The Right Path to Arab Democracy

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By Madeleine Albright and Vin Weber
Wednesday, June 8, 2005

The Bush administration is right to support democratic change in the Arab Middle East. The question is how best to go about that delicate process. If we push too hard, we may add to the perception that we are trying to impose our will. If we fail to push hard enough, we may contribute to the view that America supports freedom for everyone except Arabs. To succeed, we must find a balance that combines a firm commitment to democratic principles and an understanding of the complexities of the Arab world.

In recent months we co-chaired a task force of experts organized by the Council on Foreign Relations to formulate recommendations for U.S. policy. Our report, "In Support of Arab Democracy: Why and How," argues that if Arabs are able to express their grievances freely and peacefully, they are less likely to turn to extreme measures and more likely to build open and prosperous societies. And in promoting democratic institutions in Arab countries, we should bear in mind that sudden, traumatic change is neither necessary nor desirable. Our goal should be to encourage democratic evolution, not revolution.

The Bush administration has been eloquent in expressing a commitment to democratic principles; its challenge is to implement that commitment effectively against the backdrop of turbulence in such places as Iraq, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. Given the Arab world's diversity, a country-by-country approach is required, but that approach should be based in every case on support for human rights and the fundamentals of representative government. To assess progress, the administration should encourage Arab leaders to develop and make public "pathways to reform" to guide the expectations of their citizens and create benchmarks against which the pace of change can be measured.

The administration should beware of crediting Arab leaders who engage in a pretense of democratic reform while omitting the substance. Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, for example, has asked parliament to approve multiparty presidential elections -- seemingly a positive step. But the system he is recommending would make it virtually impossible for truly independent parties to participate. Sham democracy should be exposed for what it is.

Arab countries will, of course, establish their own rules for democratic participation. To the extent the United States can influence that process, it should be in the direction of openness. Washington should support the participation of any group or party that has made a credible commitment to abide by the rules of democracy, including nonviolence and respect for constitutional procedures. It would be a mistake to exclude Islamist parties on the assumption that they are inherently undemocratic or prone to violence. The best way to marginalize violent extremists is to make room for as broad a range of nonviolent perspectives as possible. At the same time, we should emphasize the importance of minority representation. The current constitutional debate in Iraq is a case study of this challenge. The governing coalition has legitimacy because of the electoral support it received, but it will not be able to govern effectively unless minorities feel secure.

The United States is often portrayed unfairly in the Arab media. The solution is not to look for ways to pressure or punish Arab journalists but rather to support the expansion of independent media outlets. At the same time, U.S. public diplomacy should place new emphasis on democratic reform. America's Arabic-language satellite channel, al-Hurra, should include C-SPAN-style coverage of legislative hearings and political rallies in the United States and other democratic countries. Arabs should be exposed to the spectacle of free political systems in action, including the questioning of senior leaders by public representatives and the press.

Building democracy requires political will, but also a good deal of technical skill. While Arabs will have to provide the former, the United States and other democratic societies should be generous in sharing their expertise in such areas as improving education, fighting corruption, promoting investment and removing barriers to trade. Washington should also review its visa policies to ensure that, while those from Arab countries who may be dangerous are kept out, those who are not (the overwhelming majority) are allowed in without having to endure humiliating delays. Exchanges of all types between the United States and Arab societies will help promote crucial improvements in intercultural understanding.

Arab leaders should know that progress toward democracy will have favorable consequences for their relations with the United States and that the reverse is also true. Countries moving toward democracy should receive special consideration on such matters as trade and aid, while Washington should distance itself from governments that refuse over time to recognize the rights of their citizens.

Democratic development in the Arab world depends, as it does elsewhere, on internal debates about national identity, interests, values and purpose. The difference between democracy and the status quo is that decisions will flow from the many, not just the few. This does not guarantee that we will agree with those decisions or that they will be the right ones, only that they will be legitimate. That is enough.

Madeleine K. Albright, secretary of state under President Bill Clinton, is principal of The Albright Group LLC and chairman of the National Democratic Institute. Vin Weber, a former Republican representative from Minnesota, is chairman of the National Endowment for Democracy.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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