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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.

The threat of religious extremism is real enough in the Middle East. Yet Arab governments use the specter of Islamic fundamentalism as a proxy to justify thuggish and autocratic policies. It is a self-defeating strategy. The cocktail of repression, economic stagnation, and social unrest--over half of the 320 million Arabs in the region are under 20 years of age--invites political radicalism.

As various human-rights organizations report, Egypt's political regression is being duplicated in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Jordan, and beyond. What especially galls Muslim reformers is that all this is happening with hardly a whisper of protest from the Bush administration. (Yesterday the State Department declined to condemn Egypt's rigged elections.) Under different circumstances, America's sacrifices in Afghanistan and Iraq might have persuaded many of its commitment to political reform--but not today. Numerous conversations with Muslim democrats make one thing clear: They are increasingly scornful of a democracy agenda that seems selectively applied to suite narrow U.S. interests.

During his Middle East trip earlier this year, President Bush gently referred to "some setbacks" to democratic reform. But he avoided any direct criticism of the brutality and corruption that passes for political leadership in the Arab world. Meanwhile, U.S. aid continues to flow unhindered to the region, supporting unprincipled and undemocratic rulers. The administration's Middle East Partnership Initiative, aimed at strengthening grass-roots reformers, remains woefully underfunded and saw its budget cut from $150 million last year to less than $50 million for fiscal 2008.

What can be done diplomatically to challenge the illiberal regimes of the Middle East and embolden democratic reformers?

First, the Bush administration should loudly insist that the Mubarak government release Ayman Nour and those political prisoners--academics, journalists, human rights activists, and others--arrested in the latest crackdown. If public pressure fails, the administration should threaten to withhold a portion of its economic support to Egypt until it complies with international human-rights guarantees.

Second, U.S. diplomats must seriously engage with leaders of moderate Islamic parties, those who reject violence and endorse democracy, about how best to promote democratic governance and human rights in their countries. This will require the State Department to abandon its almost exclusively secular approach to political reform in the region--a tone-deafness to matters of faith that has frustrated would-be reformers.

Third, the United States should establish an annual fund of at least $500 million to support Arab and Muslim non-governmental organizations of all kinds that are genuinely committed to representative government and political and religious freedom. As Tocqueville once observed of America, it is the religious organizations of civil society that "direct the customs of the community" and are "indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions." The same will be true of any long-term democratic reform in the Middle East.

Finally, the administration should support, much more robustly than it has to date, American Muslims and American Muslim organizations to promote democratic freedoms from within an Islamic perspective--to develop a modern interpretation of Islam that puts the principles of self-government and human dignity at the core of its moral theology. These groups can become a vital resource for Muslim democrats in the Arab world and beyond.

In a speech at Abu Dhabi in January, President Bush again raised expectations of U.S. support for democratic change. "You cannot build trust when you hold an election where opposition candidates find themselves harassed or in prison," he said. "You cannot expect people to believe in the promise of a better future when they are jailed for peacefully petitioning their government."

We agree with the president's words, and we're grateful for them. But the qualities of trust and hope have taken a severe beating in recent years, and will require much more than words to be revived.

Radwan Masmoudi is the president of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, which conducts democracy workshops throughout the Muslim world. Joseph Loconte is a senior fellow at Pepperdine University's School of Public Policy and a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.