Rule of Man

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz is a writer and investigative reporter for World, the fourth-largest circulation news magazine in the United States.

If the Arab world is rattled by George W. Bush's one-year runup to war with Saddam-and indeed it is-then it's not only because of Iraq's proximity or the roller-coaster pricing of a barrel of oil. Arab rulers know their hands are stained alike. The transformation that war will bring to Baghdad, they fear, will someday extend to their own capitals.

Saddam Hussein, after all, is no standout when compared to Middle East dictators. By Arab standards Saddam's 24-year grip on power is recent. His personal net worth, $2 billion according to Forbes, is horse feed. It may quadruple the wealth amassed by Queen Elizabeth, but it is a mere tenth of the fortunes of Saudi Arabia's King Fahd.

For now, Saddam stands alone in the region to threaten the use of weapons of mass destruction. But the region is beset with arthritic regimes more bent on accumulating power and wealth than ruling justly. Adam Smith, the 18th-century economist, had a simple recipe for good government: "peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice." Among many Arab rulers, those are throwaway words.

Of the 20 Arab League nations in the Middle East and North Africa, five hold no elections at all. A further seven hold elections but under one-party systems. Authoritarian rulers in those countries are returned to power by default. Not one Arab League member has held elections for a head of state in the past decade that would be certified open, fair, and free.

"The reason why we are dealing with jihad terror, the reason why we had 9/11 is rooted in the dominant political culture of violence and the rejection of the rule of law in that part of the world," said Walid Phares, a Lebanese Christian who practiced law in Beirut and now teaches Middle Eastern studies at Florida Atlantic University. "This did not come from outer space. It is from the dominant psychology of militants in the Middle East."

Arab powers have two strikes against them. The Islamic worldview traditionally has looked askance at Western-style democracy. And much of the region did time as Soviet-controlled satellites. Any forecast for change in the region-even with military intervention-is bleak. Arab League nations, with the largest proven oil reserves in the world and 280 million citizens, produce a GDP (gross domestic product) of $531 billion. That's less than Spain, a middling European economic player with GDP of $720 billion and 41 million citizens.

Dominating the militant landscape are the Baathist parties of both Iraq and Syria, Saddam's neighbor to the northwest. Syria has been ruled as a military regime since 1963 (although elections are slated every seven years)-first by Hafez Assad and now by his son Bashar.

Economic decline under Bashar means the streets of Damascus are filled with cars from his father's heyday, while modern purchases are born only of desperation. Cash-strapped Syrians rushed to buy satellite dishes three years ago as an antidote to 40 days of non-stop speeches by Hafez Assad broadcast on state television at his death.

Economic stagnation is no barrier to the Assad regime's cross-border designs. Syria stations up to 40,000 troops in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley-a 25-year occupation to contain Israeli forces to the south and play host to Hezbollah fighters. The perpetual state of war against Israel keeps Syrians distracted from dwindling prospects.

Little better are the self-proclaimed jihadist regimes of Sudan and Iran, which promote war on non-Muslims. Those regimes imprison thousands of nonconformists; but they aren't the only Arab states advocating harsh Islamic law and running judicial systems that flout due process.

Saudi Arabia runs an outwardly liberal economic ship, but entrenched Islamic clerics rule. They control the country's judicial system, restrict press freedom, and control everyday affairs like Internet use. A Harvard study found that the government blocks access to hundreds of thousands of websites, down to a Lutheran church in Texas displaying only service times, directions, and a brief statement of faith. When a school caught fire last year in Mecca, religious police blocked 15 girls from leaving the building because they were not wearing headscarves and abayas, or black robes. The girls died.

And while the wealth of the ruling house of Saud seems endless, earnings for average citizens are in decline. Oil revenue per capita has fallen from a record $24,000 in 1980 to $2,600 in 2001. Under Islamic law, Saudi residents pay no income tax but are required to pay a "charity tax" of 2.5 percent-a "contribution" to religious charities or nongovernment organizations. Some of these have fronted for terrorist groups.

