Sun, Nov 16, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Arab nations frown at American notion of `democracy'


The "best democracy in the region" is to be established in Iraq, US civil administration Paul Bremer announced this week.

US President George W. Bush meanwhile called on the other Arab nations to democratic reforms -- at the same time conceding that it had been wrong of the West to support for 60 years undemocratic regimes in the Middle East.

All these words have not won the Americans any applause from those who have suffered under this lack of democracy.

Quite the opposite. Even the critics of Arab regimes and opposition politicians, who in principle are fighting for exactly what Bush has been calling on Arab regimes to allow -- freedom of opinion, women's rights and more political participation -- even they want nothing to do with this vision of democracy coming out of Washington.

"The Americans' offer of democracy is not going down well here," says Egyptian Mamduh Habashi, who together with other Arab globalization opponents and anti-war activists is organizing a conference in Cairo next month "against US aggression."

"Because of the actions of the US in Iraq and its stance on Israel, even liberal pro-Western circles in the Arab world have turned away from Washington," he said.

Bush's renunciation of US support for undemocratic regimes, while a nice idea Habashi says, will not be followed by action.

Furthermore, the example of the US occupation in Iraq has repulsed many liberal and leftist Arab intellectuals, for instance in Syria and Saudi Arabia. They would rather force minimal reforms from within than do battle with Washington's help.

Asmi Bishara, an Israeli Arab parliament member, formulates his rejection even more harshly.

"The majority of democrats and non-democrats, who are sitting in jails [as political prisoners], are not waiting to be freed by the United States, above all because some of them are rotting in jails of the United States' partners," Bishara wrote in the daily al-Hayat.

Even Ibrahim Nafie, the head of the semi-official Egyptian publisher al-Ahram who is an honored guest in Washington, has a hard time seeing the attractions of the Bush government's suggestions.

Nafie praises the fact that Bush sees no contradiction between the belief system of Islam and the democratic form of government.

At the same time, he asks: "Must not Arabs come to the impression, that democracy [as Bush defines it] means for them nothing more that the right to elect people that Washington likes?"

The 91-year-old Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz writes a column which is transcribed owing to the author's frailty by a friend every week. The literature Nobel Prize laureate recently expressed his interpretation of America's new vision.

"The dumbest thing we could do would be to measure democracy by what we are currently witnessing in Iraq," Mahfouz said.

"That would then mean we have finally lost every hope of democracy."

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