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Arab Expert Says 'Everybody' in Arab World Talking of Need for Wide-Ranging Reforms

Interviewee: Nathan Brown, Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
March 26, 2004

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Nathan J. Brown, a leading expert on Arab democratization, says there is widespread interest in the Arab world in political and other reforms. President Bush has called for increased democracy in the Middle East, but calls for change are also being developed by Arab leaders, opposition figures, and intellectuals. Reform is due to be a major subject at the Arab League summit in Tunis March 29 and 30.

“There seems to be a consensus on where the Arab world has to go, that there has to be a more liberal political environment, there has to be broader participation, there has to be more accountability, there has to be less corruption, there has to be more democracy, and so on,” he says. “But people differ on how to get there.”

Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on March 25, 2004.


The Arab League is due to have a summit meeting next week in Tunisia. What’s that agenda likely to look like?

The agenda at this point is still being put together. There are some internal issues involving reform and that’s on many levels— the reform of the Arab League, political reform of Arab regimes, and some sort of answer to an anticipated American and perhaps a European set of initiatives on democratic reform. Then there are the “old” issues. The Palestinian issue is forcing itself on the agenda. It is going to be impossible to ignore after the assassination of [Hamas leader] Sheik Ahmed Yassin. And Iraq is obviously a major Arab concern. So they have an even fuller plate than usual.

Of course, in the United States, much of the attention in the run-up to the meeting has been on President Bush’s proposed democratization plan for the region. What would the United States like to see come out of the summit on that question?

What happened was that the administration has been ratcheting up the rhetoric on the need for reform in the Arab world. Over the past couple of years, Bush has publicly identified himself with this. There really isn’t a comprehensive American approach to the subject of democratization and reform, or even a clear definition of what reform really means. About a month ago, an early draft of an American working paper on a Greater Middle East initiative was leaked [and reprinted in the Arab press]. Basically this was something the Americans were in consultations with the Europeans on, and it caused interest in the Arab world because the existing regimes felt they had not been consulted on it.

And since then, the Bush administration, in its public rhetoric, has backpedaled a little bit, with the gentler touch of the State Department at work, talking about the need for consultation and working out reform agendas with the region. So, at this point, it is not exactly clear what the American initiative will be. It is not absolutely certain that there will be one. But it looks likely. Essentially what the Americans seem to have done is to have halted the public talk pending the Arab summit, hoping for a very strong Arab initiative they can buy into so that it won’t be seen as an imposed agenda.

Within the Arab world, who is pushing the idea of reform and democratization?

Everybody. That’s part of the problem. Existing regimes have gotten into the act. Oppositions have gotten into the act. The Muslim Brotherhood has waded in with its reform plan. Everyone is talking reform and a lot of that reform has a democratization agenda. And interestingly, if you examine the agendas of these different governments, oppositions, non-governmental organizations, even international actors, like the United States and the European Union, in very broad terms, they are sometimes speaking a fairly similar language.

Where they begin to differ is when you get down to specifics. Where they also differ is about implementation. There seems to be a consensus on where the Arab world has to go, that there has to be a more liberal political environment, there has to be broader participation, there has to be more accountability, there has to be less corruption, there has to be more democracy, and so on. But people differ on how to get there.

Among the various countries, we know Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has been talking about reforms. But where do these reforms stand now?

Saudi Arabia is probably one of the less accessible societies, but even that is beginning to change. The Saudis are talking about these issues a lot more openly. Essentially what they are talking about is having some local elections. There is certainly a more open and public discussion of issues than there was, say, a decade ago. So you have, I would say, a more liberal intellectual environment. But at the same time, the Saudis have made clear there is a limit, as they did last week with the arrest of some reformist intellectuals.

What’s going on in Egypt, a country with a parliament and regular elections, but single-party domination? Is there any movement there to loosen things up?

There is movement, but the problem in all these countries, and particularly in Egypt, is that it is not simply important to watch what people are saying but to ask who’s saying it. Everybody, again, is trying to pick up on the reform banner. But they mean different things by it. President [Hosni] Mubarak has basically said that reform is fine but it has to be gradual. He increasingly holds up the specter— openly and not just privately— that if you really want democratization you are going to have to deal with the Islamists. So, although he promises reform, his approach is at such a slow pace and with such limitations that it is not really convincing to any internal or external audience. But you have some other internal actors. The Muslim Brotherhood [a one-time terrorist group] launched a very interesting reform proposal, interesting simply in the fact that they were launching it. And Mubarak convened a group of Arab intellectuals in Alexandria recently to develop their own reform proposal. It didn’t receive that much attention, partly because it was an officially-sponsored effort, but if you look at the statement they developed, it was probably more detailed than a lot of vague reform calls coming out of the region.

Are these calls for reform primarily the result of the U.S. call for democratization in the region and pressure created by the U.S. occupation of Iraq?

No. Some of the themes being sounded go back at least a century. More recently, since the early 1990s, there has been an upsurge in discussion of political reform and democratization in the Arab world, and I would say it has picked up steam in the last five years or so. The Arab Human Development Report [written by Arab intellectuals and calling for wide-ranging reforms in the Arab world],which officials in the United States are so fond of quoting, was certainly not a response to September 11, or Iraq, or the United States, or anything like that, but in fact was launched in a ceremony at the Arab League headquarters itself. So there is some indigenous basis for it.

