December 8, 2004 | Scripps Howard News Service

Defend Arab Dissidents

“It is outrageous and amazing,” wrote Salama Ni'mat, a columnist for the London-based Arabic-language daily Al-Hayat, “that the first free and general elections in the history of the Arab nation are to take place in January: in Iraq, under the auspices of American occupation, and in Palestine, under the auspices of the Israeli occupation.”

Yes, you say, but who are we to foist democracy on the Arabs? Maybe they regard such ideas as alien. Perhaps they would rather not bear the strain of choosing their own leaders.

Not at all, Ni'mat wrote in a recent column (translated by the invaluable Middle East Media Research Institute, MEMRI). “What prevents some of the Arab regimes from holding free and genuine elections is their fear of the results, and nothing more – that is, their fear of the will of their peoples.”

If that wasn't enough to raise blood pressure among the Middle East's ruling classes, Ni'mat also called it “sad and pathetic that certain countries today are treating the Iraqis with the cheapest kind of political hypocrisy, even though no one heard any particular Arab protest during the time of the Regime of the Mass Graves” — a poetic way of referring to Saddam Hussein's bloody dictatorship.

And he concluded with this challenge: “Can independent and sovereign Arab countries give their peoples something better than what the occupation is giving today to Iraq and Palestine?”

Ni'mat may not be part of a chorus, but he's hardly alone. Recently, Egyptian journalist Nabil Sharaf Al-Din expressed similar ideas — on Al-Jazeera television, of all places. 

“We are not being fair to the current Iraqi government,” he said. “Not me, nor you, nor the other guest on this program, not even the viewers. But history will do justice to them. These people are establishing the first democracy in the Middle East. This country will be a platform for liberties in the whole region. … For the first time the Iraqi leader will be elected by Iraqi ballots.”

The displeased interviewer quoted Sheik Al-Dhari, head of the Sunni Clerics Council in Iraq, to the effect that Americans would not permit real democracy but only continued occupation.

Nabil Sharaf Al-Din fired back: “This Al-Dhari is a mufti of terrorism and slaughter. This Al-Dhari is the military branch of the murderers, the military branch of terrorism and televised slaughtering This Al-Dhari … and his group… Sir, please…”

Such flowerings of truth are encouraging. Still, it is not inevitable that the Middle East's fledgling pro-democracy dissidents will defeat the forces of totalitarianism, Baathism, jihadism and terrorism.

If they are to prevail, they will need help and support from the peoples of the Free World, just as the dissidents of Eastern Europe did.

But most Western Europeans regard the notion of Arabs living in decent, democratic societies as ludicrous – like Eskimos wearing bikinis.

The United Nations long ago morphed into a dictators' protection society. We now know that officials at the highest levels worked hand-in-glove with the “Regime of the Mass Graves,” and that they ignored the killing fields of Darfur as long as possible.

Even most of the American media view Arab freedom fighters as either inauthentic or uninteresting. Last Sunday, as the Libyan dissident Fathi Eljami was being held, incommunicado and ailing, in Moammer Gadhafi's infamous Abu Salim prison, The New York Times Travel Section featured Libya, which it called “a once-forbidden fruit …a complicated and confounding land.”

The Times writer added: “Despite American air strikes designed to kill its leaders, and a Bush administration that has enflamed Muslims around the world, I found the Libyans to be warm and self-deprecating. And despite being branded a rogue terrorist state by the international community, Libya felt perfectly safe in both urban and rural areas.”

What's next? A wine tour of North Korea?

The State Department could do much more to support President Bush's “forward strategy of freedom” and “Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative.”  Perhaps it will, once Condoleeza Rice takes command.

Meantime, in one corner of the “broader” Middle East this week, Hamid Karzai was sworn in as Afghanistan's first elected president. “We thank the people of the United States of America for bringing us this day, a day of peace, a day of democracy, a day of empowerment of the Afghan people,” Karzai said.

Should Americans ever lose their willingness to bring about such days, it is unlikely that anyone else would take up the burden.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies a policy institute focusing on terrorism.



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