Responses to America’s call for democracy in the Middle East have been tepid at best. Arab governments feel provoked by President George W. Bush, particularly as he announced his initiative with little regional consultation. Seeking to pre-empt American action, Egypt backed a counter-proposal, the Alexandria Declaration, at an Arab League summit last May, and followed this with President Hosni Mubarak’s recent announcement that he will allow opposition candidates to challenge him for the presidency. Is this just another stalling tactic, or an opening to real reform?
What is clear is that the recent elections in Iraq and Palestine, together with the swelling protests against Syria’s distorting influence on Lebanon’s democracy, have reinvigorated debate about political reform within Egypt. Members of the opposition have argued that the country is compelled to reform itself if it is not to have reform imposed from abroad.
Going further, the managing director of one newspaper claims that delaying political and constitutional reform as if it were a grant to citizens – rather than their right – would invite outside intervention in Egypt’s domestic affairs. Arab democracy, he claims, has now become a domestic concern in the United States, which will make it hard for American presidents to sweep the abuses of friendly Arab regimes under the rug, as they did in the past.
In the Arab world, authoritarian governments have deprived people of political, civil, and intellectual freedoms for decades. For young citizens, particularly Islamists, normal channels of political participation have been closed off. As a result, they have gravitated towards underground extremist movements. Poverty, cronyism, and official corruption heighten this popular frustration.