DUBAI - In the evolving debate on reforms, Arab intellectuals and common people
continue to emphasize the need for culture- and region-specific democratic reforms
in the Middle East, and strongly oppose the imposition of Western models.
Highlighting the difficulty of implementing a Western tailor-made process without
heeding local and regional circumstances, Omro Hamzawi, senior fellow at the
Washington-based Carnegie Endowment
for International Peace, said: "The availability of a democratic model
that can be exported everywhere is nonsense and has no moral credibility because
of the U.S. tragedies and disasters in Iraq."
"Democracy," said Hamzawi, "is a popular demand in some countries
[but] not so in the Gulf region, as the people don't suffer severe economic
problems and have different concerns. The situation here is completely different,
and each case should be handled separately. Democracy is unacceptable if it
affects the culture it is meant to govern in a negative way."
Stated the secretary general of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Abdul Rahman
bin Hamad al-Attiyah, at a conference organized by the Emirates Center for Strategic
Studies and Research, earlier this month: "The more we try to find homegrown
solutions for [regional] crises, while avoiding the image of reforming under
foreign pressure, the more successful we will be in achieving reforms and realistic
Suggesting areas that require immediate focus, al-Attiyah said, "Domestically,
there should be a way to effectively implement a policy of modernization and
combat social problems such as poverty and illiteracy, while embarking on a
path towards democratization and activating the role of civil society organizations."
While the reforms debate is invariably linked to the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli
conflict in the past, Iraq is now increasingly cited as an example of how "foreign"
solutions are not suited for the region.
Stating that the war in Iraq and the U.S. pressures on the Middle East countries
were having a negative impact, Bourhan Ghalioun, director of the Paris-based
Center for Contemporary Oriental Studies at the Sorbonne University, said, "Since
the U.S. administration came up with its plan to promote democracy in the Middle
East and to stir economic development in the region in order to encounter the
'culture' that breeds terrorism, the administration made deadly mistakes because
it linked its project with protecting Israeli interests."
He explained: "The war to democratize Iraq was the most valuable gift
the American administration has ever given the dictator regimes in the Arab
world. It is a practical example of what democracy means as seen by the Americans.
Arab nations see the war in Iraq as an exercise to secure oil supplies from
the region and to destroy an Arab country for the best interests of Israel."
Even ordinary citizens believe that, while new and innovative ideas and viewpoints
must be considered, local cultural and social conditions must be at the forefront
while conceptualizing reforms for the region.
Amer Moustafa, an Arab working in an oil company, said, "Many countries
in the region have new leaders, and they are taking constructive steps in improving
the political systems. But democracy cannot be achieved in a short period. It
will be successful only if it is planned in stages and takes our culture into
account. Simply following a Western model will be disastrous."
Some experts, however, insist that a combination of Western ideals and internal
reforms would achieve the right balance, and urge countries in the region to
keep an open mind while contemplating reforms.
While agreeing that pressure will not work, Dawood al-Azdi, an academic, reiterated
that Arab nations should cooperate with the West rather than getting involved
in conflict. "Our success in democratization lies in creating a forum for
multilateral dialogue, which can create an atmosphere of mutual trust."
Al-Azdi suggested that Arabs could adapt India's democratic system. "They
[the Indians] have their problems and they are addressing them, and we too should
address ours. We can start from the beginning by uprooting corruption and adopting
Ghalioun said he would go with "pressure," but with a difference.
"It is crucial for reforms in the Arab world because civil society organizations
are weak," he said. "It would perhaps be more acceptable if this pressure
was exerted on Arab regimes by international bodies such as the United Nations
rather than by the U.S."
The current debate also suggests that while reforms are best served if they
are implemented by the governments themselves, depending on their determination
and preparedness, they should not be hastily rejected if enforced by foreign
Experts, however, warn that the reform process could face several obstacles.
Some stress that reformists should focus their efforts on education to achieve
reforms in the Arab world, as people in the region have developed an "unjustifiable
paranoia" against all kinds of reforms, including education, as the project
has been promoted by Western governments following the September 2001 attacks
on the U.S.
Ebrahim Guider, director general of the Cairo-based Arab Labor Organization,
said Arabs also need to achieve economic development to overcome the problem
of rising unemployment. "It is a time bomb that might explode at any time.
The problem lies with corrupt governments, which are hindering the integration
of Arab countries," he said.
(Inter Press Service)