Rice Abbas 298.88.
(photo credit: AP)
During her swing through Riyadh and Cairo this week, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was accused both of meddling too much in the "internal affairs" of Arab countries and, contradictorily, of easing back on America's democracy agenda.
Is it possible to walk a tightrope between seemingly clashing agendas, or are idealistic and practical considerations hopelessly in conflict?
In Cairo, the tenor of the questions, and of the answers of her Egyptian counterpart, was that the US should ease off on pushing democracy. "This society is taking off," assured Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit. "Next year, 2007, will witness major, major amendments to the Egyptian constitution. Not everything is done in haste in this country and not everything is done in one day. ... We will move at our own pace."
Though she mechanically reiterated US displeasure regarding Egyptian parliamentary elections, Rice did not herself bring up the case of imprisoned human rights activist and party leader Ayman Nour. This reticence prompted a political analyst, Gamal Essam El-Din, to observe: "The US was expected to exert pressure on Arab regimes to improve the human rights situation. Instead, Rice focused on garnering support against Iran, at the expense of human rights in the region."
Israelis might have a similar complaint regarding the complete omission of any reference to Cairo's failure to stem the massive flow of arms across Egypt's border into Gaza. Though Rice raised the need to support moderate Palestinians and to fulfill UN Security Resolution 1701 at almost every turn, the flow of arms to Hamas certainly hurts the cause of peace and ignores the primary lesson of the Lebanon war: that radical terrorist groups must be prevented from arming or war will ensue.
Egypt has the obvious ability and responsibility to stop Hamas from copying Hizbullah and turning Gaza into even more of an armed camp. Yet Rice spoke of Jordan and Egypt together as states "that have themselves resolved their differences with Israel and are a model for how peace can be brought between old adversaries and obviously two states that are also extremely involved in helping the Palestinians." Actually, the contrast between the Jordanian and Egyptian borders shows clearly what Egypt could be but is not doing to halt the transfer of sophisticated weaponry, including anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, to Hamas.
Returning to the supposed dilemma between advancing a longer-term democracy agenda and immediate practical tasks, such as gathering a coalition to confront Iran, we believe the dichotomy is an exaggerated one.
Arab states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia feel at least as threatened by Iran as do the US and Europe. Yet they will never openly cheer the US on or join an anti-Iran coalition.
These states are privately not hiding the fact that they are much more concerned about Iran than about the Palestinian situation. Accordingly, Western nations can be assured that the tougher their policy toward Iran is - and therefore more likely to succeed - the more supportive these Arab states will be of it.
On the other hand, the US gains nothing from easing back either on its agenda of human rights and democracy, or on more immediate demands, such as sealing the border between Egypt and Gaza.
George Bush, Tony Blair, and Condoleezza Rice stress time and again that the battle is not between Islam or the Arabs and the West but between "moderates" and "extremists." They are right: Militant Islamists threaten to subjugate the Muslim world at the same time and by the same barbaric means as they threaten the West. But the only way to support moderation is to stand up and confront extremists. This means being more, not less, demanding of "moderate" Arab states.
Saudi Arabia is still a financial center for Islamic extremism, is still supporting Hamas, and still tolerates and even institutionalizes rampant anti-Semitism. Egypt is still a leader of anti-Israel resolutions in international forums and is acting more like Syria than Jordan when it comes to preventing the flow of dangerous weaponry to Hamas. The US serves no one when it soft-pedals on such critical issues, not the cause of moderation and certainly not the war against terrorism.
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