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Free Elections in Yemen Should Be Praised, Not Feared

FREE elections are due to be held today in Yemen - a relatively poor Arab country bordering on Saudi Arabia.

Some see the prospect of free elections there as cause for grave concern. After all, wherever democratization gets started in the Arab world, it seems to give birth to Islamic fundamentalist parties - as in Algeria. And indeed, the largest opposition party in Yemen now is an Islamic party - Islah.

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Yet it is precisely because of what happened in Algeria that the United States should support democracy in Yemen, even if Islah does well in the polls.

Whether we like it or not, Islamic parties are likely to be an important feature of Arab politics for a long time to come. If these Islamic parties are denied the chance to participate in politics through democratic means, then they will resort to undemocratic means. And if they come to power that way, they will feel justified in ruling undemocratically.

What is worse, our mild reaction to the cancellation of the elections in Algeria just when the Islamic party there was about to sweep to power has led to the impression among Arabs that the United States opposes democracy if it means Islamic parties coming to power.

But since increasing numbers of Arabs support them, it is doubtful that Islamic parties are going to be suppressed for long. They will come to power one way or another.

The issue is whether or not we can get along with them. Supporting democracy, no matter what the outcome, is not only one of our principles, but is very much in our interests.

Some, of course, will argue that if we support democracy and an Islamic party comes to power, it will then destroy democracy. This may happen. But then Arab citizens will blame that party for having destroyed democracy, not the US. This is far better than if Arab governments cancel elections, seemingly with American support, to prevent Islamic parties from winning. This only strengthens the appeal of Islamic parties in the eyes of the Arabs.

Besides, it should not be assumed that Islamic parties are necessarily undemocratic. There are many schools of thought within the Islamic movement. Although the extremists get most of the attention in the West, there are many Muslims who believe that a true interpretation of Islam not only permits democracy, but actually requires it.

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This point of view was expressed by one of the leaders of Islah to a group of foreign scholars who were in Yemen for a conference recently. He also emphasized that his party wanted to have good relations with the US.

It is doubtful that Islah will win a majority in the Yemeni elections, but it will certainly emerge as one of the largest parties in the new parliament. By displaying a willingness to work with Islah, the Clinton administration might begin to convince the Islamists in other Arab countries that America will work with them too if they behave democratically.

Progress toward democratization in Yemen could serve as a role model for other Arab countries. America can only gain if those who seek to oust the Arab world's repressive regimes - many of which have been traditionally supported by the US - see that Washington is willing to support democratic change. Indeed, American support for democratization in Yemen might encourage authoritarian regimes in other Arab countries to initiate democratization themselves.

America's conservative Arab allies might warn that a democratized Yemen in which Islah plays an important role is dangerous and destabilizing. They will warn of yet another Islamic fundamentalist threat. What they are really worried about, though, is that democratization in Yemen will lead to pressure for democratization within their own countries. And this they want to avoid.

The Bush administration listened to these conservative Arab governments and worked against democratization in the Arab world.

As a result, both Islamic parties and Arab publics became increasingly alienated from the US. The Clinton administration, however, does not need to repeat its predecessor's mistakes.

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