The Arab reform dodge
LIKE EGYPTIAN President Hosni Mubarak, Arab rulers around the Middle East are trying to head off the swelling popular discontent in their countries while retaining political control. In the past few days, Jordan's King Abdullah fired his prime minister and cabinet and ordered a new appointee to undertake reforms, while Yemen's President Abdullah Saleh promised not to run for another term or promote his son. The Palestinian Authority announced it would hold overdue local elections, Algeria's president promised an end to 19 years of emergency rule, and even Syria's Bashar al-Assad assured the Wall Street Journal that he would initiate muncipal elections and loosen controls on the media.
All of this sounds good, as it is meant to. Unfortunately, very few of the promises can be taken seriously - as Arab opposition movements know very well. That gives supporters of democratic reform and stability in the Middle East cause for concern. Unless Arab leaders move beyond posturing and maneuvering, they risk provoking more uprisings like the one now besieging Mr. Mubarak.
For now, King Abdullah, Mr. Saleh and most of their counterparts are looking more stable than the Egyptian president, for a variety of reasons. Jordanians, divided between natives and refugee Palestinians, have tended to agree on the legitimacy of the Hashemite monarchy, while Mr. Saleh probably benefits from the fact that Yemen's middle class is smaller and less organized than Egypt's. Still, there have been demonstrations by thousands in Amman and Sanaa, and the unrest may grow if Egypt's crisis continues.
Veterans of Middle Eastern politics quickly noticed that the promises made by most of the Arab rulers have been offered before - in 2004 and 2005, when President George W. Bush pressed for political change in the region. King Abdullah told his new prime minister to prepare a plan for reform covering "the laws of elections . . . as well as parties, public meetings, punishments, the press." Just such a plan was drawn up six years ago under a previous government - only to be deep-sixed by the king when tribal leaders and the security forces objected. Mr. Saleh, too, promised in 2005 not to run again for president, then did so anyway after the pressure for change receded.
This time, real action is needed. Arab rulers can begin by removing controls on local media as well as the Internet, and stop blocking the organization of new political parties. Jordan's oppposition is demanding that future prime ministers be elected, rather than appointed by the king; that is a reform that King Abdullah should negotiate now, lest it be unconditionally forced on him later.
The Arab rulers are trying to quiet their people with economic bribes: new food subsidies, wage increases for state employees and promises of jobs for university graduates. This, too, is shortsighted; such populist measures will only make the economic modernization Arab countries desperately need more difficult. The United States provides aid and trade subsidies to Jordan, and development and military help for Yemen. The Obama administration should be telling its allies that it will underwrite real political and economic reform - but not the old dodges.