WASHINGTON// The United States should push harder for democratic reforms in the Middle East and end its policy of supporting repressive regimes to serve its national interest, a group of about 140 scholars, foreign policy experts and Arab leaders say in an open letter to the US president, Barack Obama. The letter contends that US backing of "Arab autocrats" who are alleged to have abused human rights and imprisoned political opposition - including such top allies as Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Jordan's King Abdullah, and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah - has emboldened extremists and damaged US credibility in a region the new president has made a top foreign policy priority.
Among those who signed the letter were: Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian democracy advocate and vocal critic of Mr Mubarak; Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister of Malaysia; Morton Halperin, a former director of policy planning at the US state department, and dozens of academics, writers and bloggers. "The United States, for half-a-century, has frequently supported repressive regimes that routinely violate human rights, and that torture and imprison those who dare criticise them and prevent their citizens from participation in peaceful civic and political activities," the letter said, noting that such policies have "produced a region increasingly tormented by rampant corruption, extremism, and instability". The letter was issued at a Washington news conference on Tuesday.
The group suggests the US use its "considerable" economic leverage to bolster democracy in the region, not a new idea, but one that sometimes takes a back seat to the US desire to maintain strong allies in a volatile part of the world. Egypt receives close to US$2billion (Dh7.34bn) a year in US foreign aid, second only to Israel, according to the state department. Jordan receives the fourth highest amount. The US is also one of the top importers of Saudi oil.
"If we don't have leverage in Egypt and Jordan, where else in the world would we have leverage?" said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Project on Middle East Democracy, a Washington-based think tank, and a co-signer of the letter. Mr Obama's predecessor, George W Bush, spoke frequently of stepping up pressure on oppressive regimes, including in his second inaugural address when he pledged that "all who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know the United States will not ignore your oppression or excuse your oppressors".
"When you stand for your liberty," the former president added, "we will stand with you." But the Bush administration "quickly turned its back on Middle East democracy", the letter says, after Islamist groups performed well in a series of elections. In 2005, the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, surprised political observers when it won 88 seats in the Egyptian parliament. Hamas, which the United States considers a terrorist group, swept to victory in the Palestinian elections of 2006.
The signatories said an overriding fear of empowering Islamist parties - including moderate ones that have shown a willingness to join politics - has paralysed US policy in the region. The group urged Mr Obama to embrace Islamist parties, pointing to examples in Turkey, Morocco and Indonesia where Islamists have been successfully welcomed into the political fold. Saad Eddin Ibrahim said many in the United States have come to associate the policy of spreading democracy with Mr Bush's efforts. He urged Mr Obama not to abandon democracy promotion in the Middle East as a way to distinguish himself from his predecessor.
"In the zeal to distance himself from the former Bush administration, democracy could become the casualty," said Mr Ibrahim, who spent three years in an Egyptian prison in what many saw as an attempt by Mr Mubarak to silence one of his biggest critics. Mr Ibrahim, now a visiting professor at Harvard University, was released in 2003, but has since been sentenced in absentia to two years in prison for "defaming" Egypt. "It is our duty, our obligation, to press the president to keep [the spread of democracy] up on his agenda," he said.
The open letter comes just weeks after Mr Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt since 1981, released another prominent political opponent from prison: Ayman Nour, the man who challenged him in the 2005 election and who many believe was arrested for purely political reasons. The release of Mr Nour was likely a gesture of good faith to the incoming administration, political observers say. The letter said Mr Obama has an "unprecedented opportunity" to rethink US policy. It is the opening move of a sustained campaign that will include meetings with administration officials and members of the US Congress.
"Simply clinging to a corrupt authoritarian status quo is no longer viable for the long run," said Larry Diamond, a co-signer of the letter and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, a public policy think tank at Stanford University in California. "Sixty years of trading off democracy and human rights for security, we discovered, brought us neither security nor democracy, and so we need a new approach."