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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

The Forum for the Future was supposed to be an instrument of George W. Bush's Middle East freedom agenda. Seven years later, it embodies everything that was wrong with it -- and the Arab street is taking matters into its own hands.

Senior Western and Arab diplomats as well as leaders of civil society gathered this week at the seventh annual Forum for the Future in Doha. In the background was the chaos and violence provoked by the incompetence and paralysis of Arab regimes: riots in Tunisia and Algeria, the killing of Christians in Egypt, the collapse of the government in Lebanon. You will thus be relieved to learn that the draft recommendations for action by the forum call for the support for "science, technology and innovation" and "corporate social responsibility," as well as the establishment of "youth exchange programs" and a "Gender Institute." That ought to calm the waters.

The Forum for the Future is one of the remnants of U.S. President George W. Bush's campaign to promote democracy in the Middle East that the Barack Obama administration, despite initial skepticism, has embraced. Scott Carpenter, deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs during Bush's first term, says that as they contemplated how to press for change in the region, he and his colleagues looked back to the model of the Helsinki process in the Cold War, in which the Soviet Union reluctantly accepted a series of human rights principles in exchange for commitments from the West on technology transfers and the like. The premise was that you could work with regimes, rather than simply confront them. "We wanted to have buy-in from the states to the degree that we could," Carpenter says. The Forum for the Future was launched in 2004 to bring together the governments of the G-8 countries, Arab regimes, and Arab civil society groups under a charter laying out principles on both modernization and democratic development. The NGOs would hold the states to their pledges as human rights activists had done with the Soviet Union.

It didn't work out that way. At the second meeting of the forum, in Bahrain in 2005, Bush administration officials tried to pass a declaration of principles, but Egypt and Tunisia, among others, objected to a passage welcoming all NGOs. They insisted that only officially registered groups -- i.e., tame ones -- could be included. The Bahrain declaration collapsed. Forum members did authorize the creation of the Foundation for the Future (someone apparently had a penchant for gee-whiz names) which is based in Amman and distributes grants to local NGOs, many of them genuinely worthy organizations doing difficult work on human rights and the rule of law. But the initial hope that these groups would hold Arab states accountable died in Bahrain as well. "The strategic purpose," Carpenter concedes, "hasn't been fulfilled."

Actually, it's worse than that. "The Arab foreign ministers," as one prominent figure in the democracy-promotion world said to me, "have learned from these meetings exactly how to thwart democracy, not how to help it." The sessions have taught local leaders the dangers of Western-supported and genuinely autonomous NGOs, and regimes across the Arab world have cracked down on them. Many human rights groups have been hounded out of existence; only the most reliably docile ones are permitted inside the forum's doors. At last year's event, in Marrakesh, the invited NGOs were actually locked out of the room until Western diplomats got them admitted. In advance of the current meeting in Doha, Bahey el-Din Hassan, head of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, criticized the forum as a "debating club" with no interest in democratization. When I called him in Cairo, Hassan said that he had been invited to Doha, but declined to go. Although the forum provides a useful setting for people like him to meet one another and sit down with, and even criticize, government officials, Hassan said that he would rather see it die than permit Arab leaders to continue using it to proclaim their commitment to democratic change. It is, he said, "a waste not only of time but of resources."

Critics both in the Arab world and at home blame the Obama administration for its failure to pick up Bush's banner of democracy promotion in the Arab world. But the forum failed under the Bush administration -- and not for lack of trying. The problem was not cynicism so much as naivete: Arab states were never going to buy into a process that they recognized would lead to their own demise. The logic of the "liberal autocracy" is to make emblematic gestures toward democracy and citizen engagement -- sham elections, fulsome charters, conferences with tame NGOs -- without ever permitting the real substance. The Forum for the Future, as Hassan says, offers the textbook opportunity for the hollow gesture.

Bush's democracy-promotion agenda depended on a dubious analogy between Eastern Europe and the Middle East (though one that was very dear to Condoleezza Rice, who had witnessed the fall of the Soviet empire while serving on the National Security Council under the first President Bush). Arab citizens, unlike European ones, had no prior experience of democracy or liberal rule -- or of citizenship, for that matter. And Arab regimes, unlike the Soviet Union in the late 1970s, could afford to resist American pressure. That's why the Helsinki paradigm didn't apply. "The Soviet Union was frozen out of the West and looking for some kind of acceptance," observes Thomas Carothers, a democracy-promotion expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The Arab regimes can already go to Davos."

Arab regimes are certainly not more secure than the Soviet Union was: The mass protests cropping up first in one such country, then another, prove that they are growing shakier by the day. But these sclerotic rulers know that because the United States depends on them for regional stability, they can always defy calls for democratic opening. In 2005, Bush demanded that Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, hold a free and fair parliamentary election. Mubarak called his bluff by brutally cracking down on the opposition in the course of the voting, and the Bush administration barely made a peep. So why worry?

