I was struck by this remark by Condi Rice about the need to listen to Arab voices in her press conference in Jordan:
The United States, for 60 years, did not do all that it could to promote a free and democratic Middle East, and very often people talked about the Middle East somehow being different, that what we needed to worry about in the Middle East was stability. And what we learned is that we were getting neither stability nor liberty and freedom; we were getting instead a growth of extremism because people did not have channels through which to express themselves politically.
When we say that Jordan has many aspects that could be a model, it is that it is a state that is trying to reform. I will have a chance when I'm in Egypt to talk more about the need for reform, about the need for the Middle East and Middle Eastern leaders to hear the voices of their people and their people's desire for reform. But there is no plan. We are hoping that this is a call that will be taken up by people of the Middle East and by their governments, and indeed I think that you're seeing the conversation change pretty dramatically in the Middle East about the need for reform.
Compare this with Baheyya's beautifully crafted take on the same question:
Egyptians have been struggling for decades to get democracy, with very modest results as we see all around us. But that’s the nature of the beast. It’s a truism by now, but no less true: democracy is the business of a couple of centuries, not decades but also not millennia. It would be utterly missing the point to dismiss today’s upheaval as fleeting or chaotic or confusing or ‘unorganised’. It’s the name of the game, political struggle is messy and noisy and above all, confusing. Even if it all ends tomorrow, it will still have added enormous value to the process of public deliberation that will surely revive on another day. Let’s not get bound up in the admittedly fascinating details and ignore the prize: movement, ferment, debate, disagreement, new ideas twining with old practices, even mistakes, charlatanism, perfidy, and all the rest. Getting democracy is not a fairy tale story but a noisy, chaotic canvas where even the ‘bad guys’ can be incorporated into the game peacefully. The real bad guys are those who would deny Egyptians and Arabs the right to have their noisy debates and struggles and the right to publicly deliberate on their institutions, policies, and other public choices. Bad guys want to shut down debate to ram through their own designs and neat little ideas for how others should live.
I would dearly love to see Rice debate Baheyya - in public - about the best way to listen to Arab voices and to take them seriously. For what it's worth, here is how I addressed the same question in my Foreign Affairs piece two years ago:
[The Bush administration] needs to recognize that the elite Arab public can speak for itself, deeply resents being ignored or condescended to, and is more than capable of directly observing American words and deeds for inconsistencies. Frequent and appropriately frank appearances in the new Arab media by American representatives could have a salutary effect simply by changing the pool of participants and the style of argument, creating new ways for individuals to stand out and enhance their reputation. They could open up a space for influential Arab intellectuals to triangulate between the extremes, staking out a new, reasonable middle ground.
This does not mean simply assisting moderates and shunning radicals, however. Open American support goes a long way toward discrediting any Arab, so anointing favored candidates would likely doom them to irrelevance. It would be better to engage with the full spectrum of existing political debate, trying to shift the balance and style of argument by gradually inserting the United States into the conversation. Indeed, engaging those who hold hostile political views is more important than giving a platform to those who already agree with American positions. Currently, the vast majority of politically active Arabs — most especially those Westernized and educated members of the new media elite — feel powerless and frustrated. Giving them a respectful hearing could bring them into an ongoing discussion about realistic alternatives, other possible readings of motivations and actual policies, and a search for solutions in which they have a stake.
For all of its continuing problems, I think that the second GW Bush administration has done rather better than the first GW Bush administration at this. Rice is speaking my language about the need for dialogue and interaction with Arab political opposition leaders, in stark contrast to the first GWB administration's neo-conservative preference for sweeping declarations of the universality of American principles and arrogant dismissal of Arab criticism.
But does that translate in practice into accepting the kind of messy, contentious politics which Baheyya places at the heart of real democracy? That seems to be exactly the right question... the answer to which Arabs, and most of the rest of us, are struggling to decipher.