October 4, 2007 / 12:32 PM / 10 years ago

U.S. democracy push makes Middle East liberals cringe

BEIRUT (Reuters) - The United States sees itself as a beacon for democratic values, but Iranian and Arab reformers say its policies in the Middle East too frequently belie its ideals, making U.S. support for their cause a damaging liability.

Repressive governments in the region, whether close allies or sworn foes of the United States, often exploit anti-American sentiment to accuse homegrown liberals of being stooges peddling a U.S.-Israeli agenda. Islamist movements do the same.

Accordingly, rights activists strive to distance themselves from U.S. actions in the Arab and Muslim world.

“Far from helping the development of democracy, U.S. policy over the past 50 years has consistently been to the detriment of the proponents of freedom and democracy in Iran,” Iranian dissident Akbar Ganji, who spent six years in jail, wrote in an open letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon last month.

Ganji’s letter was mainly an appeal for the United Nations to condemn “intolerable” human rights violations in Iran.

But he prefaced it by saying U.S. President George W. Bush’s approval of funds to promote democracy in his country had “made it easy for the Iranian regime to describe its opponents as mercenaries of the U.S. and to crush them with impunity.”

Even speaking about a possible military attack on Iran, he added, makes life tough for Iranian human rights campaigners.

Iran has been at bitter odds with the United States since the 1979 Islamic revolution, but liberals in Egypt, which gets about $2 billion a year in U.S. aid, echo Ganji’s thoughts.

“The United States under Bush has done great disservice to our struggle,” veteran Egyptian sociologist and human rights activist Saadeddin Ibrahim told Reuters in Beirut this week.

“I welcome anyone who will lend a hand, but given America’s record in this region and its image as an arrogant superpower that is one-sided when it comes to Israel, there is a negativity that makes their endorsement of democracy backfire on those of us who have been fighting for it since Bush was in shorts.”

Ibrahim, arrested in Cairo in 2000 ahead of Egyptian parliamentary elections, was acquitted of all charges against him in 2003, but is now in self-imposed exile fearing re-arrest.

EGYPTIAN CRACKDOWN

Ten Egyptian journalists received jail sentences last month as part of an apparent crackdown on dissent as Egypt prepares for an inevitable transition from President Hosni Mubarak, 79.

Gamila Ismail, the wife of jailed Egyptian opposition leader Ayman Nour and a senior leader of his liberal al-Ghad party, said her husband’s supporters were accused of being Western agents whenever foreign powers called for his release.

She said the Bush administration’s initial enthusiasm for political reform in Egypt had soured. “Because of other interests in the region, we went down the list and I don’t think they are serious now about reform and democracy.”

Rights activists see U.S. funding for democracy promotion in countries like Iran and Syria as at worst a thinly disguised stab at “regime change” or at best a token gesture.

“(U.S.) money is not going to help the democratization process here,” said Ebrahim Yazdi, Iran’s first post-revolution foreign minister and leader of the banned Freedom Movement.

Last year’s launch of a U.S. fund to assist democracy in Syria prompted Damascus to declare all American activities in the country “radioactive”, creating hardships for U.S. private foundations engaged in educational and development work.

Andrew Tabler, an American who edits the English-language monthly Syria Today, lamented the harm to U.S.-Syrian contacts.

“There might be a struggle between the two administrations, but Americans must find new ways of engaging with Syrians and showing them what it is we’re all about,” he said.

For many Arabs and Iranians, Washington’s image suffers from its perceived selectivity towards democracy and human rights, as well as its support for Israel and its invasion of Iraq.

“The United States has lost a lot of its credibility on human rights because of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and renditions,” said Nadim Houry of the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch group.

“They would regain some if they could show consistency in criticizing not only regimes they don’t like in Iran and Syria, but also their allies like Jordan or Egypt.”

U.S. shortcomings, however, were no excuse for Arab governments to discredit pro-democracy groups, Houry added.

Hostility to U.S. policies runs so deep that even Arab allies of Washington are loathe to be too closely identified with their patron, argued Beirut-based commentator Rami Khouri.

“So we are seeing the worst consequences of this tradition of American double standards and Arab hypocrisy.”

Khouri cited the U.S. and European boycott of Hamas after its Palestinian election win as the “death knell” for Western advocacy of democratic rule in the Arab and Muslim world.

“If you want to promote democracy, do it consistently, not promote elections in one country and not in another,” he said.

Additional reporting by Fredrik Dahl in Tehran and Alaa Shahine in Cairo

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