Terror Or Reform In The Greater Middle East

Last week's brutal bombing in Madrid is part of a wave of terror that has made victims of Christians as well as Muslims. Everywhere debate is focused on the best way to combat this form of terrorism and on the importance, in this context, of the Greater Middle East initiative that the United States wants the G8 and NATO to approve in June.

Agreement is uncertain. Unlike European leaders such as Joschka Fischer, Germany's Foreign Minister, the US excludes the Israeli-Arab conflict from the initiative, and wants to concentrate solely on the social and economic problems that feed extremism and terrorism in the Islamic world.

Concern with the region did not begin with the attacks in the US in September 2001 or with the Madrid bombings. Already in the 1980's and 1990's, Europe had launched the "Barcelona Process" to promote democracy, security and development in the region. Then, as now, fears about regional instability, economic stagnation, and social backwardness abounded. There were anxieties, too, that the increasing loss of legitimacy of Arab nationalist regimes would benefit radical Islamists - fears confirmed by Algeria's bloody civil war of the 1990's.

But if defending the status quo no longer seems possible, regime change incites its own fears. Many suspect that Islamist radicals will be the big winners in any democratic opening. This led some to support the Algerian government's military crackdown after Islamists won the first round of 1991 legislative elections. But the stubborn inertia of authoritarian regimes only encourages radicalization, so there is a clear need for a gradual process of liberalization.