Reform Lingo; Moving toward Democracy in the Mideast

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Byline: Nir Boms and Erick Stakelbeck, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

One of the more intriguing aspects of last week's transfer of power in Iraq was the reaction it drew from neighboring governments in the region, particularly those that, traditionally, have been anything but democracy-friendly.

Iran's mullahs, for instance, "welcomed" the transfer as giving "sovereignty back to the majority of the Iraqi people." Likewise, Jordanian government spokeswoman Asma Khader labeled the move "a step toward rebuilding political, economic, security and social institutions in Iraq," while Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher called it "an opportunity for [the Iraqi people] to take control of their own affairs and restore complete sovereignty."

Senior Syrian Information Ministry official Ahmad Haj Ali voiced similar concern for the welfare of the Iraqi people, telling al Jazeera, "There will be great security problems as a result of the U.S. presence and problems created by the Americans themselves."

Judging by these comments, it seems that some of the same Arab and Muslim governments that for years largely ignored the atrocities committed under Saddam Hussein's regime have now become staunch advocates for democracy and human rights in Iraq.

This is no accident, as the ruling elites in these countries are acutely aware that the U.S. drive to democratize the Middle East has brought the reform debate to the forefront in their own backyards. And like the new reality in Iraq, it is here to stay.

Indeed, while most governments in the Middle East maintain that they will never accept reform dictated from outside sources - particularly the United States - widespread internal debate over the issue is already underway. Conferences on reform have been held this year alone in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar and Tunisia, and media outlets throughout the region discuss the issue on a daily basis.

Reform also has become an integral part of virtually every speech made in recent months by Arab leaders, including Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and members of the Saudi royal family.

"People won't admit it, but three years ago reform was something few talked about," a Jordanian diplomat told Newsweek recently. "Today it's everywhere."

Just last month, more than 100 Arab democracy advocates, political leaders and reformers participated in the Doha Conference on Democracy and Reform in Qatar. Its concluding declaration contained the strongest language seen thus far from an Arab or Muslim source concerning Mideast reform, asserting, "Democratic change has become a non-negotiable choice that cannot be postponed. …