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Muslim leaders say democratic reform is inevitable, but disagree on U.S. role

DOHA, Qatar—Real political reform in the Arab world is becoming inevitable, government officials and scholars from more than 30 Muslim countries told a major conference that concluded here Tuesday.

But the group, ranging from Western-leaning activists who were jailed in their countries to members of Islamist parties, businessmen and scientists, disagreed deeply over what role the United States should play in nurturing reform.

"The old, long, cold winter of autocracy and dictatorship is coming to an end. I feel it in my bones," said Saad Eddin Ibrahim of Egypt, one of the leading Arab activists. He pointed out that he and another participant, former Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, were in jail just a few years ago.

The group met in this relatively liberal Persian Gulf emirate against the backdrop of a tumultuous spring in the Middle East. Elections have been held in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories, and Lebanese protests have helped force the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.

The U.S. initiative to promote Middle East democracy faces intense skepticism in the Arab world. America's role was the most contentious issue at the conference on the United States and the Islamic world, sponsored by the Washington-based Brookings Institution and the Qatari government.

In some quarters, there was surprising openness to help and advice from Washington.

Bush's democracy initiative "is very good news, but there are ... catches," said Sadig al Mahdi, a former Sudanese prime minister.

The initiative must not be simply "public relations" for Bush's anti-terrorism campaign or an excuse for outsiders to manipulate the Muslim world, al Mahdi said.

Others rejected any U.S. help and accused the United States, which has backed the region's autocrats for decades, of hypocrisy.

"We are victims of this `democracy,'" said Abdul Ghaffar Aziz, the foreign affairs director of Jamaat-e-Islami, a leading Islamist party in Pakistan.

Bush backs Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who took power in a coup. And Washington didn't protest when Musharraf reneged on his promise late last year to resign his position as Army chief of staff, Aziz complained.

Studies have found that Arab countries are the world's least democratic and are held back by the second-class role assigned to women.

Suspicion of Bush's intentions stems in large part from the American invasion of Iraq and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction there, which led to record-high disapproval of the United States among the world's 1.2 billion Muslims.

Anger remains deep in many places, but there are signs that the recent spate of elections and Bush's pro-democracy rhetoric have forced some second thoughts.

Anwar Ibrahim said that while he remains opposed in principle to the Iraq war, "I must concede that the voices of freedom in Iraq are now flourishing ... after decades of being forced into silence and repression." Ibrahim was sentenced to a six-year jail term in Malaysia on what he said were trumped-up sexual misconduct charges.

In the last few months, there has been "a reduction in (U.S.-Islamic) tension and a little bit of a reassessment," said Brookings scholar Shibley Telhami.

Still, there is skepticism that Washington is willing to see just anyone take power in Arab capitals, particularly Islamists.

Peppered with such questions, a State Department official, J. Scott Carpenter, said, "Yes. ... We are prepared to accept the implications of this."

But he sidestepped the question of how the United States would react if violent—and popular—groups such as Hamas in the Palestinian areas took political power.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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