Kind of Palestinian government pushed by Bush rare among Arab nations

What's democracy in Mideast?

Posted: Wednesday, June 26, 2002

WASHINGTON -- President Bush says Middle East peace depends on a Palestinian democracy ''based on tolerance and liberty'' and ''reliable justice,'' and he wants Arab nations to nurture those ideals.

The problem is, few Arab nations practice anything near the democracy outlined Monday in Bush's speech, even the countries he expects to play key roles in coaxing the Palestinians to reconcile with Israel: Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Following are Bush's vision of Palestinian democracy and how some Arab nations measure up.

What Bush wants:

Accountable government: Bush spoke of separation of powers among the executive, the legislature and local officials and said there should be fair, multiparty elections.

Justice: Bush advocated a ''truly independent judiciary.''

Security: The Palestinian security system, currently a jumble of competing agencies, must be replaced by one that has ''clear lines of authority and accountability.''

Economy: Bush wants ''market economics'' in the new Palestine.

The president did not mention freedoms of speech or media in his address, except in urging restraints on ''incitement.'' In fact, the United States has asked Qatar to restrain the anti-Americanism on its Al-Jazeera satellite network, probably the freest media outlet in the Arabic-speaking nations.


Egypt, the most populous and most influential Arab nation, always has been central to American peacemaking efforts and was one of two Arab states specified by Bush as having a role in creating the new Palestine.

Power is centralized in the presidency, controlled without challenge for 50 years by the National Democratic Party, which also overwhelmingly controls the legislature. Religious parties are banned. Elections in 2000 and 2001, and generally since Egypt has had elections, were marred by what outside observers said were obvious attempts by the NDP to control the outcome, sometimes using police as enforcers.

The courts, once rubber stamps, have exerted some independence in recent years but still are used at times to jail government critics.

Egypt supports a bewildering array of security agencies, which has lent itself at times to unraveling. Authorities had been unaware of the extremist Islamic cell in the military that assassinated Hosni Mubarak's predecessor, Anwar Sadat, in 1981.

Once a highly centralized economy, Egypt has introduced changes toward a free market in the last decade, although they have been obstructed by hard-to-shed traditions of patronage and bribery.


Jordan, host of the largest Palestinian population outside the West Bank and Gaza, also has the sturdiest peace with Israel and was the other Arab nation Bush said is central to building Palestinian statehood.

Executive power is held by the king, but reforms introduced in recent years have strengthened the legislature, where a two-thirds vote may reverse a royal veto. Reforms were frustrated, though, after Islamic activist candidates made strong showings in 1993, and then-King Hussein tinkered with the laws to minimize future gains.

The king exerts close control over the army and other security agencies. The courts are mostly independent but at have at times been used to silence critics of the regime.

Like his father, King Abdullah II has been an enthusiastic backer of market reforms.


Like Jordan, Syria houses a large Palestinian refugee population and shares a border with Israel. It also is Israel's most implacable foe. Bush suggested Syria would have a role to play only after it stops supporting terror groups.

Syria's president wields near-absolute power, and the legislature is a rubber stamp. When longtime dictator Hafez Assad died in 2000, the legislature hastily revised the constitution to lower the minimum age for the presidency from 40 to 34 so his son Bashar could step in.

Government critics have faced torture, prison or worse. The courts are not independent. The economy is one of the world's most centralized, although Bashar Assad has suggested he might introduce market reforms.

Saudi Arabia:

Bush did not mention the desert kingdom in his speech, but he has sought its wealth and its influence in promoting Palestinian reforms. It is one of the United States' closest Arab allies, and the Bush family has close ties with the royal family.

Power in Saudi Arabia is closely guarded by the royal family. There is no elected legislature. Unlike in Egypt, outside human rights monitors are barred. Law is strictly administered according to an extreme version of Islamic justice, which includes amputations for theft and stoning for adultery. Women are denied basic rights and may be prosecuted even for driving a car.

The State Department decries ''abuse of prisoners and incommunicado detention; prohibitions or severe restrictions on the freedoms of speech, press, peaceful assembly and association.''

Ambitions for a market economy are frustrated by concentration of wealth in the very large royal family and bureaucratic barriers against outside investment.

Bahrain and Qatar:

These two small Gulf states are the bright lights for democracy among the Arabs. Monarchs in both countries have introduced changes that will have freely elected legislatures in place by 2004. Bahrain has welcomed home political exiles in recent years. Freedom of the press and the judiciary is now encouraged.

Both countries have government-controlled, oil-based economies, although in recent years, Bahrain has privatized some industries.

Ron Kampeas has covered the Middle East for The Associated Press since 1992.

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