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Political Reform in the Arab World: A New Ferment?

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Abstract:

Since September 11, 2001, a new reform ferment is apparent in the Middle East. Debate about political reform in the region's media, calls for democracy issued by civil society activists, and promises of change by Arab governments have convinced some that democratization is finally underway in the region. In fact, the paper argues, political reform has so far generated far more debate than actual democratizing change in the Arab world. The paper includes a review of the internal and external pressures, including the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, that have spurred the current reform debate, and an analysis of the three main perspectives on reform --the liberal democratic agenda, the perspective held by moderate Islamists, and the modernization approach favored by Arab regimes. While a consensus is forming among the region's political elite that reform is necessary, there is no shared understanding of what reform means. Reformers, however, are unanimous in their rejection of, or at best a very grudging attitude toward, the role of outsiders, especially the United States, in promoting reform.

Most important, the lively, often quite far-reaching debates about reform are only palely reflected in the actual changes that have been introduced to date by Arab states. Arab regimes still control the agenda: they are willing to take measures that benefit their image abroad and buy them time domestically as long as such steps do not infringe on their own power. The future of political reform will be determined by the ability of liberal reformers to attract popular support, by the role of moderates in Islamist movements, and by the willingness of the United States and other Western countries to press for democratic reform.