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Middle East Resents Outside Pressure to Implement Democratic Reforms, say Experts - 2004-02-22

Months before it is officially announced, President Bush's plan to promote democracy in the Middle East has led to a spirited debate in the region's intellectual and diplomatic circles. Lebanon's foreign minister says the Arab world will not act under U.S. pressure to implement democratic reforms.

Lebanon's foreign minister, Jean Obeid, says Arab nations cannot carry out reforms to please outsiders, nor can democracy be exported ready-made to countries in the region.

Mr. Obeid made the remarks to reporters following a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The foreign minister said the two leaders discussed Washington's plans to encourage Arab nations to adopt social and democratic reforms in exchange for increased economic and strategic aid, or what U.S. officials are calling the Greater Middle East Initiative.

The U.S. plan has not been finalized, but Washington officials say they will present it at a summit between major western nations in June.

A former assistant to Egypt's minister of foreign affairs and professor of international law at Cairo University, Abdullah El-Ashaal, says the Arab world does not oppose the idea of democracy.

"The area needs a deep experience of democracy," he said. "The area is in fact longing for, as it has been mentioned by President George Bush, democracy because [of] as you see, corruption, ineffectiveness, and frustration, which is the main cause of terrorism, and the no-hope future of youth in the area."

But Mr. El-Ashaal says many Arab nations are resisting the U.S.-led initiative because they are unsure of American motives.

"I think we have to make in this case the distinction between the need for democracy and reform and who is going to help," explained Mr. El-Ashaal. "We here in the Arab world do not know exactly whether the United States is serious in helping the democratic forces and which kinds of democratic forces are going to be classified according to the American standards."

Some Arab leaders have said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the key concern as the Arab world considers implementing various types of democratic reform.

Former Arab League Secretary Esmat Abdel Meguid says the U.S. administration's support of Israel and its difficulties in advancing the so-called Roadmap for Middle East peace have damaged Washington's credibility in the region.

"How can you speak about democracy when you have these things that are happening in Palestine, and in Iraq? This is something that is very surprising to us," he said. "If [President Bush] would like to see democracy, that means equality, liberty, respect for others, then this should be applied to what is happening in Palestine."

Secretary of State Colin Powell has said Washington wants to work with nations of the Arab world, not impose policies on them. Arab leaders say they plan to discuss the American initiative next month during the Arab League summit.