Commentary: Moderates Must Seize the Moment for Reform

Time and again, wars have reconfigured the landscape and character of the turbulent Middle East. America's smashing of the oppressive and backward Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which has the peoples of the region riveted to their television sets, is also likely to have a huge impact. Even their favorite news channel, Qatar-based Al-Jazeera, has had its share of drama. The station's uplink in Kabul was hit by a U.S. missile as the city fell. Since then, Al-Jazeera has largely pulled out of Afghanistan and been forced to rely on feeds from CNN. That has changed its mix of coverage from heartrending coverage of children being pulled from rubble to more straightforward political and military footage.

The Taliban's rapid collapse undoubtedly comes as a shock to many Al-Jazeera watchers and others in the region who expected a more resolute stand. Moderate Arab governments are reacting mostly with relief. A quick end to the war eases pressure on leaders fearful of a popular backlash to the campaign against a fellow Muslim, Osama bin Laden; ultimately, it may also weaken the appeal of the fundamentalist vision he and the Taliban have offered. But outside the corridors of power, criticism of the U.S. continues--and few are celebrating the U.S.-led campaign for its liberation of the Afghan people. "The Americans did not bomb Afghanistan so men could shave their beards and women would not have to hide their faces," says Fahmy Howeidy, a columnist for the government-owned daily, Al Ahram, in Cairo. "It's been more than 40 days and they've kept bombing the Afghani people. This will violate the image of the U.S. in the Arab world."

Yet when the bombing ends and the money starts flowing to Afghanistan, the U.S. hopes such sentiments will change. There's an opportunity here for Arab regimes, their people, and the U.S. to further the cause of moderation and ease the tensions that have long plagued the Arab world. The U.S. can play its part by rebuilding Afghanistan, pushing for Mideast peace, and urging Arab governments to open their political and educational systems. Arab rulers can use this moment to reconsider how to open their economies and give their people a voice. And the Arab peoples can help by giving moderation a chance to show results.

The crisis has certainly exposed the shortcomings of the Arab regimes. Their economies, which are mostly holdovers from the heyday of Third World socialism, have performed disastrously in recent years. The absence of job opportunities, combined with a lack of outlets for political dissent, provides a rich medium for nurturing the religious extremism endemic in the region. Their repressive political systems badly need light and air.

The time has come for moderate Arab governments to look into the mirror. The leadership of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait must grasp the dangers of refusing to change. Continued repression and stagnating economies will only further the cause of fundamentalists who could eventually threaten their regimes. That would add to already-strained relations with the U.S. Because Saudi Arabia produced so many of the terrorists who attacked America, the desert kingdom faces mounting criticism in the West for its retrograde system. If the kingdom is implicated in some future incident, it could encounter the wrath of the U.S. Congress or even a U.S. raid to seize suspected terrorists.

Certainly, some in the Arab world recognize these dangers. In Kuwait, Ahmad Bishara, the leader of its liberal National Democratic Front is now calling for sweeping reforms to restore the "damaged image" of Islam. He wants to separate religion from the affairs of state--arguing that is the only route to a successful society. In Egypt, young business executives, including President Hosni Mubarak's son Gamal, are pushing to open up the economy to outside investment.

In Saudi Arabia, too, Crown Prince Abdullah is trying to stamp out corruption, as well as liberalize the sputtering economy. Abdullah also shows signs of curbing the religious establishment, which has gained too much power in recent years. On Nov. 14, he warned Saudi clerics in a speech that they should tone down their sermons. "I hope you appreciate your responsibility before God so we do not land in an embarrassing situation," he said.

SOCIAL FERMENT. The U.S. should throw its weight behind any reform efforts by these and other figures. There is much at stake for the West--and not just because the region has 65% of the world's oil reserves. Most of the countries in the region have youthful, fast-growing populations. If their governments fail to satisfy their aspirations, social ferment is likely to rise. The danger is that young Middle Easterners increasingly view the U.S. as the enemy of Arabs and Muslims--not only because of its attacks on the Taliban but also because of its strong support of Israel.

The Bush Administration could ease this resentment through its new push for peace between the Palestinians and Israel. In a tough speech on Nov. 19, U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell warned the Palestinian leadership that it "must end violence, stop incitement, and prepare [the Palestinians] for the hard compromises ahead." But he also told Israel it "must be willing to end its occupation" and "accept a viable Palestinian state."

A peace drive in the Middle East could give moderate Arab states more leeway for domestic reform and for cooperation with the U.S. on regional security matters. It could also lay the groundwork for closer cooperation between the U.S. and friendly Arab states to rid the region of bad characters. Everyone knows that countries such as Iraq, Syria, and Yemen have harbored terrorists in the past. Up to now, radical Palestinian factions and other violent groups have been able to portray themselves as warriors of liberation. If tension on the Arab-Israeli front were reduced, they would lose their cover. The September 11 attacks and the war in Afghanistan have been terrible events, but they give the players in the Arab drama a chance for renewal. That chance should not be lost.

By Stanley Reed

With Susan Postlewaite in Cairo

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