Reform in the Arab World: Tensions and Challenges

by Shafeeq Ghabra
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In March 2004, at the beautiful Alexandria National Library, optimism about the possibilities of reform in the Middle East, and Egypt's role in it, was palpable. That month, Arabs from throughout the region opened their minds and mouths in a rare instance of self-criticism and reflection. The Alexandria forum—held in the midst of ongoing fighting in Iraq and Palestine, publication of the first and second Arab human development reports, and amid apprehension in the Arab world that the United States and other western powers might attempt to impose, economic, and social reforms—represents what could be a new start for the Arab world. For the first time in years, Egyptians and other Arabs were thinking beyond the usual boundaries about their situation.

Today the problems of the Arab world are on center stage. Can the states of the Middle East adopt the reforms needed to halt the downward spiral of despair and rage among their peoples? Muslims have experimented with most of modernity’s political creeds: socialism (Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen), communism (South Yemen), state capitalism fused with monarchy (the Gulf states, Jordan, and Morocco). They have even experimented with home-grown ideologies, such as Nasserism, Ba’athism, and Khomeinism. Just about the only ideology the region has not tried is liberal capitalist democracy. With few exceptions, Arabs cannot claim that their policies or ideologies have won long term benefits and stability for their people. There has, however, been success in one respect: the retention of power and the stifling of political change.

The lack of political participation by the masses has become an underlying current of anger and rebellion in the Arab world. Commonsensical Arabs, rational thinkers, intellectuals, and businesspeople represent a potential force of change and reform. The status quo is now being challenged to the extent that the old methods of traditional politics and governance in the region cannot be sustained. Thus the Arab world finds itself at a potentially historic turning point confronted by confusion and approaching storms.

Given the Middle East’s malaise, the status quo cannot long endure. What, however, will replace it? Three scenarios, all of them dark, are possible: anarchy of the type that allowed Osama Bin Laden to flourish in Afghanistan and spread terrorism of the type that is now haunting Saudi Arabia and Iraq; civil war of the sort that has ravaged Algeria and Sudan; or a new Saddam-style authoritarianism that breeds war and isolation. For the realization of any of these scenarios, the world need do nothing but wait and watch. Active engagement by, and effective partnerships with, members of the international community could, however, change the course of events and steer them toward a positive outcome: a reformist path leading to the establishment of the rule of law, advancement of individual rights, creation of robust civil societies, and democratization across the Arab world.

Political reform in the Arab world should lead to the liberation of Arab economies from state hegemony and to the launch of new projects to benefit future generations. Reform means ridding Arab states of sluggish bureaucracies and corruption while empowering women and youth. Reform must also open the door for political competition through free elections. Such measures could protect royal and republican regimes from anarchy, terrorism, and rebellion. The granting of political and cultural freedoms, including granting all citizens the right to free expression and opinion, are vital for the establishment of an enlightened Arab citizenry no longer fearful of abusive authority.

After decades of isolation, caused by dictators and other government extremists, the Arab world will need to engage the grassroots for political reform to succeed. The creation of an open framework for political parties, including freedom of association, is an essential element in developing mature political processes. Space must also be provided for the third force of youth, human rights activists, and entrepreneurs, in order to achieve homegrown reform. Constitutional commitments by all political forces is another essential element in avoiding extremism.

Religion has become a source of political conflict rather than a source of spirituality and peace. For the Arab world to move forward peacefully, it must find a process that neutralizes Islam in political life. In overcoming this source of instability, Islamist movements must be recognized as part of the Arab political spectrum, and Islamists must explicitly accept that all political movements be allowed freedom of expression and participation. The rights of minorities must be acknowledged, and linguistic and religious diversity respected.

Some Arab states will manage to reform while others will disintegrate. Reform is a long and thorny path. It will take at least a decade before Arabs experience its positive results. One or two examples of economic and political success will shine in the region. The region’s small state monarchies—Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and the UAE—may be the best bets for adopting a liberal approach, given the somewhat tolerant nature of their ruling kings and emirs and steps already taken toward reform. By contrast, viable reform in Saudi Arabia faces much greater challenges. The country’s religious laws and character, which are central to the ruling family’s legitimacy, undermine liberalizing forces. Many Saudis fear that the pressures surrounding religious and political reform will lead to an explosion. On the other hand, the Saudi establishment’s serious and direct response to recent terror attacks gives hope that the ruling Sauds may see reform as their only chance of survival.

In Jordan, reform will require altering the country’s social fabric, including providing Palestinian Jordanians with greater freedom to contribute politically and economically in meaningful ways. The Palestinians of Jordan must, however, make a conscious decision to accept Jordan as their home. The duality of belonging and not belonging, a result of a long term problematic Palestinian refugee issue, is not conducive to political participation and future stability. Jordan’s young king and his team have initiated a set of reforms that are liberalizing Jordan and pushing it along the path of reform. More, however, must be done and the conflict in Palestine will, one way or another, determine the nature of stability or instability in Jordan.

