Middle East Democracy
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MARGARET WARNER: President Bush yesterday laid out his vision for a democratic Middle East. In a speech in Washington, he said the West won’t be truly secure until autocratic Arab regimes make political and civic reforms.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Sixty years of western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe, because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence, ready for export.
MARGARET WARNER: To bolster his case, the president cited recent findings by a group of Arab intellectuals, published under the auspices of the United Nations Development Program.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: In the words of a recent report by Arab scholars, the global wave of democracy has, and I quote, “barely reached the Arab states.” They continue, “this freedom deficit undermines human development, and is one of the most painful manifestations of lagging political development.” The freedom deficit they describe has terrible consequences for the people of the Middle East and for the world.
MARGARET WARNER: In two recent reports, the Arab experts challenged regional leaders and publics to address what they called three “deficits afflicting the Arab world:” In freedom, women’s rights and knowledge.
This year’s report painted a bleak picture of the widening gaps between Arab countries and the rest of the world in media, scientific inquiry and education. And in some countries, the report said, alliances between conservative religious leaders and oppressive regimes have exacerbated the problem. To close the gaps, the authors recommended democratic changes that would “remove all restrictions on essential freedoms.”
Yesterday, President Bush said some Arab governments were beginning to see the need for change. He cited some early democratic steps in Morocco, Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan, Yemen, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. And President Bush said bringing democracy to Iraq would play an essential role in transforming the region.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, two Arab perspectives on President Bush’s call for democratic reform in the Middle East. Murhaf Jouejati, a scholar at the Middle East Institute and adjunct professor of international relations in the Middle East at George Washington University. Born and raised in Syria, he’s now a U.S. citizen. And Edmund Ghareeb, an adjunct professor in the School of International Service at American University, and author of several books on Iraq and on the Middle East. Born in Lebanon, he’s a U.S. citizen.
Welcome to you both. Murhaf Jouejati, what did you make of President Bush’s call on Arab governments to make democratic reforms?
MURHAF JOUEJATI: I think it was a very good call. I think it was a very good message. It was a very good speech, although I have a few problems here and there with it. But on the whole, it was a great message, and I am happy that this was an opportunity to send the message to the Arab political elite that it needs to change and it needs to change now.
MARGARET WARNER: Important message to the Arab political elite?
EDMUND GHAREEB: Absolutely, it’s an important message to the Arab political elite and important message when it comes to the idea of democracy. I think it is an important speech we heard. The reference that he made to the mistakes that were made by the West, the support for authoritarian governments in the past was very important. And also something else he said, that Islam is not incompatible with democracy. I thought that was also a very important statement to make.
MARGARET WARNER: Before we go on with the president’s speech, let me ask you both about — both he and these two reports that we’ve seen link — say that the lack of political freedom is really at the root of the lack of development in the Arab world: Education, media, scientific inquiry and learning. Do you agree with that? Is that a big problem?
MURHAF JOUEJATI: I think no doubt. When people are confined politically, they cannot grow economically. They cannot create. Their creativity has to be unleashed and that can only happen through democracy. So, yes, political and economic underdevelopment at the end of the day, is really tied to the fact that these are despotic authoritarian regimes that are dominating societies, that are unable to advance as a result of these dictatorships.
MARGARET WARNER: Yet in the Middle East — I mean in Asia, professor, you did have economic development, say in China or in South Korea, the way it was then under still autocratic regimes. Are the two absolutely incompatible?
EDMUND GHAREEB: I’m not sure they are absolutely incompatible, but of course it would be preferable to have economic development, economic growth at the same time and perhaps some privatization as well, and have freedom in addition. I think both are necessary. The problem is what has been the problems behind the situation in the Middle East? Has it been simply just the absence of freedom? I think it’s much more complex than that. It has something to do with history, has something to do with economics, it has to do with culture, it has to do with foreign interference in the region. All of these are important when it comes to what has happened over the past 60, 70 years.
MARGARET WARNER: So what did you both make, and you referred to this professor, but I’ll ask you Mr. Jouejati, of the quote we just ran from the president. The guts of his speech really is too that the U.S. has an important role to play, and he said 60 years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe, stability can’t be purchased at the expense of liberty.
MURHAF JOUEJATI: This is a fantastic admission of failure of the West in general, and the United States in particular, which has been supporting autocratic despotic regimes for the past 50 years. I hope this is a new course that the United States will be set on by President Bush; a course in which the United States will no longer support autocratic and despotic regimes. Now the message is very good. However, I think many Arabs would be skeptical as to the messenger because here we must not forget and we must not take away from the equation the presence of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the role of the United States in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the blind support the U.S. has given to Israel. And so here many Arabs would be skeptical. They do not want to hear words alone. They want to see deeds.
MARGARET WARNER: Did you see it one as an admission of failure as Mr. Jouejati did on the part of the U.S. government? And specifically which regimes do you think he is talking about or to which regimes do you think it applies?
EDMUND GHAREEB: Well, this is very interesting actually, when we look at this because the date was very interesting to me. I mean he said 60 years ago. Why 60 years ago? What happened 60 years ago? Was he perhaps referring to a meeting between President Roosevelt and the Saudi king? Is this a sign also to the Saudis perhaps?
