Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 6   No. 6-7 Table of Contents
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June/July 2004 

Jumpstarting Arab Reform: The Bush Administration's Greater Middle East Initiative
by Gary C. Gambill

Bush and Powell

In a November 2003 speech, US President George W. Bush declared that "sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East" had failed to contain security threats emanating from the region and announced that the United States has adopted a new "forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East."[1] American policymakers subsequently drafted a plan, the Greater Middle East Initiative (GMEI), to promote political and economic reform in the region in conjunction with the G-8 group of the world's leading industrial powers. Arab governments reacted with outrage after the plan was leaked in February and GMEI was subsequently watered down as US officials consulted with their Arab and European counterparts. The declaration eventually issued last month at the G-8 Sea Island summit bore little resemblance to the original conception. Not surprisingly, critics of the Bush administration lost no time in declaring the initiative a failure.

However, such assessments miss the forest for the trees. Since GMEI was intended to be revised in consultation with Arab governments, the most important early measure of its impact is not so much the scale of revisions the Bush administration was willing to make, but what it got in return for them. Between February and June, Arab governments presented their own reform initiatives and allowed pro-democracy activists to more freely express themselves and organize collectively. Moreover, the 22 member states of the Arab League unanimously passed a resolution expressing commitment to "democratic practice," freedom of expression, and women's rights. "A year ago, reform was not even on the radar screen of most Arab countries," Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher said in May. "Today the debate has moved from defining the elements of reform to how to implement it."[2]

The Greater Middle East Initiative

GMEI took shape in late 2003 as a set of guidelines for coordinating efforts by the United States and other members of the G-8 to promote political and economic reform in the "Greater Middle East" (a term coined by the administration to designate a non-contiguous region encompassing the Arab world, plus Iran, Turkey, Israel, Pakistan and Afghanistan). The draft paper was sent to other G-8 governments early this year, with the expectation that it would form the basis of a unified initiative to be unveiled at the Sea Island summit in June.

The GMEI working paper was premised on the claim that the growing "pool of politically and economically disenfranchised individuals" in the region threatens the national interests of G-8 members by contributing to the global rise in "terrorism, international crime, and illegal migration." Statistics from the 2002 and 2003 UN Arab Human Development Reports (AHDR) were cited to underscore the magnitude of the problem (e.g. Internet access in the region is lower than in sub-Saharan Africa, 51% of older Arab youths want to emigrate from their countries). The GMEI draft strongly urged G-8 member states to "launch a coordinated response to promote political, economic and social reform in the region" and "forge a long-term partnership with the Greater Middle East's reform leaders."

Most of the GMEI recommendations, such as funding for literacy programs, training of legislative representatives, and technical assistance in adopting more effective investment and trade policies, did not represent a significant departure from current American and European reform programs. However, GMEI was innovative in three respects.

First, GMEI proposed that G-8 governments work to directly empower Arab citizens by increasing "direct funding to democracy, human rights, media, women's and other NGOs in the region." Although Western governments often claim to provide such assistance, the current level of "civil society aid" they provide is very modest to begin with and much of it goes to what can best be described as quasi-governmental NGOs - organizations that are specifically approved (and, in many cases, set up) by governments to absorb foreign aid and channel it in ways that do not empower citizens.

Second, GMEI makes the lifting of government restrictions on public freedoms an explicit goal of G-8 diplomacy. G-8 member states should "encourage the region's governments to allow civil society organizations, including human rights and media NGOs, to operate freely without harassment or restrictions."

Third, GMEI proposes a mechanism of monitoring progress. Specifically, it suggests that the G-8 "fund an NGO that would bring together legal or media experts from the region to draft annual assessments of judicial reform efforts or media freedom in the region."

The proposal did not suggest any radical changes in Western democracy promotion in the Middle East. It did not, for instance, recommend that governments showing progress in political reform be rewarded with greater economic aid (or that those resisting reform be punished with less aid). While it said governments should be "encouraged" to lift restrictions on NGOs, it did not say they should be encouraged to hold free elections or release prisoners of conscience. The GMEI "big picture" derived from reasoned analysis of the efficacy and risks of various policy instruments, but its specific parameters clearly reflected inter-departmental compromises at home (the proposal was said to have gone through endless cycles of drafting and redrafting late last year).