Although leadership of the Arab world has shifted from Egypt, Egypt remains one of the central actors in the region. No other state has filled the vacuum in a time of competition among Arab states in diverse areas, from Qatar’s alJazeera to Dubai’s economic reform and boom. Egypt can reclaim its leadership role if it picks up the mantle of cultural renaissance, liberalism, democracy, educational reform, and economic development. There is nothing in Egypt’s history that precludes it from doing so. The monarchy was overthrown in 1952 without violence, and for 250 years Egypt has shown itself capable of reformist as well as radical politics. Indeed, the collapse or renewal of the Arab world may well depend in part on the fate of reform in Egypt.

As concerns Syria, Saddam’s fall turned the spotlight on subjects that the regime prefers to keep in the dark, for example, Syria’s role in Lebanon, one-party rule, and human rights violations. For Syria to avoid becoming strategically irrelevant, it must take bold steps, including political liberalization and minimizing state dominance of politics, culture, and economic life. Bashar al-Asad, Syria’s president, has the capacity to reform Syria, but he faces numerous hurdles, including an entrenched establishment.

It is too early to tell whether Iraq is a land lost to civil war and hate. After years of repression, periods of anarchy and violence among Iraqis are not unexpected before common sense prevails. Iraq has many things going for it: U.S. interest in it, a Shia population that is not set on replicating the Iranian experience, a secular tradition, and a diverse society. Rebuilding an Iraqi state will be difficult, but it is doable and extremely important that it succeeds. Failure will only reinforce the radicalism and volatility in today’s Arab politics. A civil war or a failed state in Iraq will create a new cycle of regional conflict. It will easily involve Iran, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, radical Islamists, Kurds, and others. Many surrounding regimes on the one hand hope Iraq will become a quagmire for the United States, perhaps a rerun of Beirut in the 1980s, when the U.S. exited under fire. On the other hand, many regimes fear the spill-over of violence from Iraq to their societies.

For the Middle East’s regimes, reform must not necessarily be self-destructive. In contrast, as the Iraqi experience demonstrates, control and stagnation can lead to total loss. As Mexico and post-communist Europe illustrate, nimble elites can reinvent themselves as they change the political systems that they lead.

Indigenous reform in the Middle East is only two-thirds of the issue. The Palestinian-Israeli war raging in the West Bank and Gaza is central to the reform effort. The situation in Palestine has fueled, and continues to fuel, radicalism in the region among Arab nationalists and Islamists alike. As long as the battle rages, the Arab world will know only war and confrontation. Reform cannot succeed in the midst of a conflict that bolsters extremists and hatred on other fronts. Proponents of Arab reform, whether they are Americans or Arabs or Europeans, must stand for an end to occupation and the implementation of a just peace. Continuing to underestimate the impact of events in Palestine will only undermine the reform effort in the region and will reinforce anti-reform movements and anti-reform elements in Arab regimes.

If history is any guide, the transition to democracy, economic development, peace, and respect for human rights is comprised of complex processes and difficult choices. Today the Arab world is living through a pre-democratic moment. This period may produce the momentum needed to boost the region toward transition. However, this would not be the end of a chapter, but the begining of a new one. If the Spanish and Italian experiments with democratization and development are any guide, transition will be long, violent, and complex.

- President of the American University of Kuwait. This article is part of a series of views on the US "Greater Middle East" Initiative for reform, published in partnership with the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
 
 
 
 
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OTHER ARTICLES IN SERIES
The Greater Middle East 21st Century Trust—A new partnership
A Small State for Palestinians: A Great Step for the Greater Middle East
A view from Washington
Promoting Reform Efforts in the Middle East
The Greater Middle East Initiative, a Turkish Perspective
Let us be Democratic about Democracy
The Greater Middle East Initiative
The Greater Middle East: Moving Beyond Mutual Refutation to What is Required
Reform in the Arab World Requires that True Intellectuals Speak Out
Difficult but necessary: a joint strategy to promote political reform in the Middle East
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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Other articles in this series

The Greater Middle East 21st Century Trust—A new partnership by Senator Richard G. Lugar
A Small State for Palestinians: A Great Step for the Greater Middle East by Gidi Grinstein
A view from Washington by Pamela and Robert Pelletreau
Promoting Reform Efforts in the Middle East by Nizar Abdel-Kader
The Greater Middle East Initiative, a Turkish Perspective by Dr. Duygu Bazoglu Sezer
Let us be Democratic about Democracy by Dr. Abdul Aziz Said
The Greater Middle East Initiative by Richard W. Murphy
The Greater Middle East: Moving Beyond Mutual Refutation to What is Required by Hazem Saghiyeh
Reform in the Arab World Requires that True Intellectuals Speak Out by Daoud Kuttab
Difficult but necessary: a joint strategy to promote political reform in the Middle East by Dr. Steven Everts