Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Progress on the Root Cause

In Monday's Washington Post, columnist Jackson Diehl noted that there was progress being made by Arab democrats. While many career bureaucrats, both domestic and international, have taken cast jaded eyes toward any prospect of a democratic middle-east (remember how elections in Afghanistan would never happen?), it seems that the U.S. and the other G-8 countries have been making progress.
"A voice is beginning to emerge that wasn't there before," says Carl Gershman, the president of the National Endowment for Democracy, who attended a meeting of Western and Middle Eastern civil society groups alongside the recent foreign ministers' gathering. "Most of these people are unknown, they are faceless, but there are a surprising number of them, and the number is growing. They see that they have an opening, and they want to take advantage of it."
A 'civil society dialogue' was explicitly built into the Forum for the Future process agreed to by the G-8 and Muslim governments, along with a forum for private business. Acting under that cover, more than 40 representatives of civil society groups from across the Middle East as well as from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Turkey gathered in Beirut early last month to consider goals and strategy. They chose 10 representatives to travel to New York and deliver a statement to the foreign ministers' meeting; along with the businessmen, they will have their own tent at the upcoming Morocco event. The New York group included activists from Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Pakistan and Yemen.
Their statement, read aloud to Secretary of State Colin Powell and two dozen other foreign ministers by Noha Mikawi, an Egyptian woman, was wonderfully bold -- and energized a previously skeptical Powell. "We are here as individuals," Mikawi said, "women and men who believe in the rule of law, an independent judiciary to protect it, an active and freely elected parliament to enact laws, an accountable, freely elected government to carry them through, and in meaningful human rights, including foremost the freedom of expression."

"We do not claim to represent our societies: only a free vote will," the statement said. "What we can confidently claim to represent is a pressing voice in our societies that calls for a profound, nonviolent change at all levels." Each state, it said, should have "set goals and clear milestones for reform within a foreseeable time plan." As for their own mission, the activists said, "what civil society can provide . . . is the power to pressure reluctant governments (and reluctant fellow citizens), keeping a watchful eye on the processes of and progress towards reform."

Such empowering grass-roots rhetoric has never before been heard in the Arab Middle East. If the United States fails in Iraq, it may well be snuffed out. But for now, for those who are listening, it offers reason for hope.
It sure does, and of course it doesn't mean that this will be easy. Perspective, that seemingly lost characteristic of too many in government, is needed. Though the President may be ridiculed for talking about the "hard work," he is entirely correct. These things take time. Cliches such as "Rome wasn't built in a day" may sound trite, but they are still true. Democracy in the middle-east is a worthy goal for two reasons. One is the obvious benefits to those in the region, but the other, and perhaps more important, is that the United States will eventually be removed as the prime reason for all of the ills in Arab society. Democracy will enable Arab society, so accustomed to blaming the "great Satan" (the West) for everything, to turn its eyes inward and to realize that solutions to their problems lay within their own grasp, and, ultimately, that they have the means to determine their own fate.

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