Real Arab Reform
By David Ignatius
Friday, March 12, 2004; Page A23
BEIRUT -- The Bush administration's new initiative to encourage democracy and reform in the Arab world has all the solidity of a hot-air balloon. It's floating grandly toward Planet Arabia, while down below the people who would be affected by it are variously taking potshots, running for cover or scratching their heads in confusion.
Are we really going to make this mistake again? To state what should be obvious after the reversals of the past year in Iraq: The idea of Arab democracy is meaningless unless it begins at home, driven by an Arab agenda for change, rather than by outsiders. If it's seen as another attempt to impose the West's agenda, then the planned U.S.-European Greater Middle East Initiative will fail -- and deservedly so.
Rather than preaching from their dirigibles overhead, Americans and Europeans should try listening more carefully to what the Arabs themselves have to say -- not to the leaders, whose main agenda is holding on to power, but to the millions of people who are desperate for reform.
A starting point for me is listening to the leading Shiite cleric in Lebanon, Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah. He can hardly be accused of pro-American sympathies; he was the spiritual leader of the Hezbollah fighters whose suicide bombs drove U.S. troops from Lebanon in 1984. But he's become a surprisingly progressive thinker and was one of the first Muslim clerics to condemn unambiguously the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
I've visited Fadlallah several times over the past two years at his well-guarded office within the maze of Beirut's southern suburbs, accompanied by my friend Jamil Mroue, publisher of Beirut's Daily Star. Each time, Fadlallah has surprised me. This time, it was in the ferocity of his call for reform in the Arab world. You cannot put the case for change more bluntly or emphatically than he did.
"We have always emphasized that governments in this part of the world are obsessed with power, and thus have kept their citizens under strict control," Fadlallah said, speaking through an interpreter. He cited two kinds of bad governance in the Arab world: the "tribal or dynastic families, who behave as if they have some divine right to conduct business," and "governments that have a fig leaf of legitimacy, in the form of ballots that produce 99.9 percent results."
Fadlallah noted that these undemocratic governments have stayed in power partly because "they are part of a web of international interests" -- meaning that they serve the interests of the United States and its allies. But he cautioned: "It is not fair or accurate to lay all the blame for this deformed political process on the shoulders of the West. There are really serious internal reasons as well for this underdevelopment."
The failed Arab regimes survive, Fadlallah said, thanks partly to the "excuse" of the Arab-Israeli conflict. "We have emergency laws; we have control by the security agencies; we have stagnation of opposition parties; we have the appropriation of political rights -- all this in the name of the Arab-Israeli conflict." He argued that resolving the Arab-Israeli problem was a necessary component of any serious Middle East initiative -- not just because it was right but because it would take away the props that support bad governance.
What's important about Fadlallah's remarks is that you'd hear pretty much the same opinion everywhere in the Arab world. People are sick of political and economic underdevelopment, and they want change. But they want to make it for themselves.
The problem with the U.S.-European initiative is "too much interference, too little reform," argues Ghassan Salameh, a former Lebanese cabinet minister, now a U.N. special adviser on Iraq and one of the brightest new lights in Arab politics. He argues that Arabs themselves set more ambitious targets for reform -- especially in establishing the rule of law. "If we create a strong, independent, professional judiciary, we will have done a revolution," he says.
The Bush administration hopes to present its plans at the G-8 summit in June, so there's still time to get it right. Above all, the United States and its European allies should avoid the mistake of assuming that just because people hate the regime they're living under, they will embrace an American-led effort to transform it. They won't, as the Iraqi experience sadly shows.
The Arabs want to make their own history. The time for change has come, as they know better than anyone. If you doubt that, just listen to the words of the white-bearded, black-turbaned cleric, Sheik Fadlallah.
The Arab future truly is now. If America can help the people of the Middle East take ownership of their own process of change -- now, that would be revolutionary.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company