Fri, Mar 26, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Extremism or reform in the volatile `Greater Middle East'?

Many suspect that Islamist radicals will be the big winners in any democratic initiative, so a viable strategy for the region will have to get eight things right

By Alvaro de Vasconcelos

The March 11 brutal bombing in Madrid is part of a wave of terror that has made victims of Christians as well as Muslims. Everywhere debate is focused on the best way to combat this form of terrorism and on the importance, in this context, of the Greater Middle East initiative that the US wants the G8 and NATO to approve in June.

Agreement is uncertain. Unlike European leaders such as German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, the US excludes the Israeli-Arab conflict from the initiative, and wants to concentrate solely on the social and economic problems that feed extremism and terrorism in the Islamic world.

Concern with the region did not begin with the attacks in the US in September 2001 or with the Madrid bombings. Already in the 1980s and 1990s, Europe had launched the "Barcelona Process" to promote democracy, security and development in the region. Then, as now, fears about regional instability, economic stagnation, and social backwardness abounded. There were anxieties, too, that the increasing loss of legitimacy of Arab nationalist regimes would benefit radical Islamists -- fears confirmed by Algeria's bloody civil war of the 1990s.

But if defending the status quo no longer seems possible, regime change incites its own fears. Many suspect that Islamist radicals will be the big winners in any democratic opening. This led some to support the Algerian government's military crackdown after Islamists won the first round of 1991 legislative elections. But the stubborn inertia of authoritarian regimes only encourages radicalization, so there is a clear need for a gradual process of liberalization.

This underscores the difficulty in crafting a democratization strategy for so vast a region as "the Greater Middle East," which stretches from Mauritania to Paki-stan. After all, any such strategy must, by definition, ignore local specificities and regional realities. What is needed instead are policies that reflect particular circumstances in different states and regions, together with an awareness that democracy is, above all, a statement about national realities and depends primarily on domestic factors.

If imposing a single strategy is unviable, what should the European option be, and what policy should the G8 and NATO adopt? Any truly viable policy must get eight things right:

1. Court public opinion.

It is not only Middle East governments that should be involved. Civil society and public opinion must also be included.

2. Support democratic transition.

Incumbent leaders must have the proper incentives to initiate gradual processes of reform. Each positive initiative, whether it comes from governments or civil societies, should be supported. The historical parallel here is not, as is often suggested, with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, but with the Marshall Plan, which provided real incentives, not lofty rhetoric and hortatory appeals, for integration and democratic consolidation.

3. Reinforce anti-terrorist cooperation.

The fight against terrorism, which requires short-term successes, must be differentiated from the long-term process of reform. The priority in fighting terrorism should be police and intelligence service cooperation, which produces much faster results and limits the capacity of extremists to mobilize.

4. Be coherent and consistent.

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