MIDDLE EAST: Reform... when?
William Fisher «View Bio

Amid the chatter about political and social reform in the Middle East and North Africa, we are told that (a) change must come from within and (b) change will come slowly. There can be little argument with the former; the latter, however, must be questioned. And the question is: when does ‘slowly’ become a farce?

Those who defend the current pace of change primarily cite ‘cultural’ considerations, the US invasion of Iraq, the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and the need to stop ‘terrorism.’

These, I submit, are largely straw men.

For the most part, the ‘cultural’ considerations constraining reform have been created by rulers keen to maintain the sort of ‘emergency laws’ that give them sweeping powers to arrest and detain citizens without charge, stifle dissent, and disband political parties. The argument that repealing such draconian laws would unleash a torrent of violence amounts to little more than a fear of freedom. As to reining in extremist groups, it is questionable whether these laws have any effect whatsoever: such groups – especially those prone to violence – expect to operate outside the law. Reining them in requires (well-trained, incorruptible) intelligence experts and law enforcement agents.

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 are such conclusions reached? Most leaders in the region have never asked their people for anything save supine obedience, and therefore have no reason to trust their judgment or love of country.

As a result of this deep-seated suspicion, the gulf between governors and governed has become a chasm, and – despite a few largely cosmetic ‘reforms’ – it is getting wider.

Last year a group of Arab scholars worked with the United Nations Development Program 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 incredibly opaque, while most of those in power are publicly accountable to no one.

So 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, while the government has promised municipal elections, opened a reform dialogue with leading intellectuals, arrested several thousand radical clergy, and introduced changes to the country’s educational and religious institutions, which promote an austere version of Sunni Islam.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah 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. At the same time, however, eight leading intellectuals were recently arrested after 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 the government, which have been promised independence but which lack any enforcement authority. Egypt’s human rights group is headed by former United Nations secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali, a Coptic Christian who surprised many observers by calling for the repeal of Egypt’s emergency law. For his part, 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 the kingdom into a “model of a democratic Arab Islamic state.” He has abolished the information ministry, the former censor, and put more women into government. But broader public freedoms are still lacking.

Syria, on the other hand, has done next to nothing. President Bashar Al Assad, who took office when his father died in 2000, made some early, limited steps toward relaxing Syria’s totalitarian system of government, releasing hundreds of political detainees and initially allowing political discussion groups to hold small gatherings. But in 2001, police began to clamp down on pro-democracy activists. Recently Syrian police dispersed and then arrested a small group of protestors seeking repeal of emergency laws in force since 1963.

In North Africa, Tunisia has seen negligible political advances since President Ben Ali seized power in 1987. Since re-elected three times with more than 99 percent of the vote, Ali recently pushed through constitutional changes that would allow him to remain in power until 2014.

According to the US-based Human Rights Watch, Tunisia’s record in the human rights area is appalling.

Meanwhile neighboring in Algeria, a multiparty state with an elected parliament and president, a ‘mechanism’ has been established to try to discover what happened to thousands of ‘disappeared’ citizens.

And in Morocco, legislative elections are regularly held – but King Muhammad VI appoints the prime minister and members of the government, and can fire ministers, dissolve parliament, call new elections, or rule by decree.

Arab leaders insist that 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 neocolonialist measure designed to impose democracy from outside. Many Arab leaders have attributed their problems to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian dispute and – more recently – the US invasion of Iraq.

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 a 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 a lack of reform.

But the issue of Arab reform predates Iraq and even the Palestinian intifada. For example, had the Arab League not canceled its meeting in Tunis last month, one of its agenda items would have been amendments to strengthen the 1994 Arab Charter on Human Rights – a document yet to be ratified by any Arab state.

So despite their apparent aversion to many of the concepts presented in the Arab Development Report, the region’s leaders would do well to reconsider the document.

The report identifies knowledge, freedom, and women’s empowerment as the most serious challenges to development in the region. It notes that the whole Arab world translates just 300 books a year; 65 million Arab adults, including half of the region’s female population, 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; and steep population increases in many Arab countries mean that as many as 50 million more Arab workers will enter the labor market in the next eight years, chasing very few jobs. Other advancements in communications, transportation, health, and educational opportunities have yet to reach large numbers of people in the greater Middle East. The report 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 extremist elements’ misinterpretation of Islam.

These are challenging problems. But they are problems that governments are expected to address – not least ones in receipt of massive assistance from multilateral and bilateral donors. The world has shown it is prepared to help. Isn’t it time the leaders of Arab nations respond by testing the will, energy, and innovativeness of their people? They could be pleasantly surprised.

William Fisher has managed economic development projects in the Middle East for the US state department and the US Agency for International Development. Contact the author at www.billfisher.blogspot.com