Qaeda links and "deported" to Syria, where he was repeatedly tortured over more than a year in custody. And it's hard to avoid the conclusion that it is precisely because the secret police in countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are not restrained by the democratic rule of law that the U.S. prefers that al-Qaeda suspects be interrogated on their turf.

The biggest test of the seriousness of President Bush's commitment to promote democracy will come in Egypt, which is due to hold parliamentary elections in 2005. Egypt is especially vulnerable to U.S. pressure as the recipient of around $2 billion annually in U.S. aid, as its reward for making peace with Israel in 1979. "The great and proud nation of Egypt has shown the way toward peace in the Middle East, and now should show the way toward democracy in the Middle East," Bush intoned. But if Egypt were a democracy, it's far from certain that it would still a peace treaty with Israel.

Egypt is a good illustration of President Bush's point that the absence of channels for democratic political participation in Arab states has helped foster terrorism, which has eventually been exported. Osama Bin Laden may be Saudi, but most of the top-tier al-Qaeda leadership at the time of 9/11 were veterans of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a militant offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood that turned to terrorism in response to the Sadat regime's peace treaty with Israel, and found hundreds of willing recruits in Egypt's middle class and in its officer corps. The Brotherhood, of course, is a far more moderate Islamist entity than Jihad, originating in early 20th agitation against British colonial rule. It enjoys a strong, some say dominant, presence among Cairo's professional classes, and has eschewed violence. Although its activities are formally banned and it is precluded from contesting parliamentary elections, Egypt analysts suggest it may nonetheless be the dominant opposition force in Egyptian society. The impact of the U.S. invasion of Iraq on Egyptian public opinion has also seen a growing alignment in the views of the Brotherhood and more traditionally liberal democratic opposition groups, around the questions of democracy and sovereignty. Today, the overarching criticism of the Mubarak regime is that it is more responsive to Washington than to its own citizenry, and the internal demand for democratic reform is linked with opposition to, rather than support for U.S. policies.

Democracy can only take root in societies such as Egypt if, at the same time as political violence is suppressed, parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood are allowed to participate in elections, and be respected as winners if they're chosen by the voters. When Algeria's military rulers summarily nixed the result of elections won by that country's Islamists in 1991, they triggered a vicious war on terror that has raged for more than a decade and contributed extensively to the al-Qaeda cause.

Creating a non-violent, democratic channel for the expression of Islamist political sentiment may be the key to the long-term transformation of the region away from a political dynamic of authoritarian autocracy vs. extremism and terror. Democracy, however, requires a leap of faith not only on the part of Arab autocrats, but also by the powers that be in Washington. Because as much as a wave of democracy would sweep away the mullahs in Tehran and the neo-Stalinists in Damascus and the deranged dictator in Tripoli who swears he holds no power and is simply a guy in a tent, it would also almost certainly sweep away America's allies in Cairo, Amman and Riyadh. And in both sets of cases, their replacements may not be the kind of folks with whom President Bush feels comfortable.

Even in Iraq, hailed by President Bush as the "watershed event" in his global "democratic revolution," democracy may not produce the sort of result imagined by the ideological hawks who most actively promoted "regime-change." Just last week, the constitutional consultant sent by the U.S. to work with the Iraqi Governing Council on a new constitution warned that an Iraqi democracy would likely be some form of Islamic state, unlikely to recognize Israel and not particularly pro-U.S. And there's little reason to believe a genuinely democratic Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and even Iran would be much different. Which leaves one wondering just how serious a Bush administration in the heat of its war on terrorism is about grasping the nettle of Arab democracy.