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Analysts Assess Impact of Full Democracy in Iraq on Arab Governments - 2003-09-16

Key officials in the Bush administration say that when a new, freely elected Iraqi leadership is established, there will be significant pressure on Arab governments to become more democratic. They argue that if more people are able to rule themselves in countries with prosperous economies, the atmosphere that is fueling hatred and terrorism in the Middle East can be changed. Many analysts agree with these positions, although some say the democratization of the Arab world is likely to take a very long time.

Autocracies in the Middle East have staying power and even after a post-war government is established in Iraq, reformers in Arab countries are still expected to struggle to promote civil liberties, competitive elections and a pluralistic vision of Islam.

Adel Abdellatif, regional coordinator for the program on governance for Arab states at the United Nations, says not one Arab country has a democratic government. "Democracy did not come to this region in fact because in the 22 Arab countries, members of the Arab League, cannot identify any of them to be a democratic country," he said. "In fact none of the Arab governments pretend that they are democratic."

Larry Diamond, co-director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies, says one of the challenges to change in the Arab world is concern about what type of government could replace the existing leadership.

"The fear, which is sometimes expressed bluntly and sometimes not, goes beyond the natural reluctance of the region's autocrats to relinquish their indefinite grip on power," said Mr. Diamond, who is editor of a just released book called Islam and Democracy in the Middle East. "It encompasses as well some of the natural constituency for democracy internally and abroad, which fears that a precipitous political opening could bring to power radical, Islamist forces that would merely use competitive elections to impose an even more repressive system."

Gilles Kepel, a professor at the Institute for Political Studies in Paris and author of the book Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam says after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States western nations are becoming less willing to support some Arab governments just because they offer a stable source of oil.

"Where are the strains on the system?" asked Professor Kepel. "I would say that there are some strains at first on the external level. Thanks to the changes in the global environment, media awareness, the global village prediction, it is becoming increasingly an embarrassment at home for western powers to be seen as the backers of a really bad anti-democratic regime."

New York Times newspaper columnist Thomas Friedman, who lived in Beirut and Jerusalem and has written extensively about the Middle East, says he supported the war against Iraq because he believes Arab countries being led by autocratic governments have created a breeding ground for terrorists.

"We are now up against a region that, at its margins, produces young people who hate us more than they love life," he said. "In the world we live in there is basically no wall high enough, no metal detector efficient enough and no border agent smart enough to ultimately protect an open society from people motivated by that vision."

Mr. Friedman says a democratic Iraq will be unique in the Arab world and can serve as an inspiration to Arabs of other nations in the Middle East.

He says the Arab world desperately needs a working model that would create pressure for gradual democratization and modernization around the region. "I am not here advocating sweeping away the governments, autocratic governments of 22 Arab states," he said. "But if we can partner with Iraqis, and partnership is to me the essential term here, to create a space at least in one country where people can stand up and tell the truth and take ownership of their country and tilt it in a modern, progressive way, I think we have done the Lord's work."

Mr. Friedman says it will take a long time for the changes in Iraq to bring about other democratic governments for 280 million Arabs in the Middle East. In fact he calls it the "mother of all long haul" projects.

Mr. Friedman says, however, open, western societies must actively support such a change or face an unending and uncertain future of possible terrorist attacks.