MIDDLE EAST: Shooting in the foot
William Fisher «View Bio

The arrest last month of some 20 prominent reformers in Saudi Arabia and the disruption of a peaceful demonstration in Syria by human rights activists seeking political and economic reforms are just two events that illustrate the unfortunate inclination of Arab regimes to shoot themselves in the foot.

The heavy-handed responses of these states undermined the credibility of their prior assurances – and a measure of positive action – that they would permit greater political participation for their citizens.

While Arab governments are virtually unanimous in their condemnation of the Middle East Initiative proposed by the Bush administration to ‘democratize’ the region – they view the policy as a neocolonial attempt to impose US-style democracy, and contend (with some justification) that democracy must be home-grown – some Arab states have taken tentative steps toward protecting civil and political liberties.

Saudi Arabia recently approved the first independent human rights organization. The government has promised municipal elections, opened a reform dialogue with leading intellectuals – several of whom were among those arrested last month – and introduced changes to its education and religious institutions, which have been blamed by Western critics for creating a fertile environment for militant Islamists.

Syria’s president, Bashar Al Assad, has taken very limited steps to loosen the totalitarian system he inherited from his father in 2000. Initially, he released hundreds of political detainees and allowed political discussion groups to hold small indoor meetings. But a year later, Assad began to clamp down on pro-democracy activists, jailing some for illegally attempting to change the constitution.

Last month’s demonstration by some 20 Syrian activists was to protest against the emergency laws, in force since 1963, that gave the Syrian authorities extensive powers to suspend basic liberties. Under these laws, the accused are tried in special state security courts with no recourse to standard court procedures and guarantees.

Furthermore, the authorities have sweeping powers to arrest and detain citizens without charge, trial, or legal representation.

Syrian police responded to that demonstration by arresting several protestors, dispersing the rest, and shouting at reporters to leave. Assad’s knee-jerk reaction to this small protest was a backward step that would be minimized if it were condemned by progressive Arab leaders.

The Saudi incident last month was triggered by a petition to the de facto ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah, urging a timetable for the implementation of reforms. The police arrested eight of the petitioners for not supporting “national unity or the cohesion of society based on Islamic Sharia law," according to the official Saudi Press Agency.

The Saudi response, said one academic who knew some of the detainees, “will make people lose trust in the government. It totally contradicts what they have been promising."

Prince Abdullah vowed that his country would press ahead with reforms but rejected any “reckless adventure."

Syria has not commented on recent arrests there. Its actions will only help to bolster US resolve to impose sanctions on the country.

Both governments, by overreacting, are more likely to strengthen human rights activism and give advocates the gift of international media attention. Not surprisingly, their actions have already been condemned by respected organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International and, sadly, have given strength to the proponents of that Greater Middle East Initiative.

William Fisher has managed economic development projects in the Middle East for the US State Department. He served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy administration.