Drowned out by the bombings in Iraq, and the debate over whether the staging of elections there is an achievable goal or a mirage, the Bush administration's democracy initiative for the rest of the Middle East creeps quietly forward. In neo-realist Washington, it is usually dismissed -- when it is remembered at all -- in much the same way that, say, national elections in Afghanistan were once laughed off. The unpopularity of the Bush administration and the predictable resistance from the dictatorships of Egypt and Saudi Arabia are cited as proof that the region's hoped-for "transformation" is going nowhere.
And yet, the process started at the Sea Island summit of Group of Eight countries in June is gaining some traction -- sometimes to the surprise of the administration's own skeptics. A foreign ministers' meeting in New York two weeks ago produced agreement that the first "Forum for the Future" among Middle Eastern and G-8 governments to discuss political and economic liberalization will take place in December. Morocco volunteered to host it, and a handful of other Arab governments, including Jordan, Bahrain and Yemen, have embraced pieces of the process.
More intriguingly, independent human rights groups and pro-democracy movements around the region are continuing to sprout, gather and issue manifestos -- all in the name of supporting the intergovernmental discussions. An independent human rights group appeared in Syria this month; Saudi women organized a movement to demand the right to vote in upcoming municipal elections. On the same day that the Egyptian foreign minister belittled what is now called the Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative (BMENA) in an interview with The Post, an unprecedented alliance of opposition parties and citizens' groups issued a platform in Cairo calling for the lifting of emergency laws, freedom of the press and direct, multi-candidate elections for president.
While there have been some arrests, most of the nascent democrats are surviving. Despite all the defiant rhetoric, Egyptian and Saudi police, it turns out, are hesitant to pummel people who say they are responding to the president of the United States.
White House architects of BMENA are quietly pleased: This is exactly what they had hoped for. No one really expects most Arab governments -- or even most Europeans -- to take the cause of Middle Eastern democracy seriously in the near future. But just as the Cold War-era Helsinki process encouraged independent democracy and human rights groups to spring up under the cover of intergovernmental talks, the Forum for the Future has given Arab democrats a crucial opportunity.
"A voice is beginning to emerge that wasn't there before," says Carl Gershman, the president of the National Endowment for Democracy, who attended a meeting of Western and Middle Eastern civil society groups alongside the recent foreign ministers' gathering. "Most of these people are unknown, they are faceless, but there are a surprising number of them, and the number is growing. They see that they have an opening, and they want to take advantage of it."
A "civil society dialogue" was explicitly built into the Forum for the Future process agreed to by the G-8 and Muslim governments, along with a forum for private business. Acting under that cover, more than 40 representatives of civil society groups from across the Middle East as well as from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Turkey gathered in Beirut early last month to consider goals and strategy. They chose 10 representatives to travel to New York and deliver a statement to the foreign ministers' meeting; along with the businessmen, they will have their own tent at the upcoming Morocco event. The New York group included activists from Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Pakistan and Yemen.
Their statement, read aloud to Secretary of State Colin Powell and two dozen other foreign ministers by Noha Mikawi, an Egyptian woman, was wonderfully bold -- and energized a previously skeptical Powell. "We are here as individuals," Mikawi said, "women and men who believe in the rule of law, an independent judiciary to protect it, an active and freely elected parliament to enact laws, an accountable, freely elected government to carry them through, and in meaningful human rights, including foremost the freedom of expression."
"We do not claim to represent our societies: only a free vote will," the statement said. "What we can confidently claim to represent is a pressing voice in our societies that calls for a profound, nonviolent change at all levels." Each state, it said, should have "set goals and clear milestones for reform within a foreseeable time plan." As for their own mission, the activists said, "what civil society can provide . . . is the power to pressure reluctant governments (and reluctant fellow citizens), keeping a watchful eye on the processes of and progress towards reform."
Such empowering grass-roots rhetoric has never before been heard in the Arab Middle East. If the United States fails in Iraq, it may well be snuffed out. But for now, for those who are listening, it offers reason for hope.