Tue, 11 Apr 2000

Iran's reform process worries Arab rulers

By Hamza Hendawi

CAIRO, Egypt (AP): When hard-line Muslim clergymen swept to power in Iran, Arab rulers in neighboring states feared the success of Tehran's brand of radical Islam would be a dangerous example for the region.

Twenty-one years later, a new democratic wind is blowing from Iran, and many of Iran's neighbors are just as fearful. Now they worry about the example of a society where the people instead of long-ruling clans drive politics and change comes from the ballot box instead of through coups.

Iran's reform movement took off in 1997 with the surprise election of the relatively liberal Mohammad Khatami as president. He began loosening some of the social strictures imposed by the clergy and pushing economic reform.

Then Khatami's allies scored a landslide victory in parliamentary elections Feb. 18. For the first time since the revolution, hard-liners lost control of parliament.

In contrast, the Arab world's political landscape has been at a standstill for decades, featuring monarchies with absolute rulers or republics with authoritarian presidents and pseudo democracies.

Farid el-Khazen, a political scientist at the American University in Beirut, Lebanon, predicts that Arab leaders who may have been toying with holding free elections will decide not to in view of Iran's election.

"Could it become an example to follow? I rule that out. Perhaps the opposite -- it could actually be a lesson (for Arab rulers) to be more cautious and conservative," he said.

John Esposito, a professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University in Washington, noted Algeria's experience in denying electoral impulses. The secular government canceled the 1992 election that Islamic-based groups were poised to win, sparking an insurgency that has killed tens of thousands.

"One could learn positive lessons from the Iranian process in terms of the Arab regimes. On the other hand, if Arab governments are simply concerned with retaining power, then they might, unfortunately, learn a negative lesson," Esposito said.

For those in the region concerned with reform, Iran is a beacon.

"It gives Arab states the idea of making change from within, making the system elastic enough to absorb all movements under the slogan of democracy," said Labib Kamhawi, a prominent analyst in Jordan.

"The democratic takeoff in Iran has begun and no objective observer can doubt its credibility," added Fahmi Howeidi, a widely respected moderate Islamic writer in Egypt.

Ali Ansari, a political history professor at England's Durham University, said Iran's experience shows Islam and democracy are not incompatible. "It is still very, very imperfect, but you have to see it as a process," he said.

Both reformists and hard-liners in Iran stress they want Islam to remain central to their society.

Maamoun al-Hodeibi, deputy leader of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, praises Iran for developing a political system without coups or violence and a constitution that is respected by everyone.

"These are landmarks in the Iranian experience which we can take as an example to follow," said al-Hodeibi, whose movement seeks the establishment of an Islamic regime in Egypt, the most populous Arab state.

Not all are convinced Iran is about to give up its hard line.

"We in the Arab world have such a hunger for democracy that we are like a man starving to death who goes to the market. He eats anything in the belief it is good food, but it may not be," said Waheed Abdul-Maguid at Egypt's Al-Ahram Center.