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March 29, 2006

After Iraq, Arabs Wary of 'Western' Democracy


by Meena Janardhan

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 policies."

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 transparency."

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 parties.

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)

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Meena S. Janardhan is a correspondent for Inter Press Service.

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