Promoting Reform Efforts in the Middle East

by Nizar Abdel-Kader
The Arab world is undergoing a deep and continuous crisis. Despite all the efforts deployed by official and obedient media to defend the accomplishments of the various governments, every indication shows that failure to develop Arab societies and to provide solutions for economic, social and educational problems is a common phenomenon.

The Arab political system has shown its weaknesses after the fall of the Soviet Union. It has returned to a situation that resembles the one caused by the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. The Arabs seem once again to have lost the opportunity to play any valuable role in the ‘game of nations’ after the end of the ‘cold war.’ Most of the Arab regimes did not realize that the greater changes in the world political order implied a change of behavior on their part, coupled with a new vision of openness, freedom, free markets, and human rights.

The Middle Eastern political stage remains as it was under the circumstances of the ‘cold war.’ The governments have continued to be run by a single leader under the banner of a single political party, with no guarantees to individuals or groups that they will be part of the political process, unless they are an integral part of the leadership. This political, economic and social oligarchy has resulted in a poisonous fallout that is manifested in the lack of transparency in government practices and institutions, including the judiciary.

The Bush administration, as part of the war on terror and the fight against extremists and Islamic fundamentalists, advanced several plans and initiatives to reform the Arab and Middle Eastern political, economic, social, and educational systems. Bush’s attempts to link the absence of democracy in the Middle East with the region’s stagnation may have been sound, but his initiative for democracy came at the wrong time and has been rendered ineffective and opposed by the Arab leaders and media because of the war in Iraq and the continuous Israeli occupation and practices in Gaza and the West Bank.

Several Arab leaders have expressed their opposition to the Greater Middle East Initiative; among these opponents were President Mubarak and the leaders of Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The rhetoric of their opposition was that reform must come from inside their societies rather than being imposed by an outside power. Their rhetoric implied a denial of the necessity of badly needed reforms inside their societies and within the whole Arab political system, which has reached a low point in effectiveness with the postponement of the Arab summit originally scheduled for late March in Tunis.

Yet, even though the Greater Middle East plan was met with near universal rejection from Arab leaders, it has sparked a debate on political, economic and social reforms and on the role of the United States in promoting such reforms. Statements, such as the following by Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs, Saud Al-Faisal, have led the Arab Ministers of Foreign Affairs, at their summit meeting in Cairo in March 2004, to place reform as the main item on the agenda of the meeting later convened in Tunis: “Those behind these plans know the fact that our Arab peoples have cultures rooted deep in history and that we are able to handle our own affairs…” Unfortunately, the pan Arab plan for reform that was eventually adopted does not include plans of action for individual countries, and, consequently, the speed and manner of reform will be left to each individual nation. This method will not solve the old dilemma of Arab regimes fearing that the more they move towards democracy, the greater the risks of losing power and control over their peoples.

Past experience has proven that the pace of reform is usually slow. Most governments who pledged reforms have done so in a very selective way and have shown a readiness to reverse the process every time it appeared to be gaining an uncontrollable social momentum.

Doubts expressed about the Arab leaders’ willingness to adopt genuine reform does not dissipate the Arab public’s wariness concerning the US agenda and intentions towards Islamic and Arab countries. Despite all the United States’ claims before the Iraq war that the prospects of democracy in the Middle East would improve, the people’s views are that it has gone the other way and that prospects for democracy in the Middle East are less likely. The reasons behind such an assessment are two: First, there is a widespread mistrust of American intentions for historical reasons, including a lack of confidence and credibility due to American policy concerning the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Second, Arab public opinion is skeptical about the United States’ policy regarding reform. In Arab minds, US conduct has not been fully honest and the discourse on democracy did not appear originally as a part of the US strategic policy in the area, as it was more concerned with fostering friendly governments than democratically elected ones.

Events in Iraq, including recent humiliating scenes of abused Iraqi prisoners, coupled with the impact of continuing violence in Palestine, have resonated powerfully with ordinary Arabs. Such an environment will be exploited by most Arab regimes to declare that reforms are impossible under present circumstances created by US foreign policy.

There is a common interest for the Arabs and the Americans to come to an understanding on how to implement systematic reforms as part of the war on terrorism. Such an objective necessitates a reevaluation of US policies towards the area, especially around the approaches towards achieving stability in Iraq and stopping violence between the Israelis and Palestinians. On the Arab side, there is a need for consensus in making general reform a priority and in accepting in principle international assistance offered during the G8 meeting that took place this month (in June).

The Arab world cannot find a viable exit by itself from the present crisis, and it should admit its weaknesses as a prelude to the acceptance of any new proposals for reforms. Such an exit would start with a sincere and frank pan Arab dialogue in order to come up with a plan to serve as a basis to invite the UN, the US, and the EU to come forward with a constructive role needed to sustain the reform process.

- Writer and political analyst. This article is part of a series of views on the initiatives for reform in the Middle East, published in partnership with the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
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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
Reform in the Arab World: Tensions and Challenges
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
Reform in the Arab World: Tensions and Challenges by Shafeeq Ghabra
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