The Magazine

Reading Them the Riyadh Act

From the July 4 / July 11, 2005 issue: Condoleezza Rice prods our dictatorial allies.

Jul 4, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 40 • By JONATHAN KARL
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Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

ON JUNE 20 IN CAIRO, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did something no U.S. secretary of state has ever done in the Middle East. She forcefully and publicly told America's most important allies in the region to stop oppressing their citizens. She called on Egypt to lift the emergency decree that has given Hosni Mubarak near absolute power since the assassination of Anwar Sadat 24 years ago. She called on Saudi Arabia to give women voting rights and to free three individuals imprisoned earlier this year for criticizing the government. In Riyadh the following day, reporters asked Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal about the speech. With Secretary Rice by his side, he said, "I have not read it, to my eternal shame."

In another first, Rice devoted a considerable amount of her public and private comments to political reform and, specifically, women's rights. The Saudis, however, aren't exactly shaking in their sandals. They figure U.S. concerns about the flow of oil and the fight against terrorism will continue to trump all this talk about freedom and democracy. When asked by a reporter about the three political prisoners Rice wants released, Prince Saud said curtly, "I told the secretary of state that they have broken a law."

But both the Saudis and the Egyptians feel a need to at least appear like they are reforming, and that is a start. At Rice's joint press conference with Prince Saud, the Saudis put three women journalists in the front row. They were dressed in the traditional abaya, covering them from head to toe in black--or almost head to toe. One of the women wore open-toed shoes revealing nail polish so bright it was impossible not to notice. Prince Saud called on the women for the first and last questions. "We like to open with the ladies and close with the ladies," he said. Rice seemed impressed by the presence of the women, telling reporters later "that was both interesting and important." The gesture, however, may have been more patronizing than meaningful. Saudi Arabia has neither freedom of the press nor basic rights for women.

By virtually any measure of political rights and civil liberties, Saudi Arabia deserves a spot on Rice's "outposts of tyranny" list. Three separate State Department reports over the past year--on human rights, on religious freedom, on human trafficking--portray Saudi Arabia as one of the most repressive places on earth. Freedom House gives Saudi Arabia its lowest rating for political freedom, a distinction shared by North Korea. Three of the six countries Rice called "outposts of tyranny" (Iran, Belarus, and Zimbabwe) are actually rated higher by Freedom House, that is, they are more free than Saudi Arabia. The Freedom House ratings don't paint a pretty picture of Egypt either--giving it just slightly better marks than Iran and Belarus.

None of this mattered much to U.S. policymakers before President Bush put democracy in the Middle East at the center of his foreign policy. Rice's speech in Cairo, echoing the theme of President Bush's second inaugural address, provides a new yardstick to measure U.S. policy in the region. As Rice said in Cairo, "For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East--and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people."

The speech was crafted by a 25-year-old speechwriter named Christian Brose; his earlier drafts went even further, prompting one senior career State Department official to remind Rice's team about the economic and strategic importance of Saudi Arabia. "Do you want $11-dollar-a-gallon gasoline?" the official asked.

In a measure of how important the White House viewed the speech and Rice's trip to the region, Mike Gerson came along for the ride. Gerson is one of the three or four most influential people in the White House. Gerson penned the presidential inaugural; he has also earned a reputation as perhaps the best presidential speechwriter since Ted Sorensen. Gerson, though, has traded in his speechwriting job to become a senior policy adviser with a vast portfolio that includes the democracy agenda. In the two days before the speech, Gerson was on hand, making edits and taking notes.

Rice's words and actions on her first tour of the Middle East as secretary of state were bold and dramatic compared with those of her predecessors. But no other administration has ever really tried pushing democracy in the Arab world. Jimmy Carter did press the shah of Iran on human rights in the late 1970s, but the results were disastrous, as the shah fell from power only to be replaced by Ayatollah Khomeini. And not even Carter, with all his talk about human rights, put pressure on Egypt or Saudi Arabia.

When Madeleine Albright, as America's first female secretary of state, visited Saudi Arabia, she meekly said, "I hope that in our future discussions in New York [at the U.N.] and when we meet again, we can speak about the role of women in your societies and around the world." They never did get around to that discussion. Compare that with Rice's loud declaration in Cairo: "Half a democracy is not a democracy."

