PHILADELPHIA - One of the most hotly debated questions in the Arab world - and in the United States - is whether the Bush administration has sparked a democratic tsunami in the Middle East.
U.S. officials argue that Iraqi elections, along with presidential rhetoric on Arab democracy, have inspired reformers throughout the region. Many Arab intellectuals retort that they have been struggling for years to effect social and political change but have been blocked by U.S. support for authoritarian rulers. A much-awaited study released last Tuesday, the Arab Human Development Report 2004, offers a new and useful way to view this key debate.
Written by 39 Arab intellectuals and sponsored by the U.N. Development Program, the report is the third in an annual series that has exposed the Arab world's glaring "deficits" in productivity, creativity, women's rights and political institutions.
The report blasts Arab governments' restrictions on civil society and press freedoms and violations of minority rights, citing the suffering in Darfur. It decries the lack of freedom of opinion and expression and the right to associate in Arab states. And it points out that most Arab presidential elections are cosmetic.
Most important, the authors stress the desire of Arabs for freedom, whether or not they envision Western-style democracy: "There is a rational and understandable thirst among Arabs to be rid of despots and to enjoy democratic governance."
The authors faced the charge that they were providing the United States with a pretext to meddle in Arab affairs. Their reply, in the preface to the new volume: "The only way for Arabs to deal with the ambitions of others is to recognize and overcome their own weaknesses."
But the volume makes clear that the authors, too, are suspicious of President Bush's promotion of Arab democracy. They say the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories are key impediments to Arab freedoms.
The White House was so annoyed that it reportedly tried to block the report's publication. In the end, few changes were made.
"When it comes to outside intervention from the United States, people question the motives," says Rima Khalaf Hunaidi, the development program's regional director for Arab states, who oversaw the report. "The [European Union] and Bush started to pursue [Arab democratic] reform on account of terrorism. Arabs seek it because they have been deprived of dignified life in the past."
Mistrust of U.S. intentions is especially strong among Sunni Arabs living in countries still under authoritarian rule. They look at events in Iraq or Lebanon as special cases. That makes it much harder for Arab reformers to take advantage of U.S. pressures for change. They fear that any association with Western efforts toward democracy is a political kiss of death.
What's most extraordinary about the U.N. report is that its authors have taken a more pragmatic approach to what they call "reform initiatives from outside." They recognize that Arab reformers can't do the job themselves and say they must figure out how to make use of external pressure "and maximize its contribution."
I asked Ms. Hunaidi how U.S. officials could help, not undercut, Arab reformers. Her reply: First, for outside cooperation to be fruitful, it must press for more political rights for Arabs of all political outlooks - even Islamists - so long as they accept nonviolence and democratic rules. "If you marginalize the political opposition, some of them will go underground and become violent," she said.
This is risky. But if Islamist parties in Iraq and Lebanon show they will abide by democratic precepts, the time may arrive to let such parties operate elsewhere. This seems to be the new thinking of the Bush team.
Ms. Hunaidi's second point: To "get the confidence of Arabs," the United States must continue to tackle the Palestinian issue.
What the report suggests is that U.S. efforts to promote Arab democracy could help Sunni Arab reformers - if U.S. officials listen to what the Arabs are saying. And read the report.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.