Why didn’t he refer, for example to 50 years ago, to what happened in Iran, the overthrow by the United States and by England, the CIA and MI-6 interfered to overthrow the democratically elected government of Mossadegh. That’s one of the most important historical events in the region that people now refer to and talk about because they see it as an attempt by the United States, by the West in fact, to block democratic transformation and to bring governments that are not representative of the people and that are, that they want to bring governments that serve western interests and help perhaps the control over oil because oil is an important factor at that time.
MARGARET WARNER: Have either of you seen evidence that the U.S. is ready to press, for instance, the president referred specifically to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, two countries with long-standing U.S. ties, saying he wished, he thought they should lead in this transformation.
What do you think the U.S. has to do? Do you see any evidence the U.S. Is exercising is any kind of — I don’t want to say pressure because maybe that’s not what you think is required, but doing anything to move them?
MURHAF JOUEJATI: It’s good that you use the word “pressure,” because here again we have to be very, very careful with the use of pressure. What the use of U.S. pressure is doing, unwittingly I think, is uniting states and society and that is counterproductive to the cause of democratization.
Case in point: In Syria recently, a Syrian leadership that wanted to reshuffle the cabinet and to bring in a new reformist team, this has not happened as a result of U.S. pressure because the president of Syria feared that he would be seen as bowing to American pressure. So we have to be very careful with the use of pressure. I think the United States needs to encourage these societies and these states to open up rather than to use simply sticks, because in the end that is going to be counterproductive.
MARGARET WARNER: Your view on that.
EDMUND GHAREEB: I think to a certain extent I agree with that. The United States needs to encourage, I think, but how do you encourage? You encourage, in part, by example. You encourage, in part, by also the behavior, the practice and the policies that you pursue in the region. That’s the best message to send to the people in the area. That’s one of the questions because now today I was talking to some people in the area, and we were talking actually about the speech, and some of them said, “well, who is the target?” And two people actually said that.
MARGARET WARNER: So they saw it as a question of being a target.
EDMUND GHAREEB: Not only that. They saw who was the target of this speech. They believe, one person said the target of this speech was American audience; that American president was coming to an election year, was having difficulty, facing difficulties in Iraq, facing difficulties in the Middle East, he wanted to address his own people first, to mobilize support for people of Iraq. Secondly, he was talking to the people of Middle East. One — the other person, however focused on the angle that Professor Jouejati mentioned, and that’s Syria, was he targeting, priming Syria and Iran? Was he priming Syria to be part of the axis of evil?
MARGARET WARNER: What did you hear in the reaction and what did you read? I assume you have been looking at the Internet and Arab television, to this speech?
MURHAF JOUEJATI: I found mixed reactions. And these are not “this category of people think this” and “this category of people think that.” But it is the same people who have mixed reactions. On the one hand, they are very happy to hear about democracy and freedom and this coming from a United States that has supported autocratic regimes. But, on the other hand, again, they are skeptical. Is this the democratic U.S. that we are hearing that at the same time is biased towards Israel and even arming it in its brutality against the Palestinian people? So here they are open to this message of freedom, yet extremely skeptical, and they need to see things on the ground rather than simply to hear words.
MARGARET WARNER: Another big assertion in this speech by the president, and we’ve heard it before, but he made it again, is that transforming Iraq into a democracy will be an absolutely, you know, watershed event, I think is what he said. Do you think that’s true?
EDMUND GHAREEB: Well, absolutely. If Iraq could be transformed by the United States toward democracy, there is no doubt it would be a model for the whole region. The question is this — how feasible, how likely is something like this to happen. So far what we’ve seen, in fact situation is becoming much more complex, more messy, and in fact the arena here was at least a country that was more secular, it’s becoming a target for some of the more radical forces, Islamic radicalism, radical nationalists are emerging in the area. So it is doing at least so far has achieved the opposite of what has been declared.
MURHAF JOUEJATI: We have to be very careful here with our wishes for a spillover effect. A democratic Iraq that is governed by the Iraqi people is a very good thing and would send wonderful, positive democratic messages to the rest of the Middle East. But we are not there yet; this is No. 1. And No. 2, we have to look around in the neighborhood. A democratizing Yemen has not pushed Saudi Arabia towards democracy. A democratizing Lebanon has not pushed Syria towards democracy, nor has a democratizing Morocco done anything to Algeria. So here it would be a great thing if Iraq could do that, but we have to be very careful in our expectations.
MARGARET WARNER: So bottom line, how realistic did you feel yesterday’s speech was or was it not intended to be? Was that not the point?
EDMUND GHAREEB: I think this was perhaps, I’m not so sure that the president believes it, but I think there is no doubt that this is more of a utopian kind of vision because of the complexities of the region, because of the questions, the skepticism about the messenger, about the purposes behind this speech, because also we have to remember that people, in part, some of the people dislike the United States policies and they dislike the United States because they see their governments are supporting governments that are oppressive, authoritarian. At the same time, there are people who don’t like their governments because they see their governments kowtowing to the United States. This is one of the basic challenges the United States is going to face is how to try to communicate to the people in the region and try to change their attitudes.
MURHAF JOUEJATI: I like the speech very much. I’m happy it sent the message to the Arab political elite. It is high time that the Arab world democratized, and there is nothing to justify the lack thereof. And I do hope that these words translate into deeds very soon.
MARGARET WARNER: Murhaf Jouejati and Professor Ghareeb, thank you.