MOVEMENT TOWARD economic and political liberalization has slowed in much of the Arab Middle East. Saudi Arabia, awash in tens of billions of dollars thanks to high oil prices, has watered down or frozen the reform programs its spokesmen were promoting a year ago; some would-be reformers are in jail. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has appeased the Bush administration by casting himself as a champion of Palestinian accommodation to Israel instead of Egyptian accommodation to a free press or elections. The violence in Iraq has hardly been an advertisement for Western-style democracy, and the Bush administration itself has been modest in its efforts, dedicating far less funding to its Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative than to more prosaic aid programs elsewhere.
Yet impetus for change in the region has not expired, as it did after the first U.S. war with Iraq. This time the pressure for liberalization is coming not only from Washington but from Arab business and political elites as well as common citizens fed up with their countries' stagnation and exclusion from the freedom and prosperity spreading elsewhere in the world. That mood can be glimpsed in the strong support among Palestinians for elections and for reform of the Palestinian Authority. It can be seen also in the rise of independent civic groups and human rights movements around the region, which have been gathering to draft and deliver pro-democracy manifestos and insisting that their governments listen.
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Last week 30 representatives of civic organizations from 13 Arab countries met in Rabat, Morocco, on the sidelines of the first meeting of the "Forum for the Future," the diplomatic instrument the Bush administration and governments of other industrialized countries created this year to encourage liberalization in the zone from Morocco to Afghanistan. Media accounts of the meeting focused on the predictable rhetoric of Arab ministers who rejected Western pressure for change and insisted that the real issue was not reform of their monarchies and dictatorships but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Such rhetoric, delivered by many of the same people, has remained unchanged at Middle Eastern conferences for decades, regardless of the situation in Palestine or the character of U.S. policy. What was new in Rabat was the presence of the civil society delegation, which delivered an entirely different message.
"The main obstacle hindering reform," said the civil society statement, read by spokesmen such as Bahey Eddin Hassan of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, "is the lack of willingness on the part of most Arab governments to undertake real reforms." "Palestinian and Iraqi issues," it added, "should not be used as excuses for not launching reforms"; moreover, Western governments should "stop using double standards" in assessing "violations of human rights and democracy principles in each country." Instead, they should "relate their political and economic cooperation to the progress of reforms."
What reforms? The civil society representatives were explicit: "Allow free ownership of media institutions and sources"; "allow freedom of expression and especially freedom of assembly and meetings"; "ensure women's rights and remove all forms of inequality and discrimination against women in the Arab world"; and "immediately release reformers, human rights activists and political prisoners."
None of these demands will be met soon by Mr. Mubarak and his brethren. Yet the fact that their foreign and finance ministers were obliged to listen to them in the presence of the representatives of the world's richest nations -- rather than throwing their authors in jail -- was something new in the Middle East. We hope Mr. Bush will follow up his pro-democracy rhetoric with more money and more practical action in his next term. But even if the Forum for the Future succeeds only in perpetuating such exchanges, and protecting the civil society groups that participate in them, it will be worthwhile.