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Men crowd the street at night in Egypt; a strong U.S. ally despite its reluctance to address human-rights issues or allow many of the freedoms enjoyed in Western democracies
IMG: Arab Men
How to Save the Arab World
Washington’s hands-off approach must go. The first step to undermining extremism is to prod regimes into economic reform
By Fareed Zakaria
    Dec. 24 issue —  It is always the same splendid setting—and the same sad story.  

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  A SENIOR AMERICAN DIPLOMAT enters one of the grand presidential palaces in Heliopolis, the neighborhood of Cairo from which President Hosni Mubarak rules over Egypt. Walking through halls of marble and gilt, passing layers of security guards, he arrives at a formal drawing room where he is received with great courtesy by the Egyptian president. The two men talk amiably about U.S.-Egyptian relations, regional matters and the state of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Then the American gently raises the issue of human rights and suggests that Egypt’s government might ease up on political dissent, allow more press freedoms and stop jailing intellectuals. Mubarak tenses up and snaps, “If I were to do what you ask, the fundamentalists will take over Egypt. Is that what you want?” The diplomat demurs and the conversation moves back to the latest twist in the peace process.

IMG: 12/24 Issue Cover         Over the last decade Americans and Arabs have had many such exchanges. When President Bill Clinton urged Yasir Arafat to sign on to the Camp David peace plan in July 2001, Arafat is reported to have responded with words to the effect, “If I do what you want, Hamas will be in power tomorrow.” The Saudi monarchy’s most articulate spokesman, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, often reminds American officials that if they press his government too hard, the likely alternative to the regime is not Jeffersonian democracy but Islamic theocracy.
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This fear—the Fear of the Alternative (FOTA)—has paralyzed American foreign policy in the Middle East. Compared with almost every other part of the world, where over the last three decades the United States has pushed for economic and political reforms—sometimes more slowly than democrats would like—in this region it has always veered away from any such confrontations. The Middle East is the great exception in American foreign policy.
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Islam, Overcoming Extremism

        The results are plain. The Middle East today stands in stark contrast to the rest of the world, where freedom and democracy have been gaining ground over the last two decades. In its latest annual survey, released last week, New York’s Freedom House finds that 75 percent of the world’s countries are currently “free” or “partly free.” Only 28 percent of Middle Eastern countries could be so described, a percentage that has fallen during the last 20 years. By comparison, more than 60 percent of African countries today are free or partly free.
68% believe terrorist attacks by followers of Islam are a perversion of the faith, not a reflection of its teachings

        The initial reasons for this hands-off approach to the Middle East were oil, then Israel. The United States is terrified by the prospect of chaos in the petroleum paradise of Arabia. It has also assumed that dictators could guarantee a more secure peace with Israel than democrats. But now, above all, Washington simply worries about change—FOTA. The monarchs and dictators are quick to remind us always that for all their faults, they are better than the alternative.
        The worst part of it is, they may be right. America’s allies in the Middle East are autocratic, corrupt and heavy-handed. But they are still more liberal, tolerant and pluralistic than what would likely replace them. If elections had been held last month in Saudi Arabia with King Fahd and Osama bin Laden on the ballot, I would not bet too heavily on His Royal Highness’s fortunes. Last year the emir of Kuwait, with American encouragement, proposed to give women the vote. But the democratically elected Parliament—packed with Islamic fundamentalists—roundly rejected the initiative. A similar dynamic is evident in the kingdoms of the gulf from Saudi Arabia to Bahrain. In Jordan and Morocco, on virtually every political issue, the monarchs are more liberal than the societies over which they reign. In the Palestinian Authority, Hamas has more popular support than Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization, especially with the young. And many of these Islamic fundamentalist parties are sham democrats. They would happily come to power through an election but then set up their own dictatorship. It would be one man, one vote, one time.
       Consider the Arab reaction to the videotape of Osama bin Laden. Most of the region’s governments quickly noted that the tape seemed genuine and proved bin Laden’s guilt. Prince Bandar issued a statement that said, “The tape displays the cruel and inhumane face of a murderous criminal who has no respect for the sanctity of human life or the principles of his faith.” Compare those reactions with that of a Saudi cleric like Sheik Mohammad Saleh, a dissident voice, who said, “I think this recording is forged.” Or Abdul Latif Arabiat, head of Jordan’s mainstream Islamist party, the Islamic Action Front, who explained, “Do the Americans really think the world is that stupid to think that they would believe that this tape is evidence?” In most societies dissidents force their country to take a hard look at its own failings. In the Middle East, the democrats are the first to seek refuge in fantasy, denial and delusion. The state-owned media do not need to promote crazed conspiracy theories about the Mossad’s secret role in bombing the World Trade Center or the CIA’s fabrication of the bin Laden videotape. The “free” television station, Al-Jazeera, does it voluntarily—and the public laps it up.
Evil in the Cross Hairs

