Rice Alarms Reformist Arabs with Stability Remarks
Tue Mar 29, 7:36 AM ET Politics - Reuters
By Jonathan Wright
CAIRO (Reuters) - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has alarmed many reformist Arabs with comments suggesting a new U.S. approach that promotes rapid political change without regard for internal stability.
Rice said in an interview with the Washington Post last week the Middle East status quo was not stable and she doubted it would be stable soon. Washington would speak out for "freedom" without offering a model or knowing what the outcome would be.
"This a very dangerous scheme. Anarchy will be out of control," said Hassan Nafaa, a professor of political science at Cairo University and an advocate of gradual change.
A liberal Arab diplomat, who asked not to be named, said: "They seem to be supporting chaos and instability as a pretext for bringing democracy. But people would rather live under undemocratic rule than in the chaotic atmosphere of Iraq, for example, which the Americans tout as a model."
U.S. policy in the Middle East has traditionally given priority to the stability of cooperative governments such as those in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, while turning a blind eye to the way those governments treat their peoples.
Mohamed el-Sayed Said, a liberal who has challenged Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to his face over authoritarian government, said Arab societies were too fragile for the kind of rapid and unchecked change that Rice appears to welcome.
Apart from the danger of extremists coming to power, the Arab world would face the threat that societies and states could collapse completely, he told Reuters.
"We can hardly take the great risks that Dr Rice suggests. We are determined to keep domestic peace as well as external peace as far as we can, but not to the point of stifling change," added Said, who is deputy director of the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.
"TOTALLY CAVALIER ATTITUDE"
The Bush administration has argued that political violence and hostility to the United States in the Middle East are the result of internal repression, rather than of U.S. policies in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the main Arab grievance.
That argument is at the core of President Bush's campaign for domestic political change in Arab countries, which has had a mixed reception even among Arab liberals.
His campaign has stimulated the debate on reform in the Middle East and emboldened some democrats to challenge governments which now appear to be on the defensive.
Rice's remarks went one step further, suggesting the United States was willing to take a gamble on "democratic institutions" having a "moderating influence" in the region.
"Can we be certain of that? No. But do I think there's a strong certainty that the Middle East was not going to stay stable anyway? Yes. And when you know that the status quo is no longer defensible, then you have to be willing to move in another direction," she said.
Helena Cobban, a writer on Middle East affairs based in the United States, said: "She (Rice) reveals a totally cavalier attitude to the whole non-trivial concept of social-political stability in Middle Eastern countries."
"So it looks as though Arc of Instability may now actually be the goal of U.S. policy, rather than its diagnosis of an existing problem," she added.
Mohamed el-Sayed Said said Rice's approach appeared to have links with a trend in right-wing Israeli thinking that favors destabilising Arab governments and societies.
"We see an emphasis on destruction and we see that Israel is willing to push Arab societies to the abyss without caring for stability. We suspect these ideas came from Israel," he added.
Hala Mustafa, editor of the Egyptian quarterly publication Democracy Review, said reformers must have a clear agenda for where they want to go and that instant change would favor the Islamists, who dominate the political culture.
"If we start without any agenda, it will end in confusion ... We are talking about comprehensive reform that would lead to the change we need, not to turmoil or chaos," she added.
Rice, asked about the prospect of Islamist victories through reform, said that would not be desirable.
But she added: "It is really as opposed to what at this point? It isn't as if the status quo was stable the way that it was ... The only thing the United States can do is to speak out for the values that have been absent, liberty and freedom there, and it will have to take its own course."
Abdel Raouf El Reedy, a former Egyptian ambassador to the United States and chairman of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Relations, said the United States was overlooking its own responsibility to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"If the United States wants to be credible, it has to be serious about ending the military occupation (of Palestinian territories) because this is generating resentment and anger and in this way helping the radical forces in the region," he said.
Condisleeza Rice: "Just Being ME Knocks Me Out!"
(My apologies to the sweet pooch in this photo. She looks so much better than Rice ever does.)