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Economic Forum Debates Political Change in Middle East

Many Arab countries are in the midst of reforms designed to diversify and strengthen their economies. But the pace of political reform varies from country to country. Participants in the World Economic Forum meeting that just ended in Egypt strenuously debated how fast and how far Arab countries should go in embracing democracy.

There was general agreement at the World Economic Forum that things are changing in the Middle East. But there were divergent views on the pace of reform and how far it should go.

In opening remarks, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said his vision of political reform is gradual, and that changing too quickly would bring chaos.

But Palestinian legislator Saeb Erekat, of the Fatah party, which lost January elections to the militant group Hamas, expressed the opposite opinion.

"I really believe that peace and democracy are the two elements to deliver the Middle East out of this misery that we are living under," said Saeb Erekat. "And, I believe that anybody who says Arabs are not ready for democracy is a racist. That is the truth."

Many other participants at the World Economic Forum, said major changes are needed to make democracy in the Middle East a reality.

A senior aide to the king of Jordan, Bassem Awadallah, said, the process will take time, but must begin soon.

"We really need to understand that it is no longer a luxury," said Bassem Awadallah. "We cannot afford not to move forward. And, moving forward requires maybe not just simply to have elections, because that [alone] is not democracy. I think, we really need to introduce a new culture, a culture of meritocracy, a culture where there is rule of law, a culture where people feel that they are free, and where we start building a culture. It is a process."

Egyptian lawyer and longtime human rights activist Mona Zulficar said there needs to be cultural as well as structural change.

"We, in the Arab world do not have a culture of democracy," said Mona Zulficar. "We are a typically patriarchal society. The head of the state is depicted as the father of the family. And so, this is the culture. It is very difficult to change tradition and culture in this part of the world. So, struggling for democracy needs much more than constitutions. We need legal institutions of democracy."

Zulficar says the patriarchal culture disenfranchises not only women, but young people - a particular problem, since more than half of the region's population is under the age of 24.

"Young people need to have the choice," she said. "If they don't have the choice to join political parties, to be active, [to feel] that they have a role to play, that they could make a difference, they are going to be easy victims of religious extremism."

Kuwaiti Planning Minister Massouma Al-Mubarak said, even the framework of democracy is not enough to ensure that it works the way it should.

"Definitely, all our constitutions talk about freedoms, individual freedoms - freedom of speech, freedom of gathering, movement and expression of ideas," Massouma Al-Mubarak. "Are these freedoms really implemented and respected by the authorities and also by the people?"

Al-Mubarak, Kuwait's first-ever female Cabinet minister, said even reform advocates can fail to live up to their own rhetoric.

"We have so many people who have they advocate themselves as democrats, and they are democracy-seekers in their own society," she said. "But, when you look into their own way of life, they are true dictatorship in their family. So, this is what we really need to have, democracy to grasp inside our souls, to believe in it as a way of life, not only as a practice that we do it every three. or four. or six years, then we forgot all about it."

A common refrain at the forum was the idea that democracy cannot be imposed from outside, but needs to evolve from within. That view has always been widespread in the Middle East, but is even more so now, in view of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Bassem Awadallah said popular sensitivity over that issue can complicate even homegrown reform efforts.

"The question of ownership, it is extremely important, and that's I think where we fail sometimes," he said. "We do not know how to actually advertise this process of reform, and, therefore, become suspect, that this reform is being imposed on us, because it's become a good word in Washington, or because the Americans are imposing reform on us."

The Bush administration's support for reform in the Middle East has drawn mixed responses, and skepticism in the region.

One area where that was discussed was the U.S. and European response to Hamas' victory in the Palestinian elections. Participants said the success of reform elsewhere in the region is linked in part to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora called it the mother of all problems in the Middle East.

"I am trying to emphasize the importance of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the role it plays in distracting attention, in misallocating resources towards other things, while these resources and attention should be directed more and more towards creating the necessary conducive environment for promoting more democracy, and for reform of the political institutions, and to allow for people to participate further," said Fuad Siniora.

Prime Minister Siniora said solving the Israeli-Palestinian situation would help move the Arab world in the right direction.

Egyptian political analyst Abdel Moneim Said, head of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said there are many more important issues in the region.

"Democracy is faced with a lot of challenges, in my opinion, much more deeper than the Arab-Israeli conflict," said Abdel Moneim Said. "In a sense, we have to solve it in our societies through values, institutions and socio-economic conditions. I mean, values here is very important. Unfortunately, we do not have much zealots for democracy and democratization in the Arab world. No one really is willing to die for democracy. But, we have people who are willing to die because they don't like tourism, for instance. So, that is something we have to recognize. It is a serious problem."

He said the two most democratic Arab societies are also the ones closest to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - meaning Lebanon and the Palestinians themselves. Another participant, from Kuwait, rose to say he views the democracy in Lebanon and the nascent one in Iraq as ethnically based, where people vote, based on their ethnic or religious groups, and that is not the model he wants for his country.

After three days of discussion and sometimes heated debate, what is clear is that there is as much disagreement over the path to democracy in the Middle East as there is agreement on the need for it.