Is the United States retreating from its democracy promotion agenda in the Arab world? Has the Bush administration become fearful of the potential outcome of Arab democratization after the electoral victory of Hamas and the considerable gains of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt's parliamentary elections last year? These questions are raised not only by Arab human rights activists and opposition politicians, but are also heard everywhere in Washington.

In sharp contrast to its rhetoric, the administration recently adopted several policy measures that suggest a lukewarm commitment to democracy promotion, if not a reversal of the trajectory altogether.

Most significantly, the US restored diplomatic ties with Libya in a move that seemed to reward Moammar Gadhafi for changing his regime's behavior regionally and internationally, but by no means its despotic character domestically. The administration also abated its pressures on the Egyptian ruling elite to open up the country's political space. The US turned a blind eye to a series of recent anti-democratic decisions coming from Cairo, especially the extension of the Emergency Law until 2008 and the postponement of the municipal elections originally scheduled for this year. In Libya and Egypt, as well as in other Arab countries, the Bush administration seems to be falling back on its traditional soft diplomacy approach with regard to democracy promotion.

Clearly, there is a growing appreciation inside the administration of the obstacles to democratization in the Arab world and of the risks of holding more elections where Islamist movements emerge as winners. American officials nowadays emphasize that democracy is a comprehensive project which requires social and economic development. It is built on the rule of law and a conception of citizenship that moves beyond religion and ethnicity as predefined primary identities. These desirable attributes, they maintain, are either weak or non-existent in the Arab world. Absent these safeguards, pressing for more elections cannot produce democratic transformations. Quite the contrary: this might lead to the takeover of extremist religious forces and to the complete overhaul of the semi-pluralist political structures that brought them to power. 

Faced with the risk of hastening the collapse of friendly authoritarian regimes in the Arab world, the Bush administration seems to have come to the conclusion that easing the pressure on these regimes and relying instead on political elites to bring about gradual democratic openings is the best strategy out of the impasse. 

What is worrisome about this logic is that it is blatantly misguided. In washing its hands of pressuring regimes to open up democratically and essentially isolating the only domestic actors capable of mobilizing popular pressure - namely Islamist movements - the US leaves authoritarian regimes with no incentives to embrace reform. Veteran ruling elites should not be expected to magically relinquish their old ways, and American policymakers must realize that soft diplomacy alone cannot convince them of the need for gradual reform. Incentives such as free-trade agreements are losing traction, as Arab regimes are beginning to realize that the US cannot risk losing its traditional allies in the Middle East in the face of the economic rise of China and India.

Even more worrisome about the Bush administration's conclusion is its blindness to universal facts. The experiences of Western democracies, as well as those of stable democracies outside the West, show that political pluralism and peaceful transfers of power are essential to the development of the rule of law and a modern conception of citizenship. Only the advent of new elites and self-critical governments can give rise to a rule-of-law culture characterized by the separation of powers and checks and balances between the three branches of government, the neutrality of public institutions, and the accountability of rulers. 

Similarly, a conception of citizenship that marginalizes predefined, religious and ethnic, identities can only transpire with increased popular trust in the transparency and neutrality of public institutions, and the emergence of parties and popular movements able to craft civil political identities. The Arab world is no exception to these universal norms. 

It may be understandable that the Bush administration has grown fearful of the possible outcomes of promoting Arab democracy. Yet placing hopes in soft diplomacy when dealing with autocrats and punishing Arab citizens for their electoral choices by retreating from democracy promotion are not the right answer. The Arab world is a ticking bomb and only real democratic openings can slow down the timer.

Amr Hamzawy is a senior associate in the Democracy and Rule of Law Project, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington DC. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.