Rice's actions in the Middle East are, however, carefully calibrated to pressure allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia as hard as possible without undermining their important strategic relationships with the United States. That means pushing but not too hard. One of the most visible symbols of Saudi Arabia's abysmal record on women's rights is the law against women driving. I asked Rice about it in an interview following her Cairo speech and was surprised when she refused to criticize this blatantly discriminatory law. "I'm going to worry about women voting," she says. "I don't know about women driving."

Could it be that Secretary Rice won't even criticize a law that makes it illegal for women to drive? "It's just a line I have not wanted to cross," she says. "I think it is important that we do have some boundaries about what it is that we are trying to achieve. . . . I have not wanted to in any society go in and say women ought to be able to do this activity or that activity." The driving ban, she suggests, may or may not be a violation of women's rights in Saudi society. On the other hand, it could simply be a custom that is perfectly acceptable to Saudi women. The way you can tell, she argues, is by getting political rights for women.

"I am quite certain that when women are able to express their aspirations and their views in the political system, we will see what is really custom and what really does matter to Saudi women." Even with full political rights for Saudi women, Rice suggests, the law against women driving could remain. "The United States has to recognize even after democratic processes take place, places are not going to look like the United States in terms of social mores."

Rice tries to balance the tough talk about democracy with talk of humility in foreign policy. When I ask her why she isn't tougher on the Saudis, she says, "Let's be a little bit humble about what the United States had to go through to fully extend the democratic enterprise." She points out, as she often does, that it took nearly a century to end slavery, that women didn't get the right to vote until the early 20th century, and that blacks didn't get full voting rights until 1965.

Rice has shown less timidity toward Egypt. In Cairo, she met with a small group of opposition figures, including Ayman Nour, who had been jailed on what the United States considered trumped-up charges. Rice strongly objected when Nour was arrested in January and canceled an earlier planned trip to Egypt. When Nour met with Rice, he quietly passed her a note, thanking her for standing up for him while he was in jail.

But even in Egypt, Rice pulled some punches. She did not meet with the two largest and most important opposition movements: The Muslim Brotherhood and Kifaya. Kifaya, or "enough," is a coalition of activists that has held several prominent anti-Mubarak rallies over the past few months, including one on May 25 in Cairo that was broken up by club-wielding thugs who beat up demonstrators, including many women. Rice condemned the beatings, but didn't get around to inviting members of the group to her meeting with opposition leaders.

As for the Muslim Brotherhood, Rice points out that the group is banned by the Egyptian government and says, "We are going to respect Egyptian laws." But if you're going to support democratic activists in authoritarian countries, you are inevitably going to deal with banned groups. In fact, earlier this year, Rice herself met with dissidents from Belarus whose activities are certainly illegal in that country.

Still, Rice pressed Egypt far more than any senior U.S. official ever has. With Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit by her side, Rice said it is "essential" that Egypt hold free and fair elections this fall, something Egypt has never done. Gheit responded, "Who would object to fair, transparent elections? Everybody wants a fair, transparent election, and they will be so, I assure you."

Almost nobody believes that. For 24 years, President Mubarak has ruled without facing a political opponent. Now he has promised competitive elections, but the rules are so onerous as to virtually guarantee the exclusion of any serious challenger. If Egypt's elections fall short, however, the Egyptians will have to explain why. And Rice will have to explain what the United States is going to do about it.

All this Arab democracy talk is viewed with apprehension in Israel, long hailed as the only democracy in the Middle East. The Israelis have watched Hamas and Hezbollah fare well in elections and would rather deal with reliable Arab despots than virulently anti-Israel Arab populists. "Let's assume a quick democratization of Egypt or Jordan," says Israeli political scientist Yehezkel Dror. "Will it strengthen their peace with Israel? Certainly not. The ruling elites understand the need for peace with Israel. But the public in the streets, the masses in the marketplaces, definitely don't."

Rice isn't necessarily pushing for quick democratization, but she, like the president, is willing to take short-term risks for a chance to make the history books. As one of her senior advisers told me: "As goes the democracy effort, so goes her legacy." And so goes the president's.

Jonathan Karl is senior foreign affairs correspondent for ABC News.