Prospects for democratization and political reform in the Middle East were the subject of a congressional hearing on Capitol Hill. Witnesses appearing before a key House of Representatives committee included a reform activist from Saudi Arabia, as well as several experts on political liberalization.

Opening the hearing of the House International Relations Committee, Congressman Henry Hyde said the Arab world stands at a crossroads, facing what he calls three fundamental deficits - freedom, knowledge, and women's rights.

Calling the current state of development in the Arab world a contradiction of its historical contributions, Mr. Hyde says Arab governments can no longer assume their stability will be assured by the status quo.

"The people of the Arab region are now experiencing the birth pains of democracy and the sparks of what could be their own kindled renaissance," said Henry Hyde. "Will these sparks be stamped out by the jackboot of history, or will they be stoked and nurtured by those with the most to gain, as well as by those with the most to lose?"

Tom Lantos
Congressman Tom Lantos says the United States has more than simply its own democratic and political traditions at stake in this effort, drawing a connection between the absence of change in the Arab world and terrorism.

"There is an intimate link between this lack of freedom and the fact that the Middle East leads the world in producing terrorists," said Tom Lantos. "So it is not only our national values that impel us to support political liberation of the Arab world, it is our national interest as well."

Testifying by telephone, history professor Hatoon Al-Fassi, of King Saud University in Riyadh, says steps initiated since the 1990's have improved the situation of women. But women remain at a legal and societal disadvantage, generally excluded from government decision-making positions.

"Reform in Saudi Arabia is a necessity today," said Hatoon Al-Fassi. "Sharing power with the public is a must. Women's inclusion in the political, economic, social, educational affairs, and decisions of the country is a strategic choice at this stage, for the state to survive. It is our challenge to make it come through."

Additional testimony focused on liberalization in other countries such as Algeria, Egypt, and Syria.

University of Arkansas Assistant Professor Najib Ghadbian says the opposition in Syria has survived, but President Bashar al-Assad has shown no sign of loosening his grip.

"The least dangerous democratic transition takes place when initiated from above," said Najib Ghadbian. "Assad's regime has not demonstrated any willingness to bring about such change, but continued internal demand coupled with international pressure might finally force the Syrian government to initiate the required reforms."

Amr Hamzawy, with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says reform in Egypt is on an uncertain path despite President Mubarak's decision to allow multiple candidates in the upcoming presidential election.

"The Egyptian government has so far ignored the wide consensus that exists outside its own constituency, concerning the three reform imperatives needed to render Egypt's democratic transformation a realistic project," said Amr Hamzawy. "One, setting limits on the terms of office as well as the powers vested in the president as head of the executive. Two, rescinding the state of emergency which was extended two years ago for three more years by the People's Assembly. Three, changing the laws obstructing the establishment of political parties and NGOs [non-government organizations].

Azzedine Layachi, from St. John's University in New York, says Algeria has emerged from the Islamist uprising of the 1990's in which thousands were killed. While Islamist forces have generally given up violence, he says the country is nevertheless at a delicate juncture.

"The incumbent leaders, in order not to be swept from power by a much bigger social and political earthquake which many observers think is still possible, they need to heed calls for responsiveness and change emanating from society every day by way of peaceful protests and even violent outbursts in many towns and villages around the country," said Azzedine Layachi.

The hearing was the latest focusing on what the United States can do to accelerate the process of reform in the Middle East.