Infectious regime change: from Baghdad to Ramallah

Forty years ago, political and economic conditions in Asia (except Japan) and in the Middle East (except Israel) shared a number of characteristics. Both regions were deeply embedded in the gloomy “Third World.” Most governments were controlled by small and corrupt elites, supported by the military and other security forces. There was no room for tolerance or pluralism, and the economies were also stagnant. Violence and conflict were endemic, both internally and between nations.

Since then Asia, including China and India, has made tremendous progress, both economically and politically, but the Arab Middle East remains stuck where it was in the 1960s. With the partial exception of the petroleum exporting countries in the Gulf, poverty has become even more deeply embedded, and the political systems remain closed. Leaders are installed for life (and beyond, with the advent of “presidential succession” in Syria).

In addition to the huge price paid by the citizens of these countries, such conditions feed the frustration that turns into terrorism and violence, and the spillover hinders efforts to negotiate a solution to the Arab-Israel conflict. While the debates continue over the claim that democratic societies are less war-prone than dictatorships, there is good reason to accept the validity of this general link, even in the Middle East.

In this environment, the removal of Saddam Hussein and regime change in Iraq could trigger a domino effect throughout the Arab world, from North Africa to the Gulf. While no one can predict what will happen on “the day after” the war ends, regime change in Baghdad seems to be unavoidable. Iraq may become unstable and break apart into different sections, or its different factions could develop a durable working relationship, allowing for rapid recovery. The current regime may be replaced by another narrow and closed military or tribal leadership, continuing the old pattern, but the more optimistic scenarios envision a more open and responsible government, with at least a modicum of democracy and tolerance for different views.

Once the floodgates open, the climate of fear in Iraq is lifted, and the population begins to celebrate its restored freedom, the citizens in neighboring countries around the Middle East will be infected. Dramatic leadership change in Baghdad will launch a chain of similar (but internally propelled) processes in the region.

After Iraq, the Palestinian Authority might well be the next in line. The Arafat regime has dominated Fateh, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and then the Palestinian Authority, with no lasting accomplishments. The hope created with the 1993 “Oslo agreements” has been destroyed by terrorism and violence. Israeli troops have returned to the cities, and the creation of a Palestinian state seems as far off as ever. The economic development that was promised a decade ago has also failed to materialize, with the blame falling on the corruption and incompetence of the leadership. Within Palestinian society, this criticism is growing, coinciding with the demand for regime change in President Bush’s speech of June 24, 2002 on Middle East peace. Thus, the forces unleashed by the replacement of Saddam Hussein could provide the catalyst for ushering in a new, more open and democratic Palestinian society ready to cooperate with Israel in a two-state framework.

To be effective, whether in Baghdad or Ramallah, regime change must be structural, and not merely the replacement of one dictator or elite with another. A post-Arafat Palestinian leadership that is under the control of one particular faction (Hamas or Fatah) and continues to use violence and fear to maintain power will not change much, either in the political realm or in terms of economic development. In order to make progress toward these goals, the new structure must allow for debate and competition between different ideas, checks and balance among the levers of power, transparency, and accountability.

The same factors are necessary for the societal transformation that will lead to peace, and the replacement of rejectionism with acceptance of the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. While there are no guarantees, there is at least the hope that in a more open political atmosphere, the one-sided history and incitement will give way to mutual acceptance and a stable peace. A leadership that is accountable to its citizens would also restore the credibility of Palestinian pledges with respect to preventing terrorism and in other critical areas.

As in the case of Iraq, it is probably unrealistic to expect an immediate transition from the closed “old guard,” which has controlled Palestinian politics for so long, to an open fully democratic political structure. However, elements for the first stages in this process already exist, in different forms. Discussions of Palestinian leadership reform in the past few months, and the circulation of a draft constitution with provisions for cabinet-based government, are important elements in this process.

These changes will not be taking place in a vacuum, and parallel processes are likely to begin in other countries such as Syria and perhaps Saudi Arabia, in addition to the example expected from Iraq. While the first priorities will be toward internal political and economic change, these foundational elements could also help to reopen the path to peace throughout the region.

Professor Gerald Steinberg is the Director of the Program on Conflict Management and Negotiation at Bar Ilan University.

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