Egypt, the largest recipient of U.S. aid among Arab Leaguers, is not immune to Middle East malaise. Hosni Mubarak took power after the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981 and has run a virtual one-party shop. Opposition parties can exist. Outright opposition, however, is not tolerated. In the streets Egyptians speak cautiously about their ruler. Most welcome clampdowns on Muslim Brotherhood and others with suspected terrorist ties. Less welcome are arrests of democracy advocates and Christian converts (see p. 13).

Arab powers have not missed the subtext in President Bush's quest for Iraqi liberation: repairing the whole region's "freedom gap."

Bush speech (Feb. 28): "The world has a clear interest in the spread of democratic values, because stable and free nations do not breed the ideologies of murder."

Bush speech (March 14): "We believe that all people in the Middle East-Arab and Israeli alike-deserve to live in dignity, under free and honest governments."

Bush speech (March 17): "We're not a fragile people, and we will not be intimidated by thugs and killers. If our enemies dare to strike us, they and all who have aided them [emphasis added] will face fearful consequences."

Arabs themselves are aware of the need for change. Algerian journalist Yahya Abu Zakaria, in a recent panel discussion on Al-Jazeera television, said: "I am completely convinced that the Arab ruler, in his cruelty, repression, and oppression of the peoples, bears most, if not all, the responsibility for the collapse of the Arab [world], politically, economically, and culturally.... The Arab ruler has turned into a slaughterer and a thief, and he gambles with the livelihood of the peoples. He has become a thief who steals the people's bread."

Simple formulations, however, are rejected from all sides. Realists among the U.S. foreign-policy establishment reject the notion of a democratic Middle East as too unsettling. Anti-war liberals reject it as too outlandish. Students of Islam say Arab states will never abide Western-style freedoms.

Setting the Middle East on the road to democracy should not be rejected out of hand, according to Mr. Phares. Anyway, the current bar is low enough. The Arab leader of the future, he said, "should subscribe to the UN Charter; that is nothing really demanding. He should abide by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in any shape. He should not occupy neighbors."

A handful of Arab states, in fact, are taking fledgling steps toward liberalization. Gulf nations Bahrain and Kuwait held recent parliamentary elections, with mixed results, and Qatar promises to in the near future.

According to former U.S. ambassador Sam Zakhem, Bahrain is on "a long road to democratization." Last October it held parliamentary elections for the first time in 30 years. Candidates included women and opposition figures. Even so, King Hamed appointed up to half the lawmakers. "At this stage, I am sorry to say, most of those who are elected by the people are extreme or fundamentalist," Mr. Zakhem told WORLD.

For most Arab states a maxim from Aristotle applies: A nation cannot rush to democracy without a responsible electorate. "Free elections will bring extremists to power unless you have a strong leader who prepares his people for democracy," said Mr. Zakhem. Yet strong leadership is part of the problem, he noted. "Every Arab ruler dreams of having his son inherit his powers. They don't look at it as service, they look at it as power."

Mr. Zakhem, a Lebanese-American who served as U.S. ambassador to Bahrain in the 1980s, remembers a story from King Hamad's father, Sheikh Isa: "America kept pushing me to liberalize," the sheik told Mr. Zakhem. "I warned them that an elected parliament's first law would be a vote to close the U.S. base. I was right; they voted to close the base, so I dissolved parliament."

Since that time good will toward the United States has improved. Bahrain and its neighbors are supporting the bulk of U.S. forces in the region and early on called for the ouster of Saddam. They have done less to improve their human-rights record but are active in the fight against terrorists.

Their ascendence-economically and politically-suggests that a New Arab world can arise along the lines of New Europe. War in Iraq, at a price, encourages that process. If its three main factions can hold under opposition leaders-Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni-it could mark a powerful beginning of multiethnic, pluralistic government.

"Democracy is a choice that people will make. It can be helped, it can be allowed, but it is never imposed," said Mr. Phares. "The Middle East needs a whole generation of rulers who are reformists. This is not Bangladesh. We have resources. [Reformists] should learn from Iraq's example to reform and to confront courageously jihadists in their midst."

-Bob Jones provided reporting for this story

Used by permission of World magazine. Copyright © 2003.