American journalists and opinion makers have heralded the extraordinary political developments in the Middle East in recent months – democratic elections in the Palestinian Authority and Iraq and demonstrations in Beirut and Cairo protesting the political status quo. Many give partial credit to President Bush whose emphasis on promoting democracy around the world may have emboldened such movements.
Arab journalists, on the other hand, are less inclined than their Western counterparts to see a causal relationship between President Bush’s rhetoric, recent democratic elections in the Palestinian territories and Iraq and calls for greater democratic reform in Beirut and Cairo.
Rami Khouri, editor of Beirut’s Daily Star, said he sees no direct relationship between these developments. But he does recognize a “confluence of events” that reflect common sentiments – namely, the desire of ordinary people to live in freedom. Speaking with Judith Latham, host of VOA News Now’s weekly program “International Press Club,” Mr. Khouri said the demonstrations in Cairo and Beirut are more a result of indigenous political movements.
Khaled Dawoud, Washington correspondent for Egypt’s Al-Ahram newspaper agreed, saying that the call for reform in Egypt has been going on since President Hosni Mubarak came to office in 1981. But he acknowledged that international circumstances are providing a context for reforms to accelerate.
Last month President Mubarak called for constitutional changes that would allow for contested presidential elections in Egypt. Mona Eltahawy, a New York-based Egyptian journalist who writes a column for the London-based pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, said that the Egyptian president is under a lot of pressure, both internal and external. And she believes that “most of the pressure to make this announcement” probably came from the United States. She called his promise of electoral changes “historic,” but limited. Ms. Eltahawy said that other reforms are needed – for example, term limits for the presidency, the end of emergency law in force since President Mubarak came to power after Anwar Sadat’s assassination 24 years ago, the naming of a vice-president, and the opening up of the media that are now under absolute government control.
But Khalid Dawoud of Al-Ahram said that he is “encouraged” about the long-term prospects for democratic reform in Egypt. And he praised the courage of demonstrators who have said “enough” - referring to the fact that they want neither another term for the Egyptian president nor for his son to succeed him. Mr. Dawood pointed out that such criticisms were “taboo” a few years ago.
Mona Eltahawy said Washington could make several important contributions to encourage democracy in Egypt, including an acknowledgement that successive American administrations have supported Arab regimes that “they knew were undemocratic.” She urged President Bush to continue pushing hard the message that the United States would no longer tolerate the status quo.
The Arab journalists agreed that it is too early to tell if Egypt will be part of a wave of successful political reform movements across the Middle East. But they said a combination of internal and external pressures on non-democratic regimes in the region offers the best hope.
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