America and the Arabs: Who's Transforming Whom?

[Secretary of State] Ms. Condoleezza Rice returned to her country without winning even mild concessions from Arab governments on the issue of strengthening the democratic process. Before she came to the Arab region, the People’s Assembly [the lower house of Egypt’s Parliament] decided to delay (for one time only) local council elections for two years, and to delay all proposals for constitutional amendments (to limit Presidential Powers). An entire year has passed since Egypt experienced a frenzy of elections, and now everything has returned to normal as though nothing had happened. The United States proposed the “Greater Middle East” initiative at the end of 2003. As the project evolved, it was adopted by the G8 countries. Back then, the plan was purportedly to reform the Middle East and strengthen democracy there. But thus far, there has been no major democratic transformation in any Arab country, the monopolization of political power appears to have increased, and the future looks bleak.

President Mobarak [of Egypt], along with a number of Arab presidents and kings, overcame their own domestic intellectuals (who demand reform) and external pressure from the G8 countries. While there is less oppression, these governments have reserved “their right to oppress,” and we should admit that with all its might, America has failed to change the oppressiveness in the Arab world.

Maybe the cause of failure is that Arab governments themselves fear that if democracy truly took hold, these nations would break up – due to factors like religious extremism, increasing social disparity, and because of the powerful sentiment in the United States (in particular), of unfairness toward Arab Nationalist causes.

This is why Arab leaders are convinced that the priority for political reform should be to find a proper solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Without a solution to this, there is no way to reduce the mounting anger and extremism. America failed to transform the Arabs because it failed to deal with this problem first. Instead, Washington has made matters worse.

If America failed to transform the Arabs, is it possible that the Arabs will transform America? The question may seem paradoxical. How can the “patient” change the “doctor?” Is it possible that such small countries can transform such a giant? Osama bin Laden has managed to do so, probably altering America forever. So why can’t several Arab countries transform America – but in a different way?

Egypt once transformed America, when it forced her to intervene against the British, French and even Israelis during the 1956 Suez crisis.

Egypt transformed America again, when she brought the Soviets to the Mediterranean. Back then, America was humbled after losing its Mediterranean naval monopoly, which led to the first agreement between the two superpowers in the early seventies.

Finally Egypt was able to transform America a third time, when the Soviets were thrown out of Egypt and the Americans were again given a dominant position. In return for this dominance, the United States promised to guarantee a lasting and fair peace [between Egypt and Israel], as agreed on in the 1978 “Camp David Agreements.” America has failed to abide by this condition, but it is no exaggeration to say that the concept of peace has seeped into the heart of American political culture.

The important question is: what do Egypt and the Arab countries want from the U.S., and how can they achieve these goals?

The Arab countries want a new arrangement with the U.S. that is based on partnership, and don’t wish the U.S. to act as some kind of legal guardian. They want a new future for the region, starting with a resolution of some very old problems, especially the Palestinian issue and the Arab-Israeli problem in general.

As a basis for the new arrangement, America would need to reach an overall settlement with the various aggrieved Arab parties, in exchange for long-term commitments leading to a balance of interests between them. This arrangement would reduce the climate of incitement that pushes Arab young people into violence and extremism, and provide a safe path toward the rule of the law, democratic participation and then social and economic development. This new long-term commitment would address the oil interests of the U.S., Western Europe and the global market. In addition, it would create a system of international security guarantees between Arabs and Israelis, and would seek the implementation of a fair end to violence and terrorism.

There is nothing new to this agreement. It is based on a proposal of Saudi King Abdullah and the ideas of Arab thinkers and intellectuals, who believe that establishing the rule of law is a prerequisite to democratic development and a more rational culture in Arab societies.

What’s new about this agreement is the way Arabs will propose it to Washington.

This agreement will be subject to negotiations between key Arab leaders, the U.S. President and his administration, and important members of Congress. We are seeking a negotiating process that would look like a political debate, where each party explains its motives and basic interests, what he clearly and openly expects from the other party, and finally what each side is willing to commit to in return.

What is proposed is closer to the discussions which led to the signing of the Helsinki Agreement in 1975, which in turn led to the creation of the European Council for Security and Cooperation. That provided the needed atmosphere for the democratization of Eastern Europe.

This new dynamic can change America now, because public opinion and many domestic forces in the U.S. want to save the country from warfare in the Middle East in general, and Iraq and its many problems in particular.

A majority of renowned Jewish personalities, who have a major influence on American society, want a fair and final solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Such a solution would give Palestinians a free nation and some “right of return.” A good portion of Americans have not properly understood the Arabs, or what they want. This is a chance for us to reach them and present our case with strength and respect and to apply the necessary pressure to force them to more carefully listen to us. This is the most effective way we can to communicate with the American people, with all its forces and parties and … to transform them.

This new dynamic promises to address important Arab interests, while at the same time turning a new page in the history of Arab political reform. Even though the concept of political reform has been abused by governments, the truth is that unless peace prevails in this region of the world, we may never see true democracy, a rational culture and more dynamic human development.

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