Support for reform and modernization in the Middle East and North Africa is not just a matter of promoting shared values or of ensuring basic human rights, crucial as both of those concerns are. It is also a matter of practical American interests. As President Bush declared: “When the entire region sees the promise of freedom in its midst, the terrorist ideology will become more and more irrelevant, until that day when it is viewed with contempt or ignored altogether.”
Stability is not a static phenomenon, and political systems that do not find ways to accommodate the aspirations of their people for participation will become brittle and combustible. Systems that are characterized by an absence of political choice, transparent governance, economic opportunities and personal freedoms can create incubators for extremism. Ignoring the human development problems of the Middle East is no longer an option.
With the Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative, the United States has entered the picture as a force to support and encourage reforms originating in the region. The initiative draws upon the message of progress recently articulated by, among others, the Arab League, which recently cited the importance of reform in its Tunis Declaration; the Arab Business Council, which spoke out about building a better business and investment climate in the region; the United Nations Arab Human Development Reports; and civil society, through reform conferences in Alexandria, Cairo, Sanaa and Istanbul.
We understand that reform imposed from the outside has no chance of conferring lasting benefits. Each country in the region is unique and at different stages of political, social and cultural development. We will continue a vibrant dialogue with regional governments and civil society on how best to support homegrown reform efforts.
Supporting reform efforts is certainly not a substitute for our other priorities in the region. The resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and progress toward President Bush’s two-state vision are essential for stability in the region. We are also fully committed to working with the Iraqi people to rebuild their country. These are not objectives from which the United States and the international community can pick and choose; we must — and we will — pursue each with determination and vigor.
Reform begins by implementing programs that have a measurable impact on ordinary people’s lives, helping people fulfill their aspirations. Political, economic, educational and social reforms reinforce each other, create hope and opportunity, and have a positive multiplier effect in a society. Even the smallest steps can help to give people the chance to shape their lives, their societies and their futures.
Through the Middle East Partnership Initiative, we are already partnering with governments and civil society throughout the region to support expansion of political opportunity, democracy, economic and education reform, and the empowerment of women. This initiative, a broad partnership between governments, the private sector and members of civil society, was launched a year-and-a-half ago, and is a key mechanism to support the president’s vision for democracy and freedom in the Broader Middle East and North Africa.
In the area of political reform, the focus is on strengthening freedoms, the democratic process and good governance. We administered parliamentary development programs; funded a regional women’s campaign school in Qatar; co-sponsored (with Bahrain) a regional judicial forum, and funded journalist-training programs in Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon and Bahrain.
In line with the president’s goal to create a Middle East Free Trade Area within a decade, the Middle East Partnership Initiative has provided technical assistance to promote reform in the economic sector and begin to build intra-regional trade related to negotiating Free Trade Agreements and Trade and Investment Framework Agreements. And we are seeing results: in March, Morocco joined Jordan as the second Arab country to complete free trade negotiations with the United States.
Economic prosperity and strong democratic institutions are not possible without a well-educated work force. To address the knowledge and skills gap, the Middle East Partnership Initiative programming focuses on critical issues such as curriculum reform, teacher training, and community and private-sector involvement in education. Based on new, innovative local examples, such as the Jordan Education Initiative, we are developing and implementing a “Partnership Schools” model that emphasizes innovative solutions and technical expertise to enhance the quality of primary and secondary education.
Reducing illiteracy and increasing access to education, especially for girls and women, is another priority. We are conducting teacher training and providing classroom materials for early childhood education in Morocco, Tunisia, Oman and Qatar. Through the Middle East Partnership Initiative, we are also funding the translation of 80 children’s book titles and accompanying teachers’ manuals for school libraries in Jordan, Bahrain and Lebanon. Across the board, we are trying to help reduce the barriers — whether cultural, legal, regulatory, economic or political — to women’s full participation in society.
President Bush has noted that reform in the Broader Middle East and North Africa requires the support of the international community. When the G-8 countries and the trans-Atlantic community establish shared objectives and leverage resources and ongoing initiatives, we are better able to bolster reformers and to make them more effective.
Our efforts to support reform are one part of our broader policy toward the countries of the region. Make no mistake about it — promoting reform in the Middle East is an essential element of the war on terrorism. As new opportunities and personal freedoms grow for people across the region, we expect that the appeal of terrorist groups and self-destructive extremist behavior will wane.
The challenge of restoring hope and integrating the Middle East into a more peaceful and prosperous world is just as important at the dawn of the 21st century as was the challenge of rebuilding and re-integrating Europe in the middle of the last century. While the circumstances are different in many respects, the historic opportunity is just as critical. Democracy and reform will make the region stronger and more stable and the world more secure by fighting terrorism at its source.
Alina Romanowski is acting deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.