In the last few years, Arab liberals have been gradually reaching out to moderate Islamists and engaging them in campaigns calling for reforms. These are steps in the right direction and the U.S. and Europe should learn from this example. The cause of political transformation in the region is best served by bringing in Islamist movements and their popular constituencies.
Talking to the Muslim Brotherhood and other mainstream Islamist organizations should be a central, ongoing task for American diplomats in the Middle East. It would do more to restore the tarnished image of the United States in the Arab world than any public diplomacy initiative launched so far.
In a startling development this month, the Egyptian Judges Club decided to boycott their constitutionally mandated role of supervising upcoming elections. Is the Egyptian judiciary on a quest to transform Mubarak’s regime? Rather than a bold move toward regime change, this is a calibrated confrontation with narrower aims: to secure judicial reform and support electoral reform.
Criticism of the PA’s growing authoritarianism gave birth to a “paper Palestine,” in which citizens have rights of free speech and assembly; independent judiciary adjudicates disputes; leaders are selected in elections overseen by an independent electoral commission; and a representative assembly monitors the executive. Yet the institutions that would ensure democracy are missing or lagging.
The fall of the Berlin wall and the subsequent breakup of the Soviet Union presented an unparalleled opportunity for fundamental political and economic change in more than two dozen countries. As postcommunist countries sought to attain the economic development of their Western neighbors, it became clear that the existing framework of laws and institutions would not support the desired growth.
The path to Arab democracy continues to be problematic. A close look at the contemporary regional political scene reveals that the predominantly missing element—when compared with more successful experiences of political transformation elsewhere—is the emergence of democratic opposition movements with broad constituencies that can contest authoritarian power and force concessions.
The third Arab Human Development Report, released last week, is unlikely to have as profound an effect as the first two such reports. Although the region is still changing, Arab confusion over a future agenda has vanished. The central question is no longer whether freedom and democracy represent legitimate goals of human development but rather how to promote and consolidate them.