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The Economist : Democracy taking root in Mideast

Democracy is taking firm root in the Middle East and North Africa where Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinians will make great strides in 2006, Britain's influential magazine The Economist predicted Friday.

The international weekly news and business magazine's Index of Political Freedom ranked 20 countries on 15 indicators of political and civil liberties for its annual preview of the year ahead.

It found a wide range of democratization now exists across the region.

Israel comfortably tops the index but three regions that have undergone recent political transformations - Lebanon (second), Iraq and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (fourth) - are among the top five. Morocco was ranked third.

While democracy is not about to break out all over the region, the magazine said, U.S. President George W. Bush's determination to spread the notion as an antidote to Islamist terrorism has changed the mood across the region and will continue to do so.

"The germ of democracy will spread in a number of less violent Arab countries," it said.

"Lebanon, in particular, will continue to shed Syrian influence and will re-emerge as the most sophisticated and liberal Arab state in the region.

"And the U.S. will promote a trio of more or less benevolent monarchies - Morocco, Jordan and Bahrain - as exemplars of their democracy campaign."

The Occupied Palestinian Territories and Iraq, "two of the most problematic and volatile places," would take the biggest steps toward democracy in 2006, The Economist predicted.

Iraq is due to have elections next month under its new constitution while Palestinians will vote for a new Parliament in January.

"The Palestinians' election is likely to be the freest and fairest in the Arab world," the magazine reckoned.

Saudi Arabia was ranked at joint 18th, "worryingly, given the world's dependence on its oil supplies," The Economist said, "despite its cautious experiment with municipal elections." Libya (20th) and Syria (joint 18th) were found to have made the least progress.

"The big question, for all Arab countries moving slowly toward greater political choice, is how much leeway to give Islamist groups," The Economist said.

It added that Egypt would be the litmus test as to whether it allows more leeway to the Muslim Brotherhood. The index was based on assessments by The Economist's Intelligence Unit across 15 indicators. These included transparency, election of Parliament and the head of government, corruption, religious freedom, rule of law, political parties, presence of an opposition and judicial independence.

Amman,11 21 2005
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