Op-Ed

Seize the Moment for Arab Reform

Tamara Cofman Wittes

U.S. President George W. Bush’s approach to foreign policy has long been decried as aggressively unilateral, so American diplomacy this past week indicated a dramatic shift. At the UN Security Council and at the G8 summit in Sea Island, Georgia, Bush accepted far-reaching compromises in order to corral endorsements from the world’s major powers for his policies in Iraq and on behalf of Middle Eastern reform. The emphasis on multilateralism is partly election-year image management, to be sure, but the new Security Council resolution on Iraq and the G8’s “Partnership for Progress and a Common Future” also represent Bush’s long-awaited bow to the necessity of international cooperation.

To achieve multilateral consensus, the G8 reform plan ended up long on declaratory rhetoric and short on meaningful steps to promote democracy in the region. However, in creating an institution that treats the Middle Eastern business sector and civil society as “full partners” in the reform process, the document provides an important opportunity that Arab reformers should not fail to grasp.

The G8 plan acknowledges that reform cannot be imposed from outside, that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict matters deeply to the region’s future and that different societies will change at different rates. Yet the document still holds out the idea that democratic rights are universal, that existing regional conflicts should not bar all progress toward democracy and that democratic reform is necessary to secure both the future of the region and the interests of the world.

In its action plan, however, the document hews to the lowest common denominator among the G8 partners. The new programs proclaimed by the G8 focus on traditional development concerns, like literacy and job training, and give increased attention to building up the Arab private sector. While these are worthy projects, they do not contribute directly (and arguably not even indirectly) to democratic reforms providing equal protection under law, freedom of association for civic groups or government accountability.

The G8 initiative’s boosters instead see its proposed “Forum for the Future” as the central institution that will advance the democratic agenda and hold Arab governments accountable to both internal and external demands for greater rights and freedoms. The forum is to include a regular meeting of government ministers, with parallel meetings for business and civil society groups, to discuss reform.

Although it was modeled in part on the Cold War’s Helsinki process, the new forum differs from its predecessor in one key respect. Helsinki grew from an agreement in which Western and Eastern Bloc states jointly committed to avoid overturning each other’s governments by force. In exchange, they agreed to a dialogue on human rights and increased freedom for civic groups at home.

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The G8 forum is rooted in no such bargain. It was created with Middle Eastern states treated as “targets” of the reform dialogue. The G8 states do not link joining the forum with enjoying other benefits of the G8 reform package (and certainly not with a mutual guarantee of sovereignty). This failure means that G8 states have already given away much of the initiative’s potential to persuade Arab autocrats to loosen their domestic controls. And with no human rights criteria for participating in the G8’s new literacy, job training and business promotion programs, Arab states are offered the help of the West to implement economic reforms they want, while ignoring political reforms they do not.

The G8 has given reluctant Arab governments no compelling reason to join the conversation on democracy the forum is meant to create. Already-skeptical Arab citizens can be forgiven for regarding the G8 plan as nearly as empty as the Arab League’s declaration on reform in Tunis last month.

But appearances can be deceiving. Despite the fondest wishes of some of its members, the G8 statement does not limit its dialogue on democracy to governments. The forum’s inclusion of Arab business and civic actors as full partners ensures that “local ownership” doesn’t give Arab autocrats a monopoly over articulating reform goals for their citizens. At the same time, by making room for human rights and democracy NGOs at the table, Western states are prevented from allowing political expediency or an all-encompassing war on terrorism to dictate their policy without someone calling them to account. In this way, the G8 agreement has provided Arab civil society with the potential for additional leverage it can employ—if it chooses to grasp the opportunity.

Arab civic groups can use the forum to test America’s and Europe’s commitment to democracy in the Middle East. In the next year or so, Qatar will prepare to implement a new constitution, Egypt will hold a presidential referendum and Iraq, hopefully, will be voting on both a president and a constitution.

The attitudes Western governments take toward such events in the Arab world will reveal their willingness to risk longstanding strategic ties in the name of spreading freedom. Will they insist that courts be free to decide cases on the legal merits rather than the family ties of plaintiffs? Will they support judges wanting to monitor elections? Will they pressure leaders to register new political parties? Most importantly, will their trade agreements and aid programs emphasize these goals, or will they continue to help grease the wheels of calcified bureaucracies?

The G8’s Forum for the Future is meant to discuss these issues, too, and the participation of Arab citizens will determine whether it does. If Arab businessmen and activists use the forum only to bemoan the Israeli occupation and report government repression, they will not find more than a sympathetic hearing. But as Western states formulate their policies on trade, aid and other key topics for the post-Saddam Middle East, Arab citizens can use the forum to have their say about how these important levers of regional political and economic change should be applied. Especially if Arab governments decline to take the forum seriously, Arab civil society could be a strong indigenous voice in shaping Western states’ vision of reform and guiding relevant Western policies toward the region.

But more than that, if Arab citizen groups embrace the G8 forum, they will lay down clear expectations to which their governments, as well as Western governments, will have to respond. Just as the Sanaa, Aqaba, Beirut and Alexandria conferences compelled the boldest Arab League statement on reform in years, a G8 Forum for the Future that enjoys active participation from Arab citizen groups will help keep Arab leaders honest about their statements and actions on reform, and will save the G8’s initiative from the irrelevance suggested by its compromising nature.

Because of the opportunity the G8 initiative presents, the coming year will be a test for Arab reformers, too. So far, reform activists have carefully balanced their criticisms with expressions of faith (however reluctant) in their rulers to do the right thing. They have phrased their calls for reform as recommendations to the Arab League and held out hope for, as the Alexandria Declaration put it, a “partnership between governments and civil society.” Because of this desire for consensus between government and society, and even more because of Bush’s assertive unilateralism, many Arab reformers have felt compelled to reject Western attempts to advance reform.

With the G8 statement on reform, however, the West has accepted Arab terms of local ownership, diversity of approaches and the central importance of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Along with this, the G8 Forum for the Future has provided a new opportunity for private Arab citizens finally to influence the way in which Western governments’ foreign policies affect their lives at home. Arab civil society would do well to take advantage of this new multilateralism.