Authoritarian Uproar

In February, shortly after the Bush administration sent the proposal to other G-8 governments for comment, the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat obtained a copy (reportedly from the Germans) and promptly published the document in its entirety. Arab government leaders were outraged. ''Whoever imagines that it is possible to impose solutions or reform from abroad on any society or region is delusional,'' said Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.[3] In March, Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah traveled to Europe in hopes of persuading other G-8 governments not to support elements of the American proposal.

However, Arab governments recognized that a G-8 statement of principles on Middle East democratization was inevitable once the Bush administration had underscored its commitment to the initiative, so they set about bracing themselves politically. All shared two overriding priorities. The first was to avoid being perceived at home as unresponsive to demands for change at a time when the international community was set to take unprecedented (if largely rhetorical) action in support of political reform in the Arab world. The second, stated articulately by former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Robert H. Pelletreau, was to "establish ownership and some control over the pace and depth of political change within their societies, rather than cede it to outside hands."[4]

Reform initiatives were soon announced by governments throughout the Arab world. In Egypt, the legal committee of the government-appointed National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) issued a memorandum in April recommending that the state of emergency, in place since 1981, be rescinded. Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi also pledged to cancel his country's emergency law (though he gave no time table for doing so). Palestinian Authority (PA) President Yasser Arafat announced in May that local elections will be held this year in 721 Palestinian villages and towns after an eight-year delay. Reform was in the wind even in Saudi Arabia, where Crown Prince Abdullah hosted a series of "National Dialogue Forums" and pledged to hold the kingdom's first-ever municipal council elections later this year (however, the arrest of a dozen liberal activists in March underscored that independent reform initiatives are still being discouraged).

Egypt, Jordan, and several other Arab governments also allowed their citizens to organize pro-reform conferences after receiving assurances from US officials that the G-8 resolution would explicitly cite their initiatives. The Bush administration was, in effect, giving friendly Arab governments an opportunity to preempt its own initiative. "The train of reform has taken off," Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa proudly told reporters in Amman on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum summit in May. [5]

Egypt and Jordan also spearheaded a drive to get the Arab League on record endorsing calls for political reform at its annual summit in March. This sparked a rather convoluted bout of diplomatic maneuvering in the Arab world. While most Arab governments wanted to be seen as pushing for such a resolution and none wanted to be seen as rejecting it, several clearly did not want it to pass. At the last minute, the summit was postponed to allow for further diplomatic efforts to forge a consensus. Accusations about who was to blame erupted throughout the region, with most suspicion falling on Syrian President Bashar Assad (who was said to have rejected any endorsement of political reform by the Arab League) and Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (the host of the summit, said to be upset by the fact that few Arab heads of state planned to attend), but Arab media reports on the subject were wildly contradictory (in part because top journalists and news commentators so conspicuously avoid pointing fingers at their own host governments).

The two-day summit was finally convened on May 22 and Arab League members unanimously endorsed a striking resolution. The so-called Tunis Declaration released at the end of the summit expresses "commitment to the humanitarian principles and noble values of human rights . . . to the reinforcement of freedom of expression, thought, and belief, and to the guarantee of the independence of the judiciary." Furthermore, the 22 Arab governments pledged to "pursue reform and modernization in our countries . . . by consolidating democratic practice, by enlarging participation in political and public life, by fostering the role of all components of civil society, including NGOs . . . by widening women's participation in the political, economic, social, cultural and educational fields and reinforcing their rights and status in society."[6]

The G-8 Summit Declaration

G-8 governments approved two documents at the Sea Island summit: a 12-point overview entitled Partnership for Progress and a Common Future with the Region of the Broader Middle East and North Africa, and a much more detailed document, entitled G-8 Plan of Support for Reform. Collectively known as the Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative (BMENAI), the two Sea Island texts are vastly different than the GMEI draft paper.

