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The following article is the work of Rami G. Khouri, Executive Editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut, and is reprinted here with permission.
The year 2003 posed a tremendous collective challenge to the Arab people and regimes, and offered exciting possibilities for change in several important arenas: redressing tyranny and autocracy at home; promoting democracy, pluralism and civil society; expanding economic capabilities; and developing more productive and rational relations with the world’s big powers. But at a great moment of historical reckoning and potential change, the Arabs … ducked.
I generalize, because some Arabs did recognize and respond to challenges, especially by promoting serious economic reforms that allow the private sectors to plug into the global economy. But on the really important issues that begged to be addressed, most Arab peoples, regimes and institutions avoided grappling with the need to make significant changes both in their attitudes to the issues at hand and in their exercise of power.
The big development that brought on the potential moment of historical reckoning in 2003 was the Anglo-American decision to send in the armada (again) in order to topple the Iraqi regime. This brought to life in dramatic and immediate form the fundamental dilemma that all Arab states have faced for decades: Does the contemporary Arab state derive its legitimacy, security, stability and well-being primarily from the sentiments of its own citizens, the friendly cooperation of its neighbors, the strength of its economy, the support of foreign powers, the acquiescence of Israel, or some combination of these? The Anglo-American assault on Iraq forced most Arab states to address this awkward question, because it generated conflicting pressures on the Arab regimes and societies. Most regimes tried to navigate the comfortable and familiar pathway of indecision: They cautioned against war and “regime change,” but cooperated with the US-led armada in both these endeavors; they demanded respect for international legitimacy, but acquiesced in the Anglo-American disregard of the UN and the international will on Iraq; they imposed the UN economic embargo against Iraq, but allowed smugglers to defy the embargo; they sought a coherent, collective pan-Arab response to the crisis in Iraq, but simultaneously focused on preserving their own interests; and they spoke boldly of the urgency of resolving the Palestine-Israel conflict, but largely left the Palestinians to suffer at the hands of the stronger Israeli military.
Rarely in modern history had so many Arabs simultaneously and jointly participated in an exercise of mass confusion and indecision as they did in 2003 vis-a-vis the Iraq crisis. The manner in which the Arab societies dealt with the Iraq war challenge was more revealing than the words they used to address it. With a few exceptions, Arab governments had to find a way to reconcile their own reliance on American military and economic support with the strong anti-American sentiments of their populations. Some Arab governments restricted demonstrations against the Anglo-American policy and Israel, which exacerbated internal political tensions. In the end, the priority for all the Arab states was how they could best ensure security and stability in the middle of a regional crisis.
Arab societies as a whole missed the opportunity in 2003 to seriously explore the root issues that defined the crisis over Iraq: Arab autocracy and the centralized, sometimes brutal, monopoly on power; the misappropriation of public funds by unelected, unaccountable governments; the lack of policy options suggested by independent institutions in society, such as research centers, the mass media, political parties and universities; regimes that seem to persist more because of the support of foreign powers than a mandate from their own citizens; a numbing tradition of foreign military intervention in the Middle East, both to change individual regimes and to redraw maps and agendas on a wider regional scale; the persistent conflict with Israel and its impact on the entire region; and a broad inability of the Arab economies to develop their human and natural resources in order to contribute to the global economy more meaningfully than simply as a source of energy that was put into the ground by divine creation and geological serendipity and is pumped out of the ground by foreign oil companies.
None of these issues were seriously or systematically explored in a public manner in the Arab region during the past year, despite some courageous attempts to do so here and there. The key relationships between citizen and state, Arabs and Israelis, Arabs and America, and among the many different religious, ethnic and national groups within the Arab region, begged to be examined and fixed, but were largely ignored. Consequently, the conflicting forces, policies and sentiments that swirled through the region again highlighted the Arab capacity to manage tensions and crises without resolving any of their root causes. More troublingly, as long as these root causes of Arab tensions and conflict persist, the region will continue to suffer the problems that have defined it in recent decades.
The challenges facing Arab societies and governments were already enormous and complex before this year, and have now become even more complicated due to the impact of the Anglo-American war and regime change in Iraq. If change in the Arab world in the new year and beyond is to be driven and defined largely by Anglo-American dictates, we are likely to suffer tensions and conflicts for years to come. If, instead, the institutions of Arab society can rise to the challenge and bring about real reform that responds to indigenous values and rights, this region might finally achieve the lasting stability and prosperity that is the right of its citizens.