Little noticed in the west as yet, the Bush administration's latest Middle East adventure has been making furious waves in the Arab world. Dubbed the Greater Middle East initiative, the plan aims to press democracy on one of the world's least democratic regions.
Its details were due to be unveiled when the leaders of the industrialized world hold their annual Group of Eight summit in June. US officials compare it to the 1975 Helsinki charter of human rights which gradually forced the Soviet Union and its allied regimes in eastern Europe to open up and ultimately collapse.
The initiative is a neo-conservative brainchild, a follow-up to the toppling of Saddam Hussein by force, and an effort to use his removal as the first in a line of Middle Eastern dominoes. The notion of pressing reform on the Arab world has wide support in Washington. As long as it is predicated on generational change which is accepted by Arab rulers themselves, rather than being hastily imposed by sanctions or military might, its fans include the secretary of state, Colin Powell, as well as Democratic party liberals such as John Kerry.
Even in its mild form, this recipe has got Arab leaders deeply worried. Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, and the King of Jordan made separate tours of Europe this month to urge Tony Blair and other European leaders not to support the Americans.
A meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo spent anxious hours focusing on whether to adopt, adapt, or reject the plan. They sent it up for debate at an Arab summit which was due to open in Tunis today, but, in total disagreement over what response to make, Arab leaders this weekend postponed the meeting indefinitely.
The rejectionist camp is led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia. "If we open the door completely before the people, there will be chaos," Mubarak put it recently. But these two states' leaders are being careful not to confront the United States outright. They claim to agree that domestic reforms are needed, but say these should be home-grown.
They put forward their own reform agendas with vague calls for people to have a greater say in running their political, social and economic affairs. It offers no specifics on opening up authoritarian political systems or women's rights, the two most glaring gaps in Arab public life.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia also want to exploit the US's eagerness for internal change as a device for getting leverage on the Palestinian issue, especially since Israel's murder of the Hamas leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Reform inside Arab societies cannot happen without a just solution in Palestine, they say. Israel's hardline policies are the main cause of Arab frustration and the turn to extremism.
For Arab intellectuals outside government, Washington's Greater Middle East initiative is a blessing and a curse. Many were already pushing for democratization during the long period when Washington was, and in many ways still is, happy to be allied with fundamentalist monarchies and secular dictators. Washington's drive for Arab democracy is sudden and belated, and therefore seems of dubious intent.
Taher al-Masri straddles the gap between the ruling elites and the liberals. A Palestinian who once served as Jordan's prime minister, he cannot be described as anti-American. Although he opposed last year's invasion of Iraq, he is a firm secularist who says he now wants the Americans to succeed in keeping Iraq unified and out of the hands of the fundamentalists. He boasts that he was urging the Americans to support democrats in the Arab world when he joined a group of Arabs on a Council of Foreign Relations invitation to New York two years ago.
Like other Arab intellectuals, he was struck by an incisive report on the Arab world published by the United Nations Development Program in 2002. It was written by Arab researchers and its findings were stark. Although there was no misery on the scale of parts of Africa or Latin America, the region was slipping behind in standards of governance. In spite of oil wealth, the region suffered from massive "poverty of opportunity" and 51% of older adolescents hoped to emigrate. There were serious deficits in freedom, women's empowerment and education.
A friend of Amr Moussa, the Arab League's secretary-general, al-Masri was appointed in 2002 as the league's commissioner for civil society, tasked to come up with reform plans. But no funding has been authorized and al-Masri admits no work has begun.
He has no illusions about the difficulty of getting Arab leaders to accept openness and genuine pluralism, even though a few Gulf states have begun to authorize the formation of parliaments and local elections. In Jordan, he has pressed for reforms to the election law and was one of several former ministers who wrote an open letter to the king last year, calling for more honesty about the basing of US invasion forces on Jordanian soil.
"The idea that the government must be dominant in society is very strong in the minds of all Arab leaders. They see reform as the work of foreigners, or of leftists, dissidents and trade unionists," he says.
Nevertheless, al-Masri has severe doubts about any reform plans initiated by Washington. Suspicion of the US has never been higher. A recent US poll of global attitudes by the non-partisan Pew Research Center found a majority in Jordan, Morocco and Pakistan felt suicide bombings against Americans and other westerners in Iraq were justifiable. Even in Turkey, the other Islamic country surveyed, 31% supported them.
In Amman, a televised session of Jordan's "youth parliament" recently came out strongly against the US reform plan. Speaker after speaker saw it as a scheme to strengthen the US strategic position in the region or to help Israel. None felt the recent suicide bombings at Shi'ite shrines in Iraq were done by al-Qaida, as the Americans suggest. They said they were organized by Israel in order to promote civil war and keep Iraq weak.
Responding in part to Arab opposition, American officials now say the G8 summit will not be the forum which launches the Greater Middle East initiative. It has not been shelved altogether. Until it is, al-Masri finds himself firmly in agreement with Arab governments. "As long as Sharon is killing civilians and demolishing houses, I won't listen to the United States on democracy," he insists.
Arab leaders may be hypocritically using the Palestinian issue to derail or delay the US plan. But Arab intellectuals who share America's stated goals of democratization feel that the wrong people are making the case.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004