By William Fisher
The US press paid little attention to last week’s agreement by officials of the eight major industrial powers and the Arab world endorsing expansion of democratic institutions and a push for political reforms in the Middle East. It gave even less space to an arguably more important development: a seven-point plan submitted not by governments but by some forty civil society groups throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
The private organizations declared: “While the participation of concerned governments in the region would be welcome, we cannot wait… most governments turn a deaf ear to internal calls for reforms.” It called on the G-8 nations for “a more solid commitment “ to “three imperatives - freedom, democracy and justice.”
The group said it did “not claim to represent our societies: only a free vote will…We are here, as individuals, simple members of the so-called Arab-Middle Eastern civil society, women and men who believe in the rule of law, an independent judiciary to protect it, an active and freely elected parliament to enact laws, an accountable, freely elected government to carry them through, meaningful human rights, including foremost the freedom of expression.”
It urged the industrialized nations to begin by creating a “multilateral organization or a special G-8 agency and an emergency fund” committed to “releasing prisoners of conscience, supporting their families and rehabilitating them once freed”. It called this action “the freedom imperative”.
The group also called for help in what it called “the democratic imperative”. It noted: “While most of our countries have parliaments, and occasionally courageous and outspoken members within them, their power is curtailed by executive power, as indeed is the power of our judges which is constantly undermined by executive interference. What we can confidently claim to represent is a different, pressing voice that calls for ballot-based, nonviolent change at all levels of our societies and states, starting from the top.”
The group’s seven-point plan includes:
1) Protecting citizenship equality and participation, especially gender equality, with special attention to the victimization of women.
2) Strengthening of the rule of law by enhancing the independence and role of the judiciary, and monitoring and removing laws that violate human rights and international standards. Emergency laws, special and military courts, undue police detentions and regular reliance on torture…must be abolished.
3) Protecting and enlarging freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and freedom of organization.
4) Encouraging critical inquisitive thinking in education generally, and in religious education, where intolerance is actively advocated in its name.
5) Creating jobs for the 5-7 million entrants into the job market, especially the poor and those left behind, by promoting investment in quality services and value-added products, small and micro enterprises, competitiveness and quality, innovation, environmental sustainability and social services.
6) Combating corruption at all levels to ensure the accountability of bureaucracies and the transparency of organizations, both private and public, and financial institutions.
7) Promoting creative arts and culture, and the qualitative enlargement of public space.
The group added: “While the belated rallying of some Western leaders to the central importance of democracy in our states is welcome, Middle Eastern democrats need a more solid commitment…Dictatorship must now be declared a crime against humanity. (Middle Eastern society) now suffocates under the joint pressures of authoritarian governments and extremists…Both continue to remain unpunished for grave abuse of our freedoms, (and) suppression of intellectual and political movements and leaders.”
The plan grew out of a meeting in Beirut in early September attended by 40 leading Middle Eastern and North African civil society groups. It was presented to foreign ministers from the G-8 and Arab countries meeting in New York. The proposals are intended to feed into the Forum for the Future set up at the G-8 summit in Sea Island, Georgia, last June. The Beirut event was organized by the Lebanese Transparency Association, the UN Development Program, the Program on Governance in the Arab Region, and the Economic Research Forum and the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies.
When the US led the G-8 countries in proposing a “Greater Middle East Initiative” last year, the idea was greeted with hostility by many Arab governments who felt that the West, and particularly the US, was trying to “impose democratic reforms from outside”.
Most of the reforms adopted in the Greater Middle East to date are baby steps or patently cosmetic. This remarkable appeal for help from private citizens to the world’s most powerful nations is a measure of the enormity of the task facing them. The G-8 should respond accordingly.