The rhetorical "packaging" of the initiative was completely overhauled. Whereas the GMEI mentioned only problems connected to the region's political and economic underdevelopment, BMENAI acknowledged the Arab conflict with Israel, pledging that G-8 "support for reform in the region will go hand in hand with [its] support for a just, comprehensive, and lasting settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict." In the new draft, the G-8 declares its "support for democratic, social and economic reform emanating from that region."

Unlike its predecessor, BMENAI does not suggest that Middle Eastern governments should be encouraged by G-8 member states to change. "Successful reform depends on the countries in the region, and change should not and cannot be imposed from outside," the document states - a point underscored repeatedly in the text. Indeed, BMENAI implies that governments in the region should not necessarily even be expected to change. It is replete with indications that the reform progress of countries in the region should not be measured against universally-recognized standards of political and civil liberties: "Each country is unique and their diversity should be respected . . . Our engagement must respond to local conditions and be based on local ownership . . . Each society will reach its own conclusions about the pace and scope of change."

"There is no longer any mention of the right to establish direct relations with the various societies behind their respective backs," noted Lebanese commentator Joseph Samaha. "All the detailed proposals link relations with civil society organizations to relations with the existing authorities."[7] Also absent from BMENAI is its predecessor's proposal to create a non-governmental organization to monitor reform progress. Instead, it calls for a "Forum for the Future," involving government-to-government consultative meetings and dialogue conferences for business and civil society leaders in the region.


Not surprisingly, international and Arab reaction to BMENAI was muted in comparison to the uproar over GMEI. "No one paid any attention to it," remarked New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman.[8] This is not surprising - European governments insisted upon language that left little margin for complaint by Arab officials. As Tamara Cofman Wittes critically notes, the Bush administration "embraced the Arab regimes' preferred strategy of dealing with their mounting internal problems: controlled liberalization."[9] However, while the endorsement of state-led reform in the Middle East is nothing new, the fact that G-8 governments agreed upon a common statement of principles about the need for political and economic reform in the region is new. The emergence of an American-European consensus on this issue, however lackluster, is what has driven Arab governments to launch their own reform initiatives.

The Bush administration's success in persuading most Arab governments to launch their own reform initiatives is significant. The fact that Arab officialdom is talking about the need to rescind emergency laws, for example, would have been unimaginable a few years ago. Most of these reform initiatives are still just talk at this point, but the talk itself is unprecedented and has greatly raised public expectations. This alone makes it more difficult than ever before for Arab governments not to match words with deeds. With the Bush administration displaying an unprecedented willingness to publicly criticize oppressive actions even by friendly governments (such as the above-mentioned arrests of Saudi liberal reformers), Arab regimes may find it too politically costly to backtrack on their promises.

Related MEIB Reports

Explaining the Arab Democracy Deficit: Part I (February-March 2003)
Democratization of Capital in the Arab World (May 2003)
Explaining the Arab Democracy Deficit, Part II: American Policy (August-September 2003)
Democratization, the Peace Process, and Islamic Extremism (June-July 2004)


  [1] Transcript of Remarks by President George W. Bush at the 20th Anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy, Washington DC, 6 November 2003.
  [2] "Flowers By the Dead Sea," The Washington Post, 18 May 2004.
  [3] "U.S. Plan for Mideast Reform Draws Ire of Arab Leaders," The New York Times, 27 February 2004.
  [4] Al-Hayat (London), 26 April 2004.
  [5] "Delegates at WEF skeptical that Arabs committed to reform: poll," Agence France Presse, 17 May 2004.
  [6] Tunis Declaration issued at the 16th session of the Arab Summit, Tunis, 22-23 May 2004. An English Translation is available at the summit web site.
  [7] Al-Safir (Beirut), 6 June 2004, translation in "The Worst of Both Worlds," Mideast Mirror, 8 June 2004.
  [8] Thomas L. Friedman, "Maids vs. Occupiers," The New York Times, 17 June 2004.
  [9] Tamara Cofman Wittes, "The Promise of Arab Liberalism," Policy Review, July 2004.

2004 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. All rights reserved.

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