        America confronts a strange problem. We are used to thinking of democracy as good and dictatorship as bad, but we confront a world turned upside down in the Middle East. Caught between autocratic states and illiberal societies, the temptation is to throw up one’s hands in despair and walk away. Indeed, many thoughtful observers have done so, arguing that our task should simply be to crush Al Qaeda and groups like it. This might force Arabs to look at their own societies and ask some hard questions. But that is their concern.
        Military victory is indeed essential. Radical political Islam is an “armed doctrine,” in Edmund Burke’s phrase. Like other armed doctrines before it—fascism, for example—it can be discredited only by first being defeated. When Adolf Hitler was on the rise and advancing in the 1930s, tens of millions of people in Europe and around the world admired his strength and vision. (Young children from Latin America to Turkey were named Adolf in his honor.) Once Nazism was destroyed, they quickly abandoned his cause. (The children were given new names.) Bin Laden understands well the power of success. On the videotape, speaking of the surge of interest in his cause after September 11, he says matter-of-factly, “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse.” America must ensure that men like bin Laden are always seen as weak horses, preferably dead ones.

Having destroyed bin Laden’s aura of success, the United States now has a unique opportunity to press its victory and “drain the swamp” of Islamic extremism. This means taking the battle to its real source, which is not Afghanistan but Arabia. Washington cannot walk away from that region. Oil, strategic ties and history will ensure our ongoing involvement. We will continue to aid the Egyptian regime, we will continue to protect the Saudi monarchy, we will continue to broker negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The question really is, shouldn’t we ask for something in return? By not pushing these regimes, the United States would be making a conscious decision to let things stay as they are—to once again opt for “stability.” But it is blindingly clear that the current situation is highly unstable. Even if viewed from a narrow strategic perspective, it is in America’s immediate security interests to try to make the regimes of the Middle East less prone to breed fanaticism and terror. And the only way to do this is to make these regimes more legitimate in the eyes of their people.
        At the start the United States must recognize its true goals. We do not seek democracy in the Middle East—at least not yet. We seek first what might be called the preconditions for democracy, or what I have called “constitutional liberalism”—the rule of law, individual rights, private property, independent courts, the separation of church and state. In the Western world these two ideas have fused together—hence “liberal democracy”—but they are analytically and historically distinct. Britain and the United States were both countries governed by law and in which human rights were honored well before they became full-fledged electoral democracies. We should not assume that what took hundreds of years in the West can happen overnight in the Middle East.
        Clarifying our immediate goals actually makes them more easily attainable. The regimes in the Middle East will be delighted to learn that we will not try to force them to hold elections tomorrow. They will be less pleased to know that we will continually press them on a whole array of other issues. The starting point for talking to our allies should be that they observe the Hippocratic counsel—”do no harm.” The Saudi monarchy must order a comprehensive overview of its funding (both private and public) of extremist Islam, which is now the kingdom’s second largest export to the rest of the world. It must rein in its religious and educational leaders and force them to stop flirting with fanaticism. In Egypt, we must ask President Mubarak to insist that the state-owned press drop its anti-American and anti-Semitic rants, end the glorification of suicide bombers and begin opening itself up to other voices in the country. In Qatar we might ask the emir, who launched Al-Jazeera, to make sure that responsible, moderate Muslims appear as regularly on his network as extremist bin Laden sympathizers. None of this will produce democracy, but it will slow down the spread of illiberal voices and viewpoints.

