Regional Focus: The problem of Arab reform

(Ronald de Hommel)

The Arab states are in desperate need of reform. Their hundreds of millions of people — the vast majority of them under age 30 — lack the basic freedoms and opportunities that they crave. In no Arab country are the people free to change their government by peaceful means. No Arab country observes the rule of law, and each society is riven by fundamental inequalities that seem only to be growing. Education and scientific and social research lag, and many of the best and brightest emigrate at the earliest opportunity.

More vexing is trying to identify what can be the agent for change. Can reform come from within? Saudi Arabia, suffering a deep crisis at home and under severe pressure in the US, where many believe, without basis, that the Saudi government was involved in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, has shown little capability to respond pro-actively to the multiple challenges of reform.

In Morocco, there was much hope following the death of King Hassan II in 1999 that his son and successor, Mohammed VI, would bring about rapid democratization and economic reform. The Moroccan press is considerably freer, and open, party-based parliamentary elections were held, but power is still centralized in the hands of the king and his advisors. Despite the successes, reality has fallen well short of expectations.

Since President Bashar Assad came to power in Syria, there has been a stop-and-go opening of political space, and an effort to invigorate the economy. This is welcome. To an extent, Syria (though it would not acknowledge it) has responded to oblique threats from the US. This has, ironically, placed Syrian reformists in a difficult position, as they do not want to seem aligned with a US whose regional policies they oppose. Even with the best of intentions, a genuinely reformist leader must build a constituency for change from scratch to face down protectors of the status quo. It is unclear yet where this process has reached in Syria.

Egypt, meanwhile, which is carrying out economic reforms in the hope of securing a free-trade agreement with the US, shows no sign of opening up politically. On the contrary, it continues its crackdown on nongovernmental organizations and other institutions of civil society that could foster social change.

Although these reformist stirrings are noteworthy, vast areas of the Arab world remain untouched by any such tendencies, no matter how tentative and questionable these may be. When challenged as to why reform occurs at such a glacial pace, Arab officials typically reply that they are engaged in “experiments” that take time. But if these experiments last too long — as they invariably do — they lose credibility, and citizens become apathetic and cynical.

While the nationalist and statist rhetoric that Arab governments and single-party states use to justify themselves retains little appeal or credibility for young populations, there are no unifying ideological alternatives that translate into a pragmatic program of government and change. Islamism has massive appeal as an opposition impulse, but it has not proven more adept at confronting real-life problems, particularly lack of jobs and opportunities. So if prospects for internally-driven reform are dim, can outside intervention help?

Recently, President George W. Bush’s National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice, set out a manifesto to “transform” the Arab world into an oasis of democracy and prosperity. Long-term studies, such as the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, consistently show that people in the Arab world embrace most of the values of personal, economic and political freedom preached by the US, but do not trust the US to bring them about. The reasons are well-known: American policy with respect to Israel and the Palestinians has long been criticized, while US behavior in Iraq is seen as motivated by imperial designs and a desire for oil. To make matters worse, a growing number of people see these policies as part of an anti-Muslim Crusade.

Leaving aside Iraq and Palestine, there are other problems with America’s vision. Given that the US has no history of supporting democracy in the Middle East, we have to look for examples in the present. Washington’s current regional star pupil, and the beneficiary of massive new economic aid, is Jordan. While Jordan remains relatively open compared with some of its neighbors, it has made little progress toward genuine democracy since parliamentary elections in 1989, and, indeed, has taken steps backward. At the same time, Jordan has undergone a superficial transformation into a Western-style consumerist economy, where possessing a cell phone, not a meaningful voice, is the mark of citizenship. This model may work for the few who benefit, but it leaves an increasingly resentful majority out of the picture.

Yet some, even in the Arab world, believe that the massive external shock of the US occupation of Iraq may be a necessary catalyst to stir change. This argument sees US motives as essentially irrelevant: the forces unleashed by the American venture in Iraq will lead to positive change, even if Washington attempts to impose its own hegemony or prop up obedient “moderate” regimes. While born of frustration at decades of stagnation, this view is fraught with problems. Not least that the external shock is producing enormous resistance, which can provoke as much a reactionary as a progressive impulse.

There may be a more positive model of external intervention. For many years, the European Union has offered the prospect of membership to countries that carried out democratic reforms and guaranteed political and human rights to their citizens. It has also offered more limited partnership agreements to the Mediterranean’s Arab states. In both efforts, the EU has used trade and aid to advance reform. This kind of engagement helped transform impoverished military dictatorships in southern Europe into prosperous democratic societies. In recent years, the desire for EU membership has nudged Turkey away from the nationalist and authoritarian tendencies fostered by Ataturkism, towards more democracy. It has a long way to go, but it is notable that those in Turkey pushing for EU membership are those least attached to Turkish militarism and repression.

The obvious problem with this model is that the EU, which is about to undergo a massive enlargement eastward, already has a full plate. And the process is slow. Europeans also feel culturally distant from the Arab world and Islam, though ties are closer than between Arabs and Americans. But Europe has economic and political interests in offering an alternative approach to the Arab world than that presented by the American sledgehammer. Indeed, this acknowledgment is what drove the Euro-Med partnership agreements, which are valuable, but also limited in scope. What is vital is that the EU and the Arab states embrace a positive agenda, one built on partnership and equality.

If Europe began an intensive and serious engagement with one or two Arab countries — and the Euro-Med partnerships perhaps offer a framework for this — successfully encouraging changes that earlier helped transform former autocratic systems like Spain and Greece, the clamor among Arab populations for similar transformations could become irresistible.

Ali Abunimah is one of the co-founders of The Electronic Intifada and Electronic Iraq. This article was first published in The Daily Star on 27 August 2003.