One of the most hotly debated questions in the Arab world -- and in the United States -- is whether the Bush administration has sparked a democratic tsunami in the Middle East.
U.S. officials argue that Iraqi elections along with presidential rhetoric on Arab democracy, have inspired reformers throughout the region. Many Arab intellectuals retort that they have been struggling for years to effect social and political change but have been blocked by U.S. support for authoritarian rulers.
A much-awaited study released last week, the Arab Human Development Report 2004, offers a new and useful way to view this key debate.
Written by 39 Arab intellectuals and sponsored by the U.N. Development Program, the report is the third in an annual series that has laid bare the Arab world's glaring "deficits" in productivity, creativity, women's rights and political institutions. This volume spells out in detail the deficits in Arab freedoms and good governance (see http://hdr.-undp.org/).
The report blasts Arab governments' restrictions on civil society and press freedoms, and violations of minority rights -- citing the suffering in Darfur. It decries the lack of freedom of opinion and expression, and the right to associate, in Arab states. And it points out most Arab presidential elections are cosmetic.
Most important, the authors stress the desire of Arabs for freedom, whether or not they envision Western-style democracy: "There is a rational and understandable thirst among Arabs to be rid of despots and to enjoy democratic governance."
The good news is these reports are written by Arabs and for Arabs. And they break a taboo in a region where the media have long been prone to blame Western plots for the problems at home.
The authors faced the charge that they were providing the United States with a pretext to meddle in Arab affairs, especially since U.S. officials have often cited the earlier reports. Their reply, in the preface to the new volume: "The only way for Arabs to deal with the ambitions of others [meaning U.S. ambitions in the region] is to recognize and overcome their own weaknesses." In other words, in the post-9/11 world, Arabs must reform from within if they want to prevent outsiders from intervening in their affairs.
But the volume makes clear that the authors, too, are suspicious about President Bush's promotion of Arab democracy. They state that the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories are key impediments to Arab freedoms. (The report went to press before the Iraqi and Palestinian elections.)
The White House was so annoyed that it reportedly tried to block the report's publication. In the end, few changes were made.
"When it comes to outside intervention from the United States, people question the motives," says Rima Khalaf Hunaidi, the development program's regional director for Arab states, who oversaw the report. "The [European Union] and Bush started to pursue [Arab democratic] reform on account of terrorism. Arabs seek it because they have been deprived of dignified life in the past."
Kiss of death
Mistrust of U.S. intentions is especially strong among Sunni Arabs living in countries still under authoritarian rule. They look at the events in Iraq, or Lebanon, as special cases. That makes it much harder for Arab reformers to take advantage of U.S. pressures for change. They fear that any association with Western democracy efforts is a political kiss of death.
What's most extraordinary about the new U.N. report is that its authors have taken a more pragmatic approach toward what they call "reform initiatives from outside." They recognize Arab reformers can't do the job themselves, and say they must figure out how to make use of external pressure "and maximize its contribution."
I asked Khalaf how U.S. officials could help Arab reformers, not undercut them. Her reply:
First, for outside cooperation to be fruitful, it must press for more political rights for Arabs of all political outlooks -- even Islamists -- as long as they accept nonviolence and democratic rules.
Khalaf's second point: To "get the confidence of Arabs," the United States must continue to tackle the Palestinian issue.
What the Human Development Report suggests is that U.S. efforts to promote Arab democracy could help Sunni Arab reformers -- if U.S. officials listen to what the Arabs are saying. And read the report.
X Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.