News / Middle East

Mideast Experts Warn of Dangers for Democracy Movements

Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright (file photo)
Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright (file photo)

A former U.S. Secretary of State warned on Wednesday that democracy in Egypt and Tunisia is still threatened by entrenched powers and extremism, while Arab democracy activists urged the new governments there to guarantee justice, transparency and minority rights.  

The revolutions in the Arab world dominated discussion at the annual U.S.-Islamic World Forum.  The event, sponsored by the Washington-based Brookings Institution and the government of Qatar, drew lawmakers, diplomats, and regional experts.

Although some participants worried that the uprising in Libya might turn into a prolonged civil war and that the Persian Gulf monarchy of Bahrain might exacerbate the regional rift between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, others warned that Egypt and Tunisia's revolutions have not yet ushered in full democracy.

Madeleine Albright was U.S. Secretary of State during the Clinton administration.

"The danger is that people get dissatisfied," said Madeleine Albright. "It does happen and this is true wherever in the world, that people who are left out of it get disillusioned by everything.  Or that there are extremists that take advantage of it."

Albright said the United States should try to approach the changes in the Middle East with a consistently moral foreign policy.

"But - and this is the big 'but,' and it's always very hard to admit - not all policies are consistent all the time," she said. "And we have to be worried about some of the sectarian aspects of what's going on in the [Persian] Gulf, and what the influence of Iran might be."

In a speech at the forum a day earlier, current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rejected what she called a "one-size-fits-all approach" for U.S. foreign policy toward countries facing change.

But Hossan Bahgat of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights alleged that the United States uses different human rights standards for different Arab countries and for Israel.

"Unless you are going to apply the same values systemically and consistently in the region, the United States is not going to have the ability to be an advocate for reform in the region," said Hossan Bahgat.

Bahgat said that despite the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, authorities in his country still have too much arbitrary power and are not transparent enough.

He said the government's response to the anti-Mubarak protests that erupted in January must be investigated.

"I still don't know who ordered the snipers that executed people before my own eyes on the square [in Tahrir Square in Cairo]," he said.

Saad Eddin Ibrahim is a longtime pro-democracy activist who was imprisoned by the Egyptian government in 2000.

He said that in Egypt, Coptic Christians, women and young people have been grossly underrepresented in government.

"And therefore, building an Arab democracy in the 21st century has to have a deliberate attempt to empower these previously marginalized groups," said Saad Eddin Ibrahim.

Ibrahim said the principle of "one man, one vote" would not work in the Arab world, and proposed that 40 percent of the seats in Arab parliaments be reserved for people under 40 to address unbalanced representation in the past.

Jerome Socolovsky

Jerome Socolovsky is the award-winning religion correspondent for the Voice of America, based in Washington. He reports on the rapidly changing faith landscape of the United States, including interfaith issues, secularization and non-affiliation trends and the growth of immigrant congregations.

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