Some people argue that Arab countries are not capable of democracy. But U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs William Burns says that not only can Arab countries reform, they must. Repressive political systems that do not find ways to accommodate the people's aspirations will become increasingly unstable.
There are three essential components of any democracy-building process. Arab states need to permit the development of independent civil institutions. These include a free media, citizens' advocacy groups, and women’s organizations. Arab governments also have to clean up corruption and begin to establish the rule of law through an independent judiciary. In addition, Arab leaders need to make elections inclusive and fair, giving more power to legislatures. Elections also have to be held on a regular basis.
Just as critical to democratic reform is economic growth. As things stand now, the economic outlook for many Arab countries is dismal. Per capita incomes are stagnant or dropping. Unemployment hovers at twenty percent. Forty-five percent of the Arab population is now under the age of fourteen, and the population as a whole will double over the next quarter century.
As Assistant Secretary of State Burns stressed, the drive for democratic change and economic modernization must come from within Arab societies. But the U.S. can help. President George W. Bush has announced the U.S. Middle East Partnership Initiative. This program, said President Bush, will give small- and mid-sized businesses access to capital, and support efforts to develop laws on property rights and good business practices:
“By replacing corruption and self-dealing with free markets and fair laws, the people of the Middle East will grow in prosperity and freedom.”
Such programs are just the beginning of a region-wide effort to promote democratic and market-oriented reform in the Arab world.