How the Bush gang is blocking Arab reform


DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - For years now, it's been clear that the Middle East peace process has left the realm of diplomacy and started to become an industry, with its own GNP of conferences and seminars.

But there is a new industry rapidly overtaking it in the Middle East, and that is the "reform industry." Every month there seems to be a new conference on reform in the Arab world. Indeed, I have been attending one here in Dubai.

What the reform process and the peace process have in common is that neither advances when we Americans tell the parties in English that they have to change. Progress happens only when the people here tell themselves in Arabic that they must change. So I took heart from the blunt manner in which Dubai's crown prince, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, opened his conference by saying, in a speech broadcast by Arab satellite TV, "I say to my fellow Arabs [in power]: If you do not change, you will be changed."

I didn't hear talk like that five years ago. Nor did I hear an Egyptian friend remarking to me that she had absolutely no problem with Hosni Mubarak's son, Gamal, one day succeeding his father. Gamal Mubarak is a good man. She just had one condition: that Gamal Mubarak succeed his father the same way George W. Bush succeeded his father - in a free election.

Meanwhile, last Sunday, about 1,000 Egyptians gathered in downtown Cairo, many wearing over their mouths yellow stickers with the Arabic word for "enough" written on them, to protest plans by President Mubarak to run for a fifth term.

Yes, there is definitely something stirring out here, but it has miles to go before meaningful changes occur. It is something America should be quietly encouraging, so it is inexplicable to me that the Bush administration is holding up publication of the next U.N. Arab Human Development report.

In 2002, the U.N. Development Program sponsored a group of courageous Arab economists, social scientists and other scholars to do four reports on human development in the Arab world. The first one, in 2002, caused a real stir in this region - showing, among other things, that the Arabs were falling so far behind that Spain's GDP was greater than that of the entire Arab League combined.

That first report, published in Arabic and English, was downloaded off the Internet 1 million times. It was a truly incisive diagnosis of the deficits of freedom, education and women's empowerment retarding the Arab world.

In 2003, the same group produced a second Arab Human Development Report, about the Arab knowledge deficit - even tackling the supersensitive issue of how Islam and its current spiritual leaders may be holding back modern education. This was stuff no U.S. diplomat could ever raise, but the Arab authors of these reports could and did.

So I eagerly awaited the third Arab Human Development Report, due in October. It was going to be pure TNT, because it was going to tackle the issue of governance and misgovernance in the Arab world, and the legal, institutional and religious impediments to political reform. These are the guts of the issue out here. I waited. And I waited. But nothing.

Then I started to hear disturbing things - that the Bush team saw a draft of the Arab governance report and objected to the prologue, because it was brutally critical of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the Israeli occupation. This prologue constitutes some 10 percent of the report. While heartfelt, it's there to give political cover to the Arab authors for their clear-eyed critique of Arab governance - the other 90 percent of the report.

But the Bush team is apparently insisting that language critical of America and Israel be changed - as if language 10 times worse can't be heard on Arab satellite TV every day. And until it's changed, the Bush folks are apparently ready to see the report delayed or killed altogether. And they have an ally. The government of Egypt, which is criticized in the report, also doesn't want it out - along with some other Arab regimes.

So there you have it: A group of serious Arab intellectuals - who are neither sellouts nor bomb-throwers - have produced a powerful analysis, in Arabic, of the lagging state of governance in the Arab world. It is just the sort of independent report that could fuel the emerging debate on Arab reform. But the Bush team, along with Arab autocrats, are holding it up until it is modified to their liking - even if that means it won't appear at all.

It makes you weep.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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