Arab political reform in disarray

With the US-sponsored Greater Middle East Initiative on the table, Arab countries find themsleves facing increasing pressure to carry out political reform.

Arab leaders in session during the 2002 Beirut summit
Arab leaders in session during the 2002 Beirut summit

US Secretary of State Colin Powell has stressed a “sense of urgency” for the Middle East to reform, saying that democracy in the region is long overdue.

But some Arab leaders argue that reforms cannot come from the outside, an argument that has created a rift between them and those who believe in the genuineness of US motives.

Botched summit

The split between Arab countries with regard to the US plan became apparent when a scheduled Arab League summit was abruptly cancelled in Tunisia last March.

Only 11 of the 22 member states’ foreign ministers met to draft a common position on reforms prior to the summit. They failed to agree on the language to be used on the subject. The discussion scuttled the summit which was eventually “postponed”.

At least seven Arab leaders bowed out of the meeting to avoid embarrassment over the discussion on reforms. 

The disarray led Tunisian President Zain al-Abidin Bin Ali to cancel the summit 48 hours before it was due to begin indicating that even discussing, let alone implementing the initiative is proving contentious.

A new summit has been re-scheduled for 22 May 2004 in Tunis.

Reasons for rejection 

According to some observers, most Arab leaders have responded negatively to US plans for reform because they feel offended, if not threatened, by the proposal.

Some Arab governments have criticised the initiative for failing to take account of Arab culture, traditions and values, while others insist that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should come first.

Equally problematic is the uncertainty regarding whether or not Arab rulers can offer a home-grown alternative that is both genuinely Arab yet compatible with the prevailing Western definition of democracy and reforms.

Imperative change 

While some Arab countries were hardly enthusiastic about the US plan, others called for political reform plans to be embraced regardless of where they came from.

“Change has become imperative regardless of the source of initiatives,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher said.

“Change has become imperative regardless of the source of initiatives”

Marwan Muasher,
Jordanian foreign minister

Despite the fact that the secretary-general of the Arab League, Amr Musa, emphasised Arab leaders’ commitment to political reform, he maintained that the reaction to US calls for reform has been negative.

“It is illogical to speak of a US initiative which requires the cooperation of the Arab states without consulting those very states on the nature and details of such ideas,” Musa told in an exclusive interview.

“It is also unacceptable to attempt to dictate to peoples the developmental paths they should take,” he added.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria have been adamant in their rejection of imposed reforms.

Syria wanted the focus to remain on solving the Arab-Israeli conflict and maintained its indifference to the plan.

Searching questions

However, in reference to Arab opposition to the Bush administration’s plan, Qatari Amir Shaikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani said Arab governments should not treat suggestions for reform from the outside with “suspicion”.

Qatari Amir Shaikh Hamad Al Thani says honesty is needed

Qatari Amir Shaikh Hamad Al
Thani says honesty is needed

“Honesty requires that we say that the root of anger in our region is not only the Palestinian cause, but that it goes far beyond it,” he said at the opening of the Qatar Conference for Democracy and Free Trade held in Doha in April 2004.

“It goes back to our own problems that have nothing to do with the outside, and that we have let accumulate without cure,” he added.

Some Arab analysts however question Arab countries’ rejection of external reform initiatives, while at the same time having imported ideas generated by the West, such as socialism, as well as the doctrines of military coups and capitalism.

US argument

But what is it that has espoused this unyielding US interest in reforming the Middle East?

The US plan to foster democracy in the region is inspired by the argument that the lack of freedom in the Arab world threatens US security by breeding disenfranchised, angry youth who blame the US for their ordeals.

Iraqi protesters fill the streets and chant anti-US slogans

Iraqi protesters fill the streets
and chant anti-
US slogans

Such anger, the argument goes, is a fertile ground for terrorism.

However, some analysts dispute such logic saying that the US quest for real democracy in the Middle East, if any exists, will probably not serve Washington’s interests anyway.

After all, the most organised groups, those capable of generating popular support among Arabs, are Islamic ones. Such groups are often adamant in their opposition to the US and its relentless interference in the region’s affairs.

This signifies that the Arab world may still not be ready for US-led reforms, whether political, economic or any other.  

Arab alternatives

But the compelling question remains: What can Arab governments really offer that is not superficial?

What kind of a road map can Arab leaders provide for their people while they are presiding over stagnant economies and when there are no guarantees of human rights, women’s rights and the rights of religious monitories?

Critics contest that, whatever initiatives were offered in the past, they failed to adhere to the prerequisites: to be bottom up, grassroots and people orientated.

Arab plans often neglect the people factor, at least the people’s right to being consulted on matters that will affect every major aspect of their lives.

While a heated discussion among officials has been focused on the establishment of an Arab parliament and a court of justice, the public has been yearning for basic civil and political rights within their countries.

At present, most Arab countries either have no parliament, due to the constitutional set up such as dynastic monarchies, or have parliaments of little or no real power.

Moreover, while Arab leaders try to bridge their differences on the issue of reforms, their people have been drifting in the opposite direction, doubting the value of organisations such as the Arab League.

Many Arabs criticise the league for its inability to unveil a viable political and social reform package for the region. 

They have lost confidence in the Arab plan to change the current state of affairs.

They argue that any adopted measure would dwindle into a modest reform agenda that looks unlikely to stimulate political breakthroughs in a region where authoritarian rule is widespread and where reform would threaten the very existence of many regimes.

Some critics also argue that any kind of reform will be merely cosmetic and will not achieve any real steps on the path toward democracy.

Source: Al Jazeera

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