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By William Fisher
Over the past year or two, we have been bombarded with chatter about the political and social reforms taking place in the Middle East and North Africa. We have been given endless illustrations of changes that have been implemented, but also told that (a) change must come from within and (b) change will come slowly. There can be little argument with the ‘from within’ part. But the ‘slowly’ part needs to be questioned. The question is: when does ‘slowly’ become a farce?
Those who defend the current pace of change cite numerous reasons, principally ‘cultural’ considerations, the US invasion of Iraq, the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and the need to stop terrorists. But I submit that these are largely straw men. For the most part, the ‘cultural’ considerations constraining reform have been created by the area’s kings and presidents. Most of the countries in the area live under so-called ‘emergency laws’ that give their governments sweeping powers to arrest and detain citizens without charge, stifle dissent, and disband political parties. What we hear is that ending these draconian laws would unleash a torrent of rhetorical and physical violence that would engulf the region. But to be fearful of rhetoric is to be fearful of freedom. And well-trained and non-corrupt police departments can be trained to deal with physical violence. As to stopping terrorists, it is questionable whether these laws have any effect whatever. Terrorists expect to operate outside the law. Catching them should be the work of intelligence experts and law enforcement.
The history of these laws leads to one conclusion only: they are intended to preserve the power of those who already have it. And that is the problem with the ‘slowly’ part of the equation.
The fact is that Middle East and North African rulers fear their people. They worry that, given more civil and political freedoms, the people would rise up and seize power. But how would they know? Most of them have never asked their people for anything save supine obedience, so have no reason to trust their judgment or love of country. The result of this deep-seated suspicion is that the gulf between the governors and the governed has become a chasm, and – despite a few largely cosmetic ‘reforms’ -- is getting wider. It is a sort of ‘separate but unequal’ doctrine.
Last year, a group of Arab scholars worked with the United Nations Development Programme to prepare The Arab Development Report – without question a historic inside-out piece of work. This remarkable document posited two basic requirements for sound governance: transparency and accountability. The rulers of Arab nations can demonstrate neither. The process of governance in the region is incredible opaque. And most of those in power are publicly accountable to no one.
What is the state of reform in the key Arab states?
In Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom’s first human rights organization recently won Royal approval; the government has promised municipal elections, opened a reform dialogue with leading intellectuals, arrested several thousand radical clergy, and introduced changes to its education and religious institutions, which promote an austere version of Sunni Islam. Saudi Arabia’s crown prince has created an Advisory Working Group to study the major challenges facing the kingdom, including the implementation of municipal elections, with full voting rights granted to women. But the Saudis recently arrested eight of its intellectuals for signing a petition urging the government to provide a timetable for reforms. According to the official Saudi Press Agency, the signatories’ actions did not “serve national unity or the cohesion of society based on Islamic Sharia law.''
Egypt and Morocco have also formed human rights committees, attached to their governments, promising independent action, but lacking any enforcement authority. Egypt’s human rights group is headed by former United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Gali, a Coptic Christian. Boutros-Gali surprised many observers by calling for repeal of Egypt’s Emergency Laws. President Hosni Mubarak has talked of a wide-ranging reform agenda, starting with a promise to stop jailing journalists.
Jordan’s King Abdullah II has pledged to transform kingdom into the "model of a democratic Arab Islamic state" that can serve as an example to other Middle East nations. He has abolished the Information Ministry that enforced censorship and put more women into government, but broader public freedoms are still lacking.
Syria has done next to nothing in the reform area. President Bashir Assad, who took office when his father died in 2000, initially took limited steps to loosen Syria from the totalitarian system he inherited. He released hundreds of political detainees and initially allowed political discussion groups to hold small gatherings indoors. But in 2001, Assad’s police began to clamp down on pro-democracy activists. Recently, Syrian police dispersed and then arrested a small group of protestors seeking repeal of the so-called Emergency Laws in force since 1963.
In North Africa, Tunisia has made negligible political progress since President Ben Ali seized power in 1987. Since then, he has had himself re-elected three times, on each occasion claiming more than 99 percent of the vote. He recently pushed through constitutional changes that would allow him to remain in power through 2014. According to Human Rights Watch, Tunisia’s record in the human rights area is appalling. Algeria, a multiparty state with an elected parliament and president, has created a ‘mechanism’ to try to discover what happened to the thousands of ‘disappeared’ citizens. Morocco’s King Mohammed VI appoints the prime minister and members of the government following legislative elections, but can fire any minister, dissolve parliament, call for new elections, or rule by decree.
Arab leaders feel the West fails to understand the problems they face in attempting to improve governance. Most of them opposed the US Greater Middle East Initiative as a neo-colonialist measure designed to impose democracy from outside. Many Arab leaders continue to blame their problems on the US invasion of Iraq and failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. According to a recent editorial in the Jordan Times, “The continuation of conflicts in the Middle East, especially the Arab-Israeli deadlock and the Iraqi occupation, leads to radicalization of the entire region and makes the endeavors to reform it that much more difficult. The rise of political violence and even terrorism is directly linked to these festering conflicts and without security and stability, no political and economic reforms can be pursued with much success…” On the other hand, some Middle East observers feel that Arab leaders have conveniently hidden behind the Israeli-Palestinian issue for years to justify their inaction in reform.
But the Arab reform issue predates Iraq and even the Palestinian intifida. For example, had the Arab League not cancelled its meeting in Tunis last month, one of its agenda items would have been consideration of several amendments to strengthen the 1994 Arab Charter on Human Rights. However, no Arab state has ever ratified the 1994 Charter.
Despite this sorry record, the rulers of the Middle East would do well to re-read the Arab Development Report. That report identifies knowledge, freedom and women’s empowerment as the most serious challenges to development. It notes that the whole Arab world translates only 300 books annually; 65 million Arab adults, including half the women, are illiterate; only 1.6 percent of the Arab population has Internet access; 14 million Arab adults do not make enough money to buy even the most basic necessities; steep population increases in many Arab countries mean that as many as 50 million more Arab workers will enter the job market in the next eight years, looking for very few jobs; and other advancements in communications, transportation, health and educational opportunities have yet to reach large percentages of the people of the Greater Middle East. It contends that this predicament contributes to the misunderstanding and prejudice that in turn leads to violence.
Enter Islam. Contrary to widely held beliefs in the West, it is not Islam that breeds terrorists. It is the juxtaposition of some radical clergy, mosques and religious schools with the poverty, hunger, deprivation and frustration of ordinary people that facilitates their exploitation by an extremist misinterpretation of Islam.
These are challenging problems. But they are problems governments are expected to address. And most of these are governments that have received and can expect to continue to receive massive assistance from multilateral and bilateral donors. The world has shown it is prepared to help. What is needed now is not continued repression but help from the recipients of this assistance – and their people.
But the people have little incentive, let alone opportunity, to help. There are few parts of the world plagued by such a pervasive combination of frustration and resignation about the inevitability of the status quo. The have-nots in these societies are without hope. Yet hope is the biggest incentive of all, and it is the job of political leadership to inspire it. However, hope cannot be inspired by rhetoric alone; it must be accompanied by action, by demonstrable change. To most of the ‘Arab Street’, the modest ‘reforms’ adopted thus far are meaningless.
Isn’t it time the leaders of the Arab nations decided to test the will, the energy, and the innovativeness of their people? They could well be surprised by the national benefits of what many of them regard as a high-risk strategy.