War On Terror
Dec. 24 issue
•  Evil in the Cross Hairs
•  Transcript of bin Laden Video Tape
•  The View From Tora Bora
•  The Bad Old Days Are Back
•  How to Save the Arab World
•  The Catch On Smoking Guns
•  A Matter of Missed Signals
•  A New Arms Game
•  'We Are Vigilant'
These are all important steps, but they are temporary ones, attempts to pour water on a fiery culture. The more lasting path to reform will be economic. Over the last three decades there has been a remarkable pattern in the progress of political freedom around the world. Those countries that have made the transition from dictatorship to democracy with greatest success—Spain, Portugal, Chile, Taiwan, South Korea, Mexico—all traveled along a similar road. The regimes first liberalized the economy, not out of any desire to expand freedom but rather because they wanted to get rich. But this expansion of economic liberty had steady spillover effects. Economic reform meant the beginnings of a genuine rule of law—capitalism needs contracts—openness to the world, access to information and, perhaps most important, the development of a business class.
From Wealth to Power by Fareed Zakaria
Other books by Fareed Zakaria

        Karl Marx was wrong about most things. But he was right when he argued that an independent class of business people is the key to liberal democracy. (Of course, he did not mean this as a compliment.) Business people have a stake in openness, in rules and in stability. They want their societies to modernize and move forward rather than stay trapped in factionalism and war. Instead of the romance of ideology, they seek the reality of material progress. In the Middle East today there are too many people consumed by political dreams and too few interested in practical plans. There is a dominant business class there, but it is one that owes its position to oil or connections to the ruling families. It is the wealth of feudalism, not capitalism, and its political effects remain feudal as well. A genuine entrepreneurial business class would be the single most important force for change in the Middle East, pulling along all others in its wake. (The Palestinians, tragically, have long been the region’s best merchants and would probably respond fastest to new economic opportunities if they could put the intifada behind them.) Ultimately, this battle is one Middle Easterners will have to fight, which is why there needs to be some group within these societies that advocates and benefits from economic and political reform.

Newsweek International December 24 Issue
•  ATLANTIC EDITION: News and features from Europe, Africa and the Middle East
•  ASIA EDITION: News and features from the Asia Pacific region
•  LATIN AMERICA EDITION: News and features from Latin America and the Caribbean
•  Cover Story: Fareed Zakaria -- How to Save the Arab World
        This is not as fantastic an idea as it might sound. There are already stirrings of genuine economic activity in parts of the Middle East. Jordan has become a member of the WTO, signed a free-trade pact with the United States, privatized key industries and even encouraged cross-border business ventures with Israel. Egypt has made some small progress on the road to reform. Among the oil-rich countries, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates are trying to wean themselves of their dependence on oil. Dubai, part of the U.A.E., has already gotten oil down to merely 8 percent of its GDP and publicly announces its intention to become the “Singapore of the Middle East.” (It would do well to emulate Singapore’s tolerance of its ethnic and religious minorities.) Even Saudi Arabia recognizes that its oil economy can provide only one job for every three of its young men coming into the work force. In Algeria, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika desperately wants foreign investment to repair his tattered economy. We should welcome this interest. Economic necessity can be the mother of reform. But Washington ought to insist on genuine reform—new legal codes, new regulations, privatization—before giving any encouragement to the IMF or the private sector to venture into these countries. Better to have two countries that are genuine reformers than 20 fraudulent programs.
        If we could choose one place to press hardest to reform, it should be Egypt. Jordan has a more progressive ruler; Saudi Arabia is more critical because of its oil. But Egypt is the intellectual soul of the Arab world. If it were to progress economically and politically, it would demonstrate more powerfully than any essay or speech that Islam is compatible with modernity, and that Arabs can thrive in today’s world. In East Asia, Japan’s economic success proved to be a powerful example that others in the region looked to and followed. The Middle East needs one such homegrown success story. (To its credit, the Clinton administration did try a high-level economic initiative toward Egypt along these lines, but the Egyptian regime was able to stymie it.)