What, then, is the Obama administration to do in the face of profound public frustration in the Middle East and North Africa? First, it should strengthen its commitment to the slow and unglamorous work of nurturing autonomous institutions in the region; the only real solutions to the woes of the Arab world are long-term ones. The Foundation for the Future, which is now seeking additional funding from Washington, is the perfect vehicle for such support, though of course civil society groups remain at risk from hostile regimes. At the same time, the forum should be put out of its misery. More broadly, the administration should strip away the pretense of buy-in, and whatever legitimacy comes with it, by speaking more candidly about regimes' failure to adopt meaningful reforms.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's address to the forum in Doha on Jan. 13 was a good start. Clinton, who had been notably muted about the political violence in the area, bluntly told her audience that "the region's foundations are sinking into the sand;" the status quo was no longer holding; and regimes had to "see civil society not as a threat but as a partner." The speech was well-received by otherwise frustrated activists; Clinton also held a private meeting with eight of them. But the speech was itself an implicit indictment of the forum. Qatar, the host country, has no independent NGOs, not to mention free elections or free press. Qatar's National Human Rights Committee, which played a featured role in the event, is a state body, not an independent organization.

Even democracy-promotion firebrands in the Bush administration accepted the logic of soft-pedaling criticism of Middle East allies. But that logic grows more questionable with every passing day, as the regimes lose their ability to contain the public outrage they have themselves provoked through their evident contempt for their own citizens; fury at official corruption and nepotism has just overthrown President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia. Yes, the United States still needs many of these states for oil, for regional diplomacy, for investment, and as a counterweight to Iran. Calls for reform will always be constrained by a broader diplomatic calculus. But the time has come -- as a matter not just of commitment to principle but of national security -- to align the United States more clearly and convincingly on the side of those who clamor for change.

JOSEPH BARRAK/AFP/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

Africa's Hour

Laurent Gbagbo's refusal to give up power isn't just a crisis for the Ivory Coast -- it's a moment of truth for the whole continent.

A stare-down in a remote and not very consequential corner of the world has become a test of that noble but vague entity known as the international community. The confrontation pits Laurent Gbagbo, the strongman leader of the Ivory Coast, who has refused to step down despite losing an election last November, against the United States, France, and an array of international organizations: the United Nations, the World Bank, the African Union, and the West African regional body known as ECOWAS. It sounds like an extremely unequal confrontation. But six weeks after the election, Gbagbo still occupies the presidential palace and shows no intention of leaving. He may end by inflicting serious damage not only on his own people, but on the standing of some very important institutions.

Africa is the regional example par excellence of what Fareed Zakaria has called "illiberal democracies": states in which tyrants and autocrats cynically exploit the formal trappings of democracy in order to marshal popular support and then rule with little concern for democratic accountability. African leaders routinely amend their countries' constitutions to allow themselves to stay in office (Kenya), murder and terrorize the opposition (Zimbabwe), or even threaten to kill the voters themselves if they pull the wrong lever (Liberia). But Africa also has an increasing number of countries that take justifiable pride in their democratic institutions, however wobbly they may be -- South Africa, Nigeria, even Mali -- as well as regional bodies whose charters place democratic values at their core. Gbagbo has, in effect, provoked a clash between the traditional Africa of the autocrat and the fledgling Africa of institutions that prize democracy, even if they do not always practice it.

Gbagbo, a longtime political activist who was briefly jailed in the 1990s -- by then-Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara, the same politician who defeated him in the presidential election late last year -- has been at this game for a long time and is exceptionally skilled at it. He was elected president in 2000; after an insurgency broke out in northern Ivory Coast in 2002, Gbagbo agreed to a cease-fire, and then violated its terms by expelling representatives of the rebels from his government and by failing to disarm his own forces. In 2004, I attended a meeting of a dozen or so African heads of state that U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan had convened on the sidelines of an African Union session in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, with the goal of persuading Gbagbo to abide by the terms of the deal. Gbagbo must have been greatly amused to be lectured about "reintegration" by none other than Omar Bongo, Gabon's president for life. He certainly seemed amused, jovially joining in the discussion as if it were aimed at someone else altogether. He promised to reconcile with the rebels, and then proceeded to ignore the pledge.

The Ivory Coast has been teetering on the brink of a catastrophe ever since, in part because Gbagbo and his allies fanned the flames of nationalism by treating northerners as non-Ivoirian. Gbagbo refused to call an election for years, thus inflaming sentiment throughout the north. Presumably he thought he would win the race last November; populist leaders have a way of deluding themselves on that score. When the United Nations certified that Ouattara had won, Gbagbo not only refused to acknowledge the outcome, but also unleashed his security forces, as well as youth militias, on Ouattara's supporters. Between Dec. 16 and 23, U.N. human rights monitors reported 173 killings, 90 cases of torture or abuse, 24 forced disappearances, and hundreds of arrests. Bullet-riddled bodies turned up on the streets of Abidjan, the country's chief city. Gbagbo has since demanded the departure of the 10,000-man U.N. peacekeeping mission, which arrived in 2004 and now protects Ouattara at a seaside hotel; the United Nations, no longer recognizing the incumbent's authority, has refused.

