Cover Story

Rule of man

Democracy and the rule of law in the Middle East will take more than simply ousting the Taliban from Afghanistan or Saddam Hussein's regime from Iraq-though that's a good start. Says one former diplomat, hastily held free elections-"sorry to say"-will bring only more despots to power. Building democracies in a part of the world plundered by dictators requires time and patience

Issue: "Beginning of the end," March 29, 2003

If the Arab world is rattled by George W. Bush's one-year runup to war with Saddam-and indeed it is-then it's not only because of Iraq's proximity or the roller-coaster pricing of a barrel of oil. Arab rulers know their hands are stained alike. The transformation that war will bring to Baghdad, they fear, will someday extend to their own capitals.

Saddam Hussein, after all, is no standout when compared to Middle East dictators. By Arab standards Saddam's 24-year grip on power is recent. His personal net worth, $2 billion according to Forbes, is horse feed. It may quadruple the wealth amassed by Queen Elizabeth, but it is a mere tenth of the fortunes of Saudi Arabia's King Fahd.

For now, Saddam stands alone in the region to threaten the use of weapons of mass destruction. But the region is beset with arthritic regimes more bent on accumulating power and wealth than ruling justly. Adam Smith, the 18th-century economist, had a simple recipe for good government: "peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice." Among many Arab rulers, those are throwaway words.

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Of the 20 Arab League nations in the Middle East and North Africa, five hold no elections at all. A further seven hold elections but under one-party systems. Authoritarian rulers in those countries are returned to power by default. Not one Arab League member has held elections for a head of state in the past decade that would be certified open, fair, and free.

"The reason why we are dealing with jihad terror, the reason why we had 9/11 is rooted in the dominant political culture of violence and the rejection of the rule of law in that part of the world," said Walid Phares, a Lebanese Christian who practiced law in Beirut and now teaches Middle Eastern studies at Florida Atlantic University. "This did not come from outer space. It is from the dominant psychology of militants in the Middle East."

Arab powers have two strikes against them. The Islamic worldview traditionally has looked askance at Western-style democracy. And much of the region did time as Soviet-controlled satellites. Any forecast for change in the region-even with military intervention-is bleak. Arab League nations, with the largest proven oil reserves in the world and 280 million citizens, produce a GDP (gross domestic product) of $531 billion. That's less than Spain, a middling European economic player with GDP of $720 billion and 41 million citizens.

Dominating the militant landscape are the Baathist parties of both Iraq and Syria, Saddam's neighbor to the northwest. Syria has been ruled as a military regime since 1963 (although elections are slated every seven years)-first by Hafez Assad and now by his son Bashar.

Economic decline under Bashar means the streets of Damascus are filled with cars from his father's heyday, while modern purchases are born only of desperation. Cash-strapped Syrians rushed to buy satellite dishes three years ago as an antidote to 40 days of non-stop speeches by Hafez Assad broadcast on state television at his death.

Economic stagnation is no barrier to the Assad regime's cross-border designs. Syria stations up to 40,000 troops in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley-a 25-year occupation to contain Israeli forces to the south and play host to Hezbollah fighters. The perpetual state of war against Israel keeps Syrians distracted from dwindling prospects.

Little better are the self-proclaimed jihadist regimes of Sudan and Iran, which promote war on non-Muslims. Those regimes imprison thousands of nonconformists; but they aren't the only Arab states advocating harsh Islamic law and running judicial systems that flout due process.

Saudi Arabia runs an outwardly liberal economic ship, but entrenched Islamic clerics rule. They control the country's judicial system, restrict press freedom, and control everyday affairs like Internet use. A Harvard study found that the government blocks access to hundreds of thousands of websites, down to a Lutheran church in Texas displaying only service times, directions, and a brief statement of faith. When a school caught fire last year in Mecca, religious police blocked 15 girls from leaving the building because they were not wearing headscarves and abayas, or black robes. The girls died.

And while the wealth of the ruling house of Saud seems endless, earnings for average citizens are in decline. Oil revenue per capita has fallen from a record $24,000 in 1980 to $2,600 in 2001. Under Islamic law, Saudi residents pay no income tax but are required to pay a "charity tax" of 2.5 percent-a "contribution" to religious charities or nongovernment organizations. Some of these have fronted for terrorist groups.

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