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French Version

Analysts fear Arab regimes lack will to implement reforms pushed by West

Arab and G8 foreign ministers gather Thursday in Jordan to promote a US-sponsored reform initiative amid concern from analysts that Arab governments still lack the will for change. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will attend the two-day Forum for the Future on the shores of the Dead Sea, along with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett.

Jordan has invited 56 countries and organizations to attend the third annual forum since Washington launched the "Broader Middle East and North Africa" initiative at a G8 summit in 2004.

"Arab regimes are not particularly willing to institute reforms because they don't want to give up power," Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group told AFP.

"They are afraid that if they give up a little they will have to give up everything," he said.

For Fares Braizat of the Centre of Strategic Studies of the University of Jordan, the problem lies in the fact that Arab populations hungry for reform are not pressing their governments enough for change.

"Opinion polls across several Arab countries show a great deal of support for democracy. When asked their political preference, an overwhelming majority of people choose the democratic system," said the veteran pollster.

But it stops there, he said, because "Arab states are the largest employers in their respective societies" and large swathes of the populations depend on them for jobs, subsidies and business contracts.

Real action is needed to bring "badly needed democracy" to the region, to foster social and political development and help serve as a tool to ease conflicts across the region, he added.

For many observers democracy was nipped in the bud when the West imposed a punitive embargo on the democratically elected Hamas in January.

A conference of civil groups ahead of the forum insisted the world community, led by Washington, should seek to resolve deadly conflicts in Iraq, the occupied Palestinian territories and other regional crises before pushing for reform.

The United States also recognizes that its Middle East policies, including the Bush administration's failure to make good on a promise to help set up an independent Palestinian state, have provoked Arab skepticism.

"We are not ignoring Arab public opinion," said a senior US State Department official in Amman, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"But it would be wrong to believe that the United States is sitting back, positively contributing to the problems in the region without seeking to address them," the official said.

"We want to make progress in Iraq, in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict ... but we can't just wave a wand," the official added.

"Hopefully over time that skepticism can be erased. It was not created in a day and it is not going to be erased in a day," he said. "Even as we struggle with conflicts in the region it is critical that we continue to focus our energies and resources on helping the governments address the critical needs of the people."

"This is an effort that requires all of us - the G8, governments in the region and people in the region - to be rowing our boats all in the same direction," the official added.

Representatives from more than 50 civil society groups will be discussing with the foreign ministers good governance, corruption, judicial independence, freedom of the media as well as political pluralism.

Amman,12 04 2006
The Daily Star
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