Fox News on Arab democratization

Arabist reader SP emailed:

I just watched a one hour Fox special on democracy in the Arab world with Brit Hume and Dennis Ross that had interviews with Rice as well as Albright and thought Egypt-watchers might be interested in knowing that they talked about Nour and made reference to Mubarak's recent crackdowns, and showed scenes of Kefaya protests. The program also touched on Lebanon and its anti Syria mobilizations, even though there was a predictable weightage in favour of talking about Hamas, Israel-Palestine, much agonizing about Why They Don't Like Us and whether more democracy would mean more anti-Americanism and more Islamists with power. The Fox take on these issues was predictable, Hamas had lots of unsavoury adjectives and violent images attached to it, but there was a good deal of discussion about how Hamas had had to tone down the rhetoric after being elected and would have to become more pragmatic if they didn't want to be voted out again.

What I found really ironic was that Democrats like Dennis Ross, who was the Featured Expert Commentator, and Albright were both rather more ambivalent about free elections than Rice (at least verbally). Ross went back to the Islamist one man one vote one time problem like clockwork every couple of minutes and Albright talked about the importance of safeguards and how it was better to encourage civil society and the "infrastructure" of democracy before "rushing" to elections, and said something about how people in the Middle East were more concerned with their livelihoods than with the right to vote, Hamas had been successful because of its ability to provide grassroots services, and any efforts to counter the appeal of Islamists must focus on economics first - perhaps implying that it was better to help existing modernizing authoritarian regimes give their people a better life than to risk elections? Ross, after making a few sensible statements about the need for the US to speak out in favour of reformers in the Arab world and encourage a free media (Al Arabiya received special mention), came up with the following brilliant policy recommendation - US funded after school programs to teach kids English and computer skills in order to lay the basis for a secular opposition. He also talked about imposing "conditionalities" on political groups before allowing them to compete in elections - no violence, promise to govern democratically, etc - in short, hold the opposition to a higher standard than the Americans have ever held repressive Arab regimes to. Rice repeated her statements from last year about the "freedom deficit" in the Arab world and how US policy could no longer focus narrowly on stability, insisted that the only way to promote democracy was by doing, i.e. start with elections and show that you are committed to following through with the process. Of course, no mention of concrete US steps to promote this, though she paid lip service to the need to press ahead with calling on repressive allies to reform even though they didn't like the idea.

All in all, good to see some attention being paid and an acknowledgment of democratization as a live issue, the usual blind spots notwithstanding.

You can find out more about the show at the Fox website, along with a short video clip.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.