Discussion of reform in the Arab countries is focused mainly on the nature of the regimes and the lack of democracy. But governments are products of the societies they govern and in Arab countries it is often society, as much as the government itself, that stands in the way of progress. In Kuwait, for instance, it was not the hereditary Emir who resisted granting votes to women but reactionary elements in the elected parliament – and there are plenty of similar examples.
“Social discrimination is the greatest of all ailments facing Arab societies today,” Hussein Shobokshi, a board member of the Mecca Chamber of Commerce, observed during a TV debate. “It creates government in its own image but it also poisons the mentality for reform and definitely for democracy … While governments have been introducing little windows of opportunity to reform, there has been great popular resistance against equality based on gender and race from the people.”
Khaled Diab, an Egyptian-born journalist, summed up the problem more pithily: “Egypt has a million Mubaraks,” he said. In other words, the Mubarak way of doing things is not confined to the country’s president; it is found throughout Egyptian society, in business and even within families.
In order to understand the problems of reform in the Middle East we have to look beyond the obvious questions of ending dictatorships, holding free elections and so forth, to consider the broader picture. When we look at Arab societies as a whole, the issue is not simply one of good versus evil, or tyrants versus the rest. Instead, we see people who are not only oppressed and denied rights by their rulers but who also, to varying degrees, are participants in a system of oppression and denial of rights. Thus, the oppressed often become oppressors themselves, victims become victimisers too, and acknowledging that fact is the first step towards a solution.
Based on the book, What’s Really Wrong with the Middle East, this section explores the Arab “reform problem” from a variety of different angles – the social, economic and educational systems as well as the political systems. It also considers the effects ofcorruption and wasta (or cronyism).
No one can deny that people in the Arab countries lack many basic rights and freedoms. Nor can anyone deny that democracy – to the limited extent that it is practised there – is seriously deficient, allowing autocratic regimes to survive without much risk of being removed by the people they govern. At the same time, though, it is a mistake to characterise the Middle East as some kind of latter-day Soviet Union (as the Bush administration tended to do), or to equate freedom with democracy (again, as President Bush often did, using the words almost interchangeably). Freedom and democracy are not unrelated, but nor are they one and the same.
Addressing the Arab “freedom deficit”, as it is sometimes known, is not just a matter of applying the “town square test” adopted by the former US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice:
If a person cannot walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm, then that person is living in a fear society, not a free society.
The town square test is meant to provide a simple yes-or-no way of distinguishing between “fear” societies and “free” societies but it is of limited usefulness: no Arab country today fits totally into either category. People are still imprisoned from time to time for expressing their views; there are still many taboos and red lines – and yet an increasingly wide range of opinions can be found in print, on television and on the internet. Focusing on freedom in this narrow sense also obscures other denials of liberty which may be less dramatic than dragging people off to jail and torturing them but are actually far more important in terms of the numbers affected and their ultimate consequences.
Put simply, the Arab “freedom deficit” results in a stultifying atmosphere where change, innovation, creativity, critical thinking, questioning, problem-solving, and virtually any kind of nonconformity are all discouraged if not necessarily punished. Along with that, there are systematic denials of rights that impinge on the lives of millions: discrimination based on ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality or family background; inequality of opportunity, impenetrable bureaucracies, arbitrary application of the law; and the lack of transparency in government – to mention just a few.
Arab Human Development Reports
These reports, prepared by the UN Development Programme, provide a basis for much of the debate about Arab reform. The 2002 report identified three "deficits" in the Arab world - a freedom deficit, a knowledge deficit, and a deficit in women's empowerment. Available in English, Arabic and French. See also background commentary (The Economist, 4 July 2002).
Arab Reform Bulletin
A monthly bulletin covering various countries in the region. (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace)
Democracy and reform
Articles on change in the Middle East, by Brian Whitaker of The Guardian
Arab Reform and Foreign Aid
Lessons from Morocco. By Haim Malka and Jon Alterman. Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2006
Is the U.S. retarding Arab reform?
by Rami Khouri (Daily Star, May 18, 2005)
Greater Middle East Partnership
Text of the "working paper" circulated by the United States in preparation for the G-8 summit scheduled for June 2004.