That said, I think a lot of the recent urgency in the discussions comes from a feeling that if reform initiatives are not developed internally, they will be imposed from the outside. Whether or not that’s fair, I don’t know. But it certainly seems to have elevated this from a discussion among intellectuals and activists to something that really has the attention of every single head of state in the region.

When you say “imposed from the outside,” do you mean that they fear that the United States might try to attack and occupy them?

I don’t think anyone’s thinking quite that way. Certainly there were some concerns about that immediately after Iraq, with the question of, “Who’s next?” I think it is fairly clear now that there isn’t going to be an immediate American military move. But many of these states have aligned their security policies with the United States for quite some time. Egypt has done so. All the states in the Arabian Peninsula have done so. And their major security partner now seems to be forcing the issue in a way that wasn’t being done, even as recently as a year ago.

Let’s turn to the Israel-Palestinian situation. A number of people say that nothing can really happen in the Middle East until there is a settlement on the Palestinian front. How is this linked to broader questions in the Arab world?

Logically, it is perhaps not linked at all. But politically there is a linkage. I say “logically” because there is no reason why in Egypt, for example, the [special] security courts have to exist, or why martial law has to be declared because of the Israeli-Arab conflict. The fact is that half a century of emergency and security measures and clamping down on political dissidents have not made Arab states more effective fighting forces against Israel.

So they can move forward on reform. And in fact, a lot of reformers say something akin to that: “Look, our regimes have failed in confronting Israel; they’ve failed domestically— it is time to reform them.” I think when the issue becomes international, particularly when the United States gets involved, there is an [additional] connection because the United States has begun recently waving its own version of the reform banner, and is being perceived as an insincere or hypocritical advocate of reform, partly because of its stand on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

It’s expected that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will put forth his plan for a unilateral withdrawal from all of Gaza and 50 percent of the West Bank. What kind of impact will that have in the Palestinian territories?

Well, not all Palestinians are leaping for joy at this possibility for a couple of reasons. Sharon is very interested in being seen as withdrawing because Israel wants to do so, and not because it is being forced to withdraw. And so there is some anticipation that it will be accompanied by a series of extremely forceful actions, something along the lines of the assassination of Sheik Ahmed Yassin repeated many times. That’s one reason for apprehension. Another reason for apprehension is the fear that this will be an imposed final settlement. But a third is internal. The Palestinian Authority (PA) does continue to operate, but it is on fairly shaky footing, and the major political movement that supports it, the Fatah movement, is probably in worse shape than the PA. And Hamas seems to be very much in the ascendancy. So if the Israelis pull out, there will certainly be intense rivalry over who exerts authority, but there is also concern that it might go beyond rivalry and even become a civil war.

Experts seem to say that Sharon won’t do this without a U.S. blessing. Should the United States be holding out for something?

It is ironic because Sharon’s cabinet seems to be saying, “You shouldn’t do this unless you get some concessions from the United States.” That may be one reason the initiative hasn’t gone that far, because everybody regards it as a concession for which they should get something in return. I don’t think this is a promising way to manage the conflict. It doesn’t strike me as something the United States should encourage.

Your colleague, former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, said in an interview the other day that the United States should hold out for some kind of right to establish a U.S. force in Gaza that would at least take control of the former settlements until there was a functioning Palestinian government to do so. That does not seem like a real possibility right now. What do you think?

It is an idea that has a lot of attraction in it, but it doesn’t seem politically feasible in the United States right now to be launching another military commitment at a time when we are still tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan. And anything broader than the United States, say, something international, would probably raise a lot of Israeli concerns.

Is it possible that the Sharon initiative might not get off the ground?

I think it might get off the ground, not because it will be a concession by Israel, although Sharon will probably try to sell it to the United States that way, but because it implements a long-term vision of how to manage the Palestinian issue without a total withdrawal. You build the fence, you withdraw from areas which are less defensible, or more closely located to Palestinian population centers, and you begin to have a situation that is more bearable in the long term.

And in Iraq, what will happen on June 30?

Well, there will be a sovereign Iraq.

In total chaos?

No, I don’t think so. But I will say that the signals I read coming out of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) [the U.S.-led occupation government in Baghdad] is that the transition on June 30 will be a formal and legal transition to Iraqi sovereignty but not necessarily a diminution of the American role there. The CPA will become an American embassy, but if you take a look at the provisions of the Transitional Administrative Law [interim constitution], if you take a look at some of the legislation that the CPA has been issuing lately, they are clearly anticipating a more prolonged presence in Iraq, most especially in the security realm, but also in all sorts of other spheres as well.

Will the United Nations get involved?

They are involved, but the question is how extensively they will be involved in the future. What the United Nations really has to offer is the ability to solve a critical legitimacy problem both for the CPA and the Iraqi Governing Council [the coalition-appointed Iraqi advisory council]. What the United Nations can do is give a blessing to interim arrangements that will have a lot more legitimacy internationally and in Iraq than anything the CPA or Governing Council can do. There is very strong incentive to pull the United Nations in.

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