Gbagbo has managed to wear out everyone's patience. When Russia blocked a U.N. Security Council resolution endorsing Ouattara's victory, it found itself besieged not only by the United States, Britain, and France, but also by Uganda. ECOWAS endorsed Ouattara and in the aftermath of the violence threatened the use of force to remove Gbagbo from office. And U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has surprised his critics by showing some spine on the subject, unambiguously supporting Ouattara's victory and threatening Gbagbo and his allies with culpability for alleged atrocities. "He really does think that this is the test case of international credibility," I was told by a U.N. official usually very critical of Ban.

It is dangerous to declare something a test case. "This is the hour of Europe," Luxembourg's foreign minister said as violence flared in the Balkans in 1991. Europe failed. A decade later, the atrocities in Darfur, Sudan, challenged the commitment to never again stand by in the face of genocide, as countries had in Rwanda. This time the whole world failed. And the failure came to be understood paradigmatically: The international community is not prepared to use force to stop atrocities carried out as a conscious instrument of state policy. That was the lesson, and leaders like Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe paid close attention: Who would stop him as he trashed his own country in order to preserve his power?

But if the Ivory Coast is a test case, it appears to be a less difficult one. The world is united on the matter -- as it was not, for example, in the case of Darfur. Even China won't defend a regime whose chief export is cocoa. But will that be enough? Gbagbo has been offered all sorts of blandishments to step down: professorships to gratify his vanity, a position with an unspecified international organization, the opportunity to remain in the country as head of the "loyal opposition." Nothing has worked. Jean-Marie Guéhenno, the former head of U.N. peacekeeping, knows Gbagbo well and says that Gbagbo believes fervently in his own legitimacy, and would rather stand and fight than accept a sinecure.

If the carrots have been exhausted, that leaves the sticks. The U.N. has already imposed sanctions on the government; Susan Rice, U.S. President Barack Obama's ambassador to the United Nations, has called for a travel ban and asset freeze on Gbagbo. This week, Gbagbo appeared to crack, promising a delegation of West African heads of state that he would lift the blockade around Ouattara's hotel. But then nothing happened -- which of course is the president's modus operandi. Then Gbagbo's security forces raided an office of Ouattara's party, killing at least one person. Maybe Gbagbo is another Mugabe: "I think he's the kind of person who might just bring his country down rather than let his power go," says Guéhenno. Tellingly, Gbagbo has sent a diplomatic emissary to Harare, Zimbabwe, to consult with that country's leaders. But Ouattara is not about to step down either.

The head of the ECOWAS commission recently reiterated the threat to oust Gbagbo by force. In 1999, the organization's military wing, known as ECOMOG, sent thousands of troops to Sierra Leone to prevent rebels from overthrowing the country's elected president. They were quite effective, if also extremely brutal. But in that case, they had been invited, and they were fighting a bunch of crazed gangsters. Would West African armies really invade a member country, and fight its army, to support the results of an election? Not likely. In fact, it would probably be a terrible idea. One West African diplomat at the United Nations told me that the "threat value" of an invasion might be enough to persuade Gbagbo. He added, however, that he believed, "given time," the president would agree to go peacefully.

The Obama administration has done a great deal behind the scenes, which is precisely what it should be doing. Obama has called Ban as well as Goodluck Jonathan, the president of Nigeria, which currently chairs ECOWAS and is its true motive force, urging both to take an unequivocal stance against Gbagbo. Susan Rice prevailed on Obama to telephone Gbagbo, who refused to take the call. France, the Ivory Coast's colonial patron, has also pressed hard for U.N. action.

But the Ivory Coast does not pose a test for the United States or France. It does for the United Nations, which has troops on the ground, and which has used every instrument at its disposal to dislodge Gbagbo. And it does even more for the Ivory Coast's neighbors, and for the African Union and ECOWAS.

Regional institutions don't matter that much in many parts of the globe. The Organization of American States may be a weak reed, but South America is largely democratic and peaceful today. Asia has many such bodies, none of them very effective, but Asia is mostly stable. And because the Middle East is almost wholly autocratic, institutions like the Arab League have no interest in promulgating democratic norms. Only in Africa, where despots cling to power in the face of rising public aspirations, are such institutions called on to mediate primal conflicts. If Gbagbo successfully defies the pressure, he will make ECOWAS look like a paper tiger, and thus seriously weaken the forces of democracy and the rule of law.

It is -- truly -- the hour of Africa.

ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images