       When we sit down to talk with these regimes, inevitably we will return to FOTA, Fear of the Alternative. The regimes will remind us that they cannot do all that we ask because otherwise the fundamentalists will come to power. We should not believe them. The rulers of the Middle East are not democratic politicians with finely tuned senses of what their publics want. They are dictators. After all, if Mubarak were so close to his people, why would he need to arrest, torture and murder hundreds to stay in power? These men fear a public that they barely know.
Zakaria: Don't Abandon Afghanistan

        The greatest potency Islamic fundamentalism holds is that it is an alternative—a mystical, utopian alternative—to the wretched reality that most people live under in the Middle East. Accommodating these forces—as long as they are nonviolent—has the effect of taming them, bringing them into the system. No one is talking about moving to democracy overnight. In Egypt, for example, the Parliament is utterly powerless. Yet Muslim fundamentalists cannot openly stand for elections to it. This has made them only more extreme and heightened their stature as persecuted heroes. The few regimes that are beginning to allow some dissent within the system—Jordan and Morocco—are faring much better.
        Wherever Muslim fundamentalists have been involved in day-to-day politics—Bangladesh, Pakistan, Turkey, Iran—their luster has worn off. People have realized that the streets still have to be cleaned, government finances have to be managed and education attended to. The mullahs can preach, but they cannot rule. For this reason, Iran might well hold out the greatest promise for liberal democracy and secular politics in the Middle East. Having lived under Islamic fundamentalist rule, Iranians are now inoculated against its appeal. It may take another decade or two, and risking that long—and bumpy—roller-coaster ride is dangerous for countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. But if these regimes were to open up some political space and force their fundamentalist foes to grapple with practical realities rather than spin dreams, they will find it cannot but dull the extremists’ allure. Islamic fundamentalists must stop being seen as distant heroes and viewed instead as local politicians.

Dec. 24 issue coverage:
•  National News
•  International News
Previous Coverage:
•  Oct. 29 Issue : The Ground War's First Shots
•  Oct. 22 Issue: Counterstrikes and Scares
•  Oct. 15 Issue: Plumbing the Roots of Rage
•  Oct. 8 Issue: Bioterror, The New Threat
•  Oct. 1 Issue: Trail Of Terror
•  Sept. 24 Issue: God Bless America
•  Commemorative Edition: Spirit of America
•  Extra Edition: America Under Attack
•  Web-exclusive Archives
       A consummate politician, Tip O’Neill, once said that all politics is local. So is the politics of rage. The frustrations of ordinary Arabs are not about the clash of civilizations or the rise of McDonald’s or the imperial foreign policy of the United States. They are a response to living under wretched, repressive regimes with few economic opportunities and no political voice. And they blame America for supporting these regimes. For those who think that this problem is unique to the Arab world or that Arabs will never change, remember that 25 years ago the most virulent anti-American protests would have taken place in countries like Chile, Mexico and South Korea. The reasons were the same—people disliked the regimes that ruled them and they saw America as the benefactor of those regimes. Then these dictatorships liberalized, people’s lives improved, political reform followed economic reform and anti-U.S. sentiment has quieted down to the usual protests against the Americanization of their cultures. With Osama bin Laden’s decline, perhaps the Middle East will move on a similar path; violence, religious extremism and terrorism will be drained out of the political culture and, instead, its people can join the rest of the world in worrying about the threat from McDonald’s and “Baywatch.” That kind of anti-Americanism will be a sign of a healthy political culture.

With Christopher Dickey in Amman and Cairo
        2001 Newsweek, Inc.

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