GLOBAL ECONOMIC VIEWPOINT
IS THE ARAB REFORM CHORUS SERIOUS OR FRAUDULENT?
Rami Khouri is editor of the Daily Star in Beirut, Lebanon.
By Rami Khouri
BEIRUT-- One of the striking anomalies that defines the contemporary Middle East is the glaring gap between those who speak about political and economic reform, and those who refuse to put such words into action. The majority of our (mostly non-elected) leaders and (usually hereditary) political elites has mastered a pivotal lesson in the last 60 years or so of post-colonial independence: articulating and parroting the rhetoric that emanates from those in the West, or elsewhere, who provide the cash and guns that maintain the prevailing Middle Eastern political order.
In the 1970s and '80s, many economically dependent Arab states (Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Sudan and others come to mind) spoke the language that reflected the values, concerns and goals of the oil-rich states of the Arabian Peninsula, who were major donors to their poorer Arab cousins. From the late '80s to the mid-'90s, Arab leaders and elites suddenly took on European and Japanese accents, because their critical financial support had shifted heavily to those lands. Today, we hear many Arabs in positions of authority speaking the language of reform, democracy and peace that emanates largely from the United States.
When human rights were the flavor of the decade, the Arab elites swam in that happy basin. When environmental protection, gender issues or poverty reduction were the priorities of donors, we paddled happily in that bountiful pool. And when two years ago fighting terror suddenly dominated the concerns of those who delivered guns and cash, fighting terror became the clarion call and mission statement of many in the Middle East who had long ago mastered the wily craft of ensuring regime incumbency and social order by responding to foreign powers before the local citizenry.
This is an ancient and well-proven formula for national stability, but it is not sustainable for very long. Ruling elites and national authorities in the Middle East can stay in power for a generation or two by relying on foreign support and protection; but they must eventually achieve sustainability and legitimacy by responding to the demands of their own people.
Most Arab regimes and leaderships have struck an impressive balance between these two poles. They have at once enjoyed the critical financial and military support of wealthy foreign donors, while providing their own people just enough stability, schools, hospitals, water and jobs to maintain reasonably stable conditions at home. This formula is nearing the end of its shelf life, however, as most Arab economic and political systems feel the immense impact of domestic population pressures, economic stress and political discontent among citizens who incongruously feel increasingly disenfranchised as they vote in more and more elections.
The latest twist to this saga is how many Arab leaderships have spoken of the need to reform their lands and systems. Jordan, Tunisia, Syria, Lebanon, Qatar, Morocco, Bahrain and others have initiated fascinating reform elements whose seriousness and impact remain to be gauged by history's verdict. The latest player in this crowded field is Egypt -- that bigger-than-life but battered mother lode of modern Arab culture, enigmatic and heart-wrenching, at once Olympian as the towering vanguard of the Arab world, yet pitiful in its relentless slide into economic incompetence and political insignificance.
Egypt has now joined the chorus of Arab reform and may seek to lead the new chant for change in how we manage our economies, teach our children and govern our polities. The ruling National Democratic Party in Egypt -- which predictably and routinely wins every general election with mind-boggling majorities of more than 80 percent -- has just held its annual convention, at which President Hosni Mubarak and his ascending son Gamal spoke of reform like the Pope speaks of the Holy Spirit: It defines us, motivates us, protects us and challenges us.
But the welcomed reform chorus in Egypt and other Arab lands remains untested, unproven, often unconvincing. The common and frequent pledges of reform may turn out to be sincere, or they may prove to be a cruel fraud perpetrated on their own citizens by unelected, unaccountable ruling power elites. I and many others of my generation remember the Arab chorus for human rights in the 1970s, for equitable development in the 1980s, and for liberal democracy in the 1990s; that melodious chorus did not materialize into real change. In retrospect, it was mostly a hoax.
Arab regimes, leaders, offspring, cousins, employees and friends should declare a moratorium on using the word "reform" for the next year, and instead use that time to do two things: first, take the reform debate to the grassroots and communities of the Arab world, and find out what the ordinary citizens fear and want, because reform from above is rarely credible; second, let us achieve a consensus agreement in each Arab country on what we want to achieve and change. The current reform chorus is so vague and broad, and unanchored in any kind of defined, measurable or accountable political process, that it remains largely meaningless, perhaps even insulting to the intelligence and dignity of the average Arab citizen.
A good starting point for this discussion is the recently published World Bank report, Better Governance for Development in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). It notes that public governance -- the ways in which governments interact with citizens or civil society groups to promote social and economic welfare -- is typically weaker in countries in the MENA region than in others at similar income levels. The report also argues that good governance rests on the twin values of inclusiveness and accountability (see parts of it at www.worldbank.org).
The report asserts that inclusiveness, based on equality, "protects people's basic rights, treating everyone uniformly before the law, allowing all to participate in governance, and assuring equal opportunities to access public services." And it documents the poor state of accountability and effective representation in the MENA region, which can hold public figures answerable to their constituents. Accountability depends on public transparency, which is very weak in this region. MENA has the least empirical data on issues that relate to governance, no country assures citizens the right to government information, and most media activities are carefully monitored and controlled, stifling public debate.
Here's my suggestion to Arab leaders and elites who speak of reform every Tuesday and Thursday: hold a series of televised discussions on the World Bank report on national and regional television, with the president, king, emir, sultan, colonel, general or great leader of every MENA country taking part, along with respected scholars, civil society leaders and ordinary citizens. If our leaders, their children and cousins are serious about reform, they must become part of the processes of public political accountability and transparency, and not remain forever hovering and chanting in the chorus above them.
(c) 2003, Rami G. Khouri/Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Tribune Media