MIDDLE EAST: It`s Time to Tear Down the `Arab Wall`
Shafeeq N. Ghabra

KUWAIT CITY, November 23, 2003

Politics in the Arab world has long been consumed by two fears. First, the fear of the status quo, maintained by regimes that lack vision yet dominate endlessly. Second, the fear of the alternative: a puritanical opposition and its potential for revolutionary or even nihilistic takeover.

Between these two poles, the Arab world has had no middle ground. Choose the present authoritarian governments with all their shortcomings, bad economic policies and limited measures of social and personal freedom. Or choose upheaval and the extremists whose theocracy would be draped in strict codes of behavior governing such things as dress, social interaction and the role of women in public life. Faced with these alternatives during the past two decades, the Middle East opted for stagnation.

Now, however, the Arab status quo has been challenged -- by President Bush"s Nov. 6 speech urging the Arab world to adopt liberal democracy, by the war in Iraq and, above all, by internal forces such as the growing population of young and discontented subjects. Arab regimes that before Sept. 11, 2001, seemed stable and enduring now seem vulnerable to a militant brand of Islam such as al Qaeda"s.

As a result, there is now a faint possibility of a third way that navigates between the two dismal poles in an Arab world. This new form of politics could begin by opening up debate in the press, schools, streets, civic organizations and even in the mosques and husayniyyas (the annexes to Shiite mosques where political discussion often takes place). It could adopt laws that protect expression and political rights. And it could nurture forces that mediate differences between state and society, between religious and secular authorities, and between government and the radical opposition.

These new forces in Arab society should then defend certain elements of the status quo as if the extremists were on the verge of taking power while seeking reform and democracy as if the radicals were not there threatening to fill the vacuum.

The evolution of this third way in Arab politics will require years of expanding freedoms and reforms. And it will, inevitably, be something of an experiment. Yet the Middle East has experimented -- unsuccessfully -- with most of the last century"s political faiths: socialism (in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen since the 1950s), communism (South Yemen in the 1960s), and state capitalism fused with monarchy (the Gulf states, Jordan and Morocco). The Middle East has even experimented with homegrown ideologies, including Nasserism, Baathism and Khomeiniism. Just about the only ideology the region hasn"t tried is liberal capitalist democracy of one form or another.

Enter Bush and his impassioned speech about the need for democracy in the Arab world. Past U.S. governments never thought that the lack of democracy in the Arab world or the spread of radical militant Islam would touch American shores. Bush"s call for democratization suggests that the United
States is leaving behind its Cold War policy of believing in the democratic exceptionalism of the Middle East. The speech articulates a new paradigm. But is the region ready for such a change and is America ready to follow through?

The United States comes to this issue with a certain lack of credibility given its longtime support for authoritarian rulers. This fact was a constant theme in the commentary that appeared in the Arab press after Bush"s speech. A Lebanese columnist told me: "It is another attempt by a confused superpower to save its election year in the midst of casualties in Iraq and anarchy in Palestine." Salah Issa, a columnist at the Egyptian al Wafd opposition newspaper, wrote: "The U.S. encouraged, in addition to
dictators, the same Islamic radical trend that it finds itself at war with." Sahar Baasiri, a columnist at Lebanon"s an Nahar daily, wrote: "The experience with past U.S. policies has not been encouraging, so why should this new one be any different?" And Azmi Bishara, an Arab member of the Israeli Knesset, wrote in the Arab daily al Hayat that the "speech is easy to understand and difficult to accept."

Iraq presents both a challenge and an opportunity for U.S. policy. Iraq"s transition to a democratic government could mark the start of the fall of the "Arab Wall," the invisible barrier of authoritarianism and rigidity that isolates the region from the world. Tens of millions of Arabs witnessed the toppling of Saddam Hussein"s regime last spring and saw in his fall reflections of their own aspirations.

The rebuilding of Iraq is key to preventing deposed and discredited forces from regaining power. The Iraqi economy must be revived and security improved. Iraqis must govern themselves even in the midst of violent attacks and terrorist car bombs against civilian and military targets. Sunni Muslims must not become a persecuted minority. Kurds need representative roles in Baghdad. The Shiites need to play a significant role, though without dominance that excludes others.

Yet this alone is not enough for Iraq. An idea must be forged that goes beyond sect and tribe, beyond the old versus new forces in Iraq. Now that Bush has embraced the need to establish a new order, it would be disheartening for the United States to simply reestablish a different version of the Arab world"s status quo. And not just disheartening, but dangerous: Given the Middle East"s deep malaise today, such a status quo will not endure for long.

But what will replace it? Three dark possibilities and a bright one exist. The dark scenarios include anarchy and terrorism of the type that allowed Osama bin Laden to flourish in Afghanistan; civil war of the sort that ravaged Algeria and Sudan; and theocracy such as that of Iran in the 1980s, with a zeal to fight real and imagined enemies.

These sorts of outcomes wouldn"t only affect Iraq. A Jordanian human rights activist expressed his concern to me: "If the Americans leave behind a divided Iraq slipping toward a brutal civil war like the one in Algeria, this will say a lot about Bush"s democracy project." By the same token, if the United States installs a more familiar sort of undemocratic regime to combat terrorism in the Middle East, the region will not change either. The brighter path would be a reformist path leading to the establishment of the rule of law, individual rights, a more robust civil society and democratization across the Arab world. "Democracy is a set of balances where no one dominates. At the moment, we have a victor and a vanquished . . . based on family, sect, tribe or ideology," a respected Kuwaiti journalist told me. "The victor tends to be authoritarian and the vanquished ceases to exist. What Arabs need is balance between the forces that make up their culture, and law and freedom."

For the Middle East"s secular and monarchical regimes, reform does not necessarily mean self-destruction. As Mexico and post-communist Europe demonstrated, nimble elites can reinvent themselves as they change their political system. This sort of evolution already might be underway. Bush acknowledged this in his speech and alluded to the democratic processes from Kuwait to Morocco.

In some cases reform will stem from pressure from below; in other cases leaders will impose reform from above with the distinct possibility of failure. Some leaders will grant token concessions, but half a loaf is usually not enough. This is the dilemma of the Arab world. Too much reform opens the way to the only organized force in society: the Bolsheviks and Trotskyites of the Arab world -- the puritanical, non-democratic and radical Islamists. On the other hand, too little reform undermines economic
development, radicalizes the young and creates unemployment that feeds anger and protest. The push for change needs to be steady, but gradual, and carried out in conjunction with the evolution of political institutions, open debate and individual freedom.

Shafeeq Ghabra is a professor of political science and president of the American University of Kuwait. This article was published in The Washington Post on Sunday, November 23, 2003; Page B03. Author"s e-mail: president@auk.edu.kw