Commentary: Democracy: It Could Happen Here

The Bush Administration is encouraging experiments with political reform, free expression, and free markets--even if they are less than perfect

No Bush Administration vision is grander than the White House blueprint for an Arab Reformation. Overhauling the Palestinian Authority and changing the regime in Iraq are just the beginning. What the Bush team would like is nothing less than a renaissance of a culture and economy that successfully competed with the West centuries ago and now by some measures is barely ahead of sub-Saharan Africa. Washington's recipe for rebirth is a familiar mantra: democracy, free markets, and human rights--women included.

But can these notions finally take hold in this complex and troubled region? Not a few Administration critics dismiss the idea out of hand. While some Administration officials talk of a profound impact if Saddam Hussein goes, a recent paper from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace dubs the prospect of a democratic domino effect from Saddam's ouster a "mirage." "Rather simplistic and utopian," notes one Arab intellectual.

Yet there is a strong argument for optimism about the Arab world, in particular if you look out beyond the next couple of years. Longtime experts on the region such as Zalmay Khalizad, recently appointed the Administration's point man for post-Saddam Iraq, and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, a leading Bush Administration thinker on national security, see more encouraging signs of change than at any time in recent history. The number of elected legislatures in the Arab world is growing, political participation by women is on the rise, and more countries are mulling economic reforms that could reduce the clout of the existing power structure. "It's in the strategic interests of the U.S. to see progress toward representative government," Wolfowitz recently told BusinessWeek. "Over the long run, that's the source of real stability."

Three converging factors could make the arid Arab political terrain surprisingly fertile over the next decade or two--the time frame Wolfowitz and other Administration officials have in mind. The first is outside pressure from forces that range from American rhetoric to the economic demands of globalization. A second is the growing realization by some in the Arab elite that the region has fallen desperately behind. Last summer, a group of highly regarded Arab economists authored a report under the auspices of the United Nations Development Programme that contained a withering critique of Arab social, political, and economic policies. Among other things, the report pointed out that in 1960, per-capita output was higher in the Arab world than among the Asian Tigers. Now it's half that of South Korea. And productivity in the Arab sphere is dropping, while it's rising elsewhere. Even sub-Saharan Africa has higher rates of Internet use than most Arab states. Officials from Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, and Bahrain have been meeting with the report's authors to discuss ways to implement its recommendations for reform, which echo the U.S. agenda.

The third and most important factor likely to drive change in the Arab world is its youthful population. The Arab region is the world's youngest, with 38% of the population 14 years old or younger. Unemployment is already 15%, one of the highest rates in the developing world, and most experts agree that the current economic system just can't handle the workforce growth that's coming. Ruling elites, terrified by this ticking demographic time bomb, have two choices. "It could be an implosion," notes Zahir Jamal, a top official of the UNDP's regional bureau for Arab States. "Or it could be a massive incentive to renew the social contract."

Administration officials already see the mounting pressures on the region spurring movement on the ground in several countries. Women can now vote and run for office in Qatar and Morocco, while in Kuwait they hope to be able to do so in two years. The Sultan of Oman recently instituted universal suffrage, decreeing that everyone over the age of 21 will be able to vote in next year's elections. As rigid as Saudi Arabia is, its de facto leader, Crown Prince Abdullah, is pressing for economic, social, and educational reform, and a crackdown on corruption. On Nov. 12, Riyadh proposed a sweeping privatization plan for industries ranging from telecommunications to transportation. And the platform of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party Congress, which has received little attention in the West, called in September for reforms ranging from floating exchange rates to women's rights.

Of course, even the most progressive regimes are far from American-style democracies. While the October election in Bahrain got high marks in Washington, the country's largest Shiite political society, Al Wefaq, boycotted the vote because the legislature wouldn't have enough clout. Egypt, Jordan, and Algeria meet most standard benchmarks for popular elections, yet the legislatures are little more than Potemkin parliaments. "Rubber stamp might be overstating their power," quips Leslie Campbell, a top Middle East hand at the Democratic National Institute for International Affairs, which helps build democracy abroad.

Even so, the Administration thinks it can build on these initial steps. That means encouraging both existing and new experiments in democratic political reform, free expression, free markets, and educational reform, even if they are imperfect. On Dec. 12, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is expected to call in a major speech for a new U.S. push in these areas. The big challenge: promoting change without provoking an even greater anti-American backlash than is already taking shape in much of the Arab world.

One way is to operate below the radar screen, through nuts-and-bolts programs aimed at ensuring reforms are effective--perhaps even more effective than Arab rulers would like. These programs are small in the overall scheme of things and don't get much attention. The State Dept., for example, is dipping into a $25 million pot of money to teach parliamentary staffers how to draft legislation. And recently, 50 women activists from 14 Arab countries visited Washington to learn about campaigning and lobbying--skills that increase the number of women in Arab governments. "We can build upon our visit, not to benefit us ourselves, but to benefit a big group back home," says Rolla Abdulla Dashti, the 38-year-old chairman of FARO International Corp., a Kuwaiti financial-services consulting business, who attended the seminars.

Education. Exchange programs. On-the-ground assistance. It doesn't sound like a revolutionary way to build democracy in a region with regimes as entrenched as those in the Arab states. But combine these small steps with larger forces at work in the region, and Washington's optimists think that the Arab world will indeed change for the better over time. It took about 20 years for Asia's and Latin America's authoritarian states to evolve into more democratic systems. A swift change of regime in Iraq could speed up that process in the Middle East. But even if it doesn't, a slow transformation is better than none at all.

By Stan Crock

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