The Arab reform debacle is widening as Arab leaders
fail to achieve either a unified or a comprehensible vision for their own countries.
Under various guises and pretenses, the Arab Summit in Tunisia last May only
deepened the impression that Arab leaders are incapable of devising their own
My worst fear is now unfolding: an imported vision of reform and democracy
in the Middle East may be the only feasible – though the least beneficial –
The utter failure of Arab leaders to develop a genuine reform agenda in Tunis
must have generated untold bitterness among millions of already disheartened
On the other hand, such a shortcoming also presented an opportunity to the
U.S. government to further market its own designs in the region. Cleverly, the
U.S. responded to regional dissatisfaction and European reservations to its
Greater Middle East Initiative (GMEI) – leaked to a London-based newspaper last
February – with some cosmetic changes: It is now the Partnership for Progress
and a Common Future with the Region of the Broader Middle East and North Africa.
The wordy title, unleashed during the G8's annual meeting, can still be called
the GMEI, since it retains the condescending tone of the earlier plan. To appease
some critical Arab governments, the repackaged plan now refers to the "resolution
of long-standing, often bitter disputes, especially the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict (as) an important element of progress in the region," as if such
a clause will override scores of UN resolutions that have not been enforced.
However, it seems that the main players in this reform charade are catering
to each other's political and economic needs, rather than fulfilling the conditions
a truly democratic endeavor requires.
For example, the Arab League Summit's final statement last May condemning
the "indiscriminate killing" of Israeli and Palestinian civilians
was obviously a response to outside pressures, particularly American, to label
any form of Palestinian resistance "terrorism." This murky condemnation
comes at a time when Arab countries remain unwilling to genuinely support Palestinian
The condemnation compelled the U.S. to invite some Arab countries to the G8
summit so that it might appear that Arab governments have a say in their nations'
futures, which some fear will be wholly shaped by the world's only superpower.
There has also been a change of emphasis in the U.S. on the nature, scope
and reach of reforms.
Certain neoconservatives in the Bush administration who have touted Middle
East reforms on exclusively ideological and strategic grounds are being silenced
in favor of others who demand that economic considerations take prominence.
It was quite a change to see officials such as Undersecretary of State of
Economic, Business and Agricultural Affairs Alan P. Larson telling a group of
Arab journalists in Washington in early June that reforms are good for business.
(Compare this to the neocon claims that the U.S. has a moral responsibility
to change the "Arab mind" and make Iraq a beacon of democracy in the
"We think it is possible for business leaders from the region and from
outside the region to give good advice to governments about the sort of policy
environment that would make it possible to see those investments increasing
greatly," Larson said. "We do believe that creating the circumstances
that make the investors confident about bringing money to the Middle East is
one of the single most important things we can do."
From the timing and substance of the U.S. reform initiative in the Middle
East and the subsequent Arab response, one can confidently conclude that all
talk of Middle East reform is self-centered, in strategic, economic or political
terms. What has been almost completely discounted is the plight of those whose
welfare should have been kept in the forefront of any sincere democratic change:
the disenfranchised, largely unemployed and freedom-deprived Arab masses.
Although it is never easy to measure Arab public opinion, it seems that while
many Arabs distrust U.S. policies in the region, they don't reject the concept
of reform; they simply hope their leaders would be prudent enough to pursue
internal reforms that help regular Arabs. At one point, there seemed to be a
hidden desire among ordinary Arabs that U.S. pressure would inspire the region's
leaders to focus on the well-being of the people, not the maintenance of their
Arab governments can negotiate their way out of the reform debacle through
concessions to the U.S. and Israel. The U.S. government can also make a show
of changing its priorities in the Middle East with non-binding assertions, such
as the addition of the Arab-Israeli conflict clause in the latest version of
If such a reconciliation of interests occurs, the true beneficiaries of genuine
democratic reform, the people of the Middle East, will lose. Unless a serious
shift in priorities occurs, and an Arab civil society that is willing to take
charge of its own destiny emerges, the results will be gloomy. Then, no matter
what it's called, the "Greater Middle East" will remain a euphemism
for stagnation, injustice and imperialism.
The content of this article was the subject of discussion on National Public
Radio's "Talk of the Nation" with Neal Conan on June 7.