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A Faltering Freedom Agenda

The disillusion of Muslim reformers.

12:00 AM, Apr 9, 2008 • By JOSEPH LOCONTE and RADWAN MASMOUDI
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WHATEVER THE ACTUAL results of Egypt's municipal elections yesterday, the fix is in: President Hosni Mubarak made sure that even the most moderate and reform-minded candidates would be shut out of the process. The charade of democratic elections in Egypt typifies the Bush administration's faltering freedom agenda for the Arab world.

When President George W. Bush delivered his first major speech on democracy in the Middle East, it seemed as if the United States had turned a page of history. "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," Bush said in the fall of 2003. "Therefore, the United States has adopted a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East."

Never had an American president so openly admitted his country's failure to advance democratic ideals. Never had a Western leader so boldly asserted that democracy could and must take root in the Middle East. This profession, joined with a promise of a fundamental shift in U.S. policy, raised the hopes of Muslim reformers in the region. In an open letter to President Bush, "Support Freedom in the Arab World" (published in the Washington Post on October 11, 2006), 105 Arab and Muslim democrats framed the challenge this way: "Freedom and democracy are the only ways to build a world where violence is replaced by peaceful public debate and political participation, and despair is replaced by hope, tolerance and dignity."

Many of the signatories, however, already had begun to doubt the seriousness of the administration's vision. Today the aspirations of many have succumbed to cynicism. The question we hear too often from Muslim reformers is this: What has become of the Bush democracy agenda?

Following the historic elections in Afghanistan and Iraq, there was dramatic talk in early 2005 of an "Arab Spring," the stirrings of real democratic change. In Lebanon, Christian and Muslim protestors marched together to bring down the puppet government installed by Syria. In Damascus, over 140 Syrian intellectuals signed a statement opposing their government's occupation of Lebanon. Demonstrations in Egypt forced Mubarak to allow a multiple-candidate election for president for the first time. Tunisia released hundreds of political prisoners, and even Saudi Arabia held unprecedented local elections.

These developments were real and important--and easily reversible. Indeed, Arab dictatorships have not loosened their grip on political power, nor begun to embrace democratic ideals. They continue to thwart the rise of a strong and independent civil society. In many countries, the status of women, press freedom, and the independence of the judiciary remain appalling. None of this is likely to change without prolonged engagement, and pressure, from the United States.

This kind of tough and strategic diplomacy has never really been tried, however, and the consequences for Muslim democrats have been dire. The retreat from political reform, now evident throughout much of the Islamic world, is especially significant in Egypt, the largest recipient of U.S. aid in the region apart from Israel. Over the last two years, Mubarak has arrested liberal-minded activists, cracked down on political parties, further muzzled freedom of the press, and restricted the activities of non-governmental organizations. Political repression extends well beyond the orbit of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. More than 800 political dissidents--most of them committed to non-violence--have been arrested in the past six months alone, in the run-up to this week's local elections. Ayman Nour, who founded the liberal al-Ghad and challenged Mubarak in the 2005 presidential elections, still languishes in prison on phony charges.

Meanwhile, the Egyptian government manipulates Islam to preserve its uncontested authority. On the one hand, Mubarak's regime portrays itself as the only "moderate" alternative to the forces of extremism. On the other hand, it ignores constitutional protections of religious freedom and equal justice under the law. If the government abuses the rights of its majority Sunni Muslim population, how can it respect the rights of minorities? In fact, severe restrictions on freedom of worship, in conjunction with the use of religious identity cards, are feeding a culture of intolerance toward religious minorities. The end result: Disfavored groups--including Coptic Christians, Shia Muslims, and Baha'is--are becoming the scapegoats for society's ills.