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Last Updated: Wednesday, 31 March, 2004, 16:50 GMT 17:50 UK
Arab leaders avoid democracy debate
The Arab world's attempt to reform itself foundered in Tunisia, with the unprecedented cancellation of the Arab League summit.

As Arab leaders continue efforts to resurrect the summit, the BBC's Middle East correspondent Paul Wood assesses the chances of making progress.

Our taxi driver spoke as we passed beneath the huge poster of the Tunisian president.

People stand in front of a giant poster showing President Ben Ali, celebrating his 16 years in power, last November
Some states objected to the word "democracy" in final communiqué
"It is for Ben Ali's election. He will probably be the only candidate, again," our driver said.

What was his opinion of the other Arab leaders due in Tunis?

"I think they all like to remain as presidents," he said with a mischievous smile.

The leaders never did get to Tunis, but our driver's political analysis was spot on.

The Arab world has been called the least democratic region on earth, dominated by a collection of autocrats, semi-feudal monarchs, and presidents for life.

Now, as never before, Arab countries are facing demands for reform. And most of the pressure is coming from the United States.


"Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty," President Bush said last year.

What the US means by this in practice may be quite cautious and limited. But Arab leaders are still terrified.

So, trying to pre-empt the Americans, the Arab League was debating no less than five separate reform plans: from Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Qatar and Tunisia.

Either I get my rights or my death will bear witness to how they abuse human rights
Abdul Latif el-Meki
Tunisian hunger striker
But some Arab states would not even allow the word "democracy" into the final communiqué, said a Tunisian official.

The host country felt this was pointless and cancelled the summit.

But Tunisia itself exemplifies the problem for the US in trying to reform the Middle East.

President Ben Ali is one of America's friends: an ally in the "war on terror", warmly welcomed to the Oval Office.

Yet a referendum two years ago on whether President Ben Ali could stay in office produced the absurd figure of 99.52% in support.

During the summit, a small demonstration - just 50 or 60 people - calling for a free press was quickly broken up by the police.

There are, say human rights groups, some 600 Islamist "prisoners of conscience" in Tunisian jails.

Islamists who are at liberty complain of official persecution - and some have gone on hunger strike to protest.

Unusual solidarity

On the corner of a darkened street in one of the poorer quarters of Tunis, two men turned their backs as our car passed and began talking into portable radios.

These were secret policemen watching the house of the Islamist hunger striker I had come to see.

Abdul Latif el-Meki was lying perfectly still under a blanket, weak after 50 days of a sugar and water diet.

In a barely audible whisper, he told me he had emerged from a 10-year jail sentence to resume his training at medical school.

But then, he went on, the university had been ordered to expel him because of his political views.

Former hunger striker and human rights lawyer Radhia Nasraoui

"I am willing to go all the way to the end with this hunger strike," he said.

"Either I get my rights or my death will bear witness to how they abuse human rights in my country."

A Tunisian human rights activist had brought us to the house.

She was, she said, a secular feminist who would normally be campaigning against the Islamists but "the repression here means we have to stand with them".

"It is stupid, but this is what Ben Ali has achieved."

The dilemma for the Americans is all the more acute when it comes to countries like Saudi Arabia, where the radical Islamist threat is bigger and more violent.

So there was barely a whisper of protest from the US a few weeks ago, when the Saudis arrested the country's leading liberal dissidents petitioning for reform.

'Greater Middle East'

The Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, accused the liberals of sowing "dissension when the whole country is looking for unity, especially at a time when it is facing a terrorist threat".

He said this at a news conference, with the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, standing right next to him.

Mr Powell was on his "apology tour" of the Middle East, trying to calm Arab regimes' fears after the leaking of a draft of America's "Greater Middle East initiative" - the concrete proposals to put last year's declaration by President Bush into action.

Prince Saud el-Faisal
Prince Faisal and other Arab leaders say they do not need instructions
They turn out to be pretty cautious: money for women's groups, promoting literacy, help in drafting legislation and parliamentary exchanges.

And the funds will usually be channelled through the governments that Washington is trying to reform.

There was still a howl of protest. President Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt under emergency law for 23 years, said reform imposed from the outside was unacceptable.

He insisted that his country was reforming and would do so in its own way.

Otherwise, he warned, there would be "violence, anarchy and instability" and the "overtaking of the reform process by extremists who would steer it in a different direction".

So Mr Powell was forced to stress that the US would not impose its own agenda, but merely wanted to embrace the reform initiatives already being promoted by Arab governments.

Last year, President Bush quoted approvingly the UN Development Report which said the "global wave of democracy" had barely reached the Arab states.

At this point, the "wave" is still no more than a gentle lapping at the feet of Arab rulers.

Egypt calls for summit date
29 Mar 04  |  Middle East
Saudis criticise US reform plan
22 Mar 04  |  Middle East
Democracy project taxes press
05 Mar 04  |  Middle East
Quick guide: Arab League
10 Sep 03  |  Country profiles
Timeline: Arab League
19 Nov 03  |  Country profiles

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