President Mubarak on Arab reform

Opening speech by President Hosni Mubarak to the "Arab reform conference" in Alexandria, Egypt, on 12 March 2004

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Ladies and Gentlemen.

It is my pleasure to welcome you all in Egypt at the onset of your pioneering conference on "Arab Reform: Vision and Implementation". This conference, held today at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, which represents a beacon of culture and science in the Mediterranean, adds historical and cultural value to your determined endeavors towards modernization, development and reform, and, underscores its concern for bringing to life our Arab heritage to guide us towards a more brilliant and prosperous future.

Our peoples believe in the need to modernize, develop and keep up with the spirit of the age, as well as make use of what has been offered, and is still offered, by globalization in terms of opportunities to end the standing structural problems in the political, economic and social framework of Arab states and societies in order to achieve the desired progress in these areas, and address the ambitions and wishes of their people towards a better future. However, these efforts have not succeeded yet to close the gap between the development we have achieved and our ability to adjust to the rapid changes on the regional and national fronts.

Many conferences, meetings and seminars have been held in the Arab world revolving around formulating a clear Arab vision to close this gap through exerting a greater effort in the areas of reform and modernization; an effort that would eliminate the negative aspects of the past and ensure that we retain our identity and Arab and Islamic specificity. These conferences have, without doubt, succeeded in bringing out the interest of our Arab societies, from the Ocean to the Gulf, in setting and implementing continuous progress policies to interact with the international challenges and variables and maintain our own interests.

In light of this, your conference today has a pivotal importance that stems from several considerations:

First: Calling for this conference as an initiative from a number of Arab non-governmental organizations and business councils, and its representation of the largest possible sector of specialists, intellectuals, writers, researchers and, those interested in various Arab issues, without the participation of governments.

Second: This conference and its ambitious agenda could form a comprehensive Arab center in which all the results of previous conferences and meetings are fused to produce a comprehensive wide-range Arab vision of reform and modernization which covers the political, economic and social aspects in the Arab world. This will also be the biggest proof of our Arab societies' ability to arrive at all-embracing visions, and to provide the principle motivation for Arab governments to achieve real partnership with civil society with regard to modernization and development.

Third: This conference convenes right before the forthcoming Arab Summit in Tunisia at the end of this month. As such, this represents a valuable opportunity that Arab governments should seize to promote the implementation of a joint government/people outlook towards reform and modernization within a framework that leads to a comprehensive strategic Arab direction representing the views and ambitions of our people.

Fourth: This conference is concurrent with the ongoing international debate about the several initiatives that have been put forth regarding issues of reform in the Arab world. These initiatives are being considered for discussion in different international and regional meetings, with the purpose of adopting plans for modernization and reform in the Middle East , while the Arab nation has not, as yet, come up with a national comprehensive vision for these issues.

All the governments and the peoples of the Arab region have agreed that our strategy towards achieving a better future is based on two basic dimensions. The first is endorsing the modernization and development efforts that are based on the exclusive vision of Arab societies and, on the cooperation with and fusion between Arab governments and their peoples. The second is promoting a just and comprehensive peace in the Middle East, and seeking to free the area from weapons of mass destruction in order to provide the suitable political atmosphere required to further peace, security and stability as basic components that augment our efforts towards progress and modernization and, establish our direction towards more active regional and international cooperation.

Our Arab countries have exerted great efforts to achieve structural and organizational reform in all areas of political, economic and social life within a framework that bears in mind balancing the positive and negative side effects of reform and takes into consideration the variety of cultural, religious and population formation set-up of each society, and the necessity of following a reform method that would not lead to shaking the stability or allowing extremist or conservative powers to take over reform and gear it towards a direction that is against the direction of society.

Our countries have also strengthened public participation alongside governmental reform efforts in order to render results that would realize people's hopes and ambitions. Thus, public and societal responsibility to present creative views and ideas for reform increased, especially that of civil society organizations and business councils whose ideas should be implemented by governments as a bases for formatting a general national process towards the issue of reform. Moreover, governments should work towards implementing this national scheme through active public and societal participation while, simultaneously, seeking to devise a more comprehensive and specific Arab vision of reform in the Arab world.

There is no doubt that this burdens you, ladies and gentlemen, with great responsibilities, not only by way of offering opinions and taking part in wording and implementing these guidelines, but also through clarifying the real picture to our partners in development and, in the efforts of modernizing and reforming. You are the people who feel the pulse of your societies; the ones who are best equipped to express, in all honesty, the political, economic and social trends of your societies; the most conscious of your peoples' desire for more freedom, democracy, respect for human rights and more economic and social development, and, you are the ones who are most aware of your peoples' determination to do that as a self-motivated initiative without any instruction or obligation.

For our Arab people and societies to exert maximum effort in development, modernization and reform, due attention must be given to the second dimension of our Arab strategy towards attaining a better future through reaching just and comprehensive peace in the Middle East . This is especially important after we presented the comprehensive and daring peace initiative that was approved at the Arab Summit in Beirut . This initiative is still not given due attention for implementation like other initiatives, the last of which is the Road Map that decrees the establishing of an autonomous Palestinian state. Likewise, decisive measures must be taken to remedy the deteriorating situation in Iraq with the aim of restoring security, stability and sovereignty to the country after handling this situation revealed obvious duality of standards when it comes to the possession of weapons of mass destruction.

It should be clear that the persistence of these conditions, added to the deliberate disregard of the daily violations of human rights committed by Israel in the occupied Palestinian territories and of the regional and international condemnation of this, will not help our endeavor to reform but may even strengthen terrorism and extremism which stem from the despair and frustration of Arab societies. This frustration and despair come from the comparison between the external endeavor to force certain reforms on these societies, whether by force or voluntary, and the complete disregard of the violations that other parties commit and is closely related to the international community's and the peace forces' disregard for the dire need of the countries in the Middle East to reach peace, security and stability within a framework of justice, equality and international legitimacy which we consider as bases that promote our efforts towards reform and decrease the extent of extremism and violence.

With regard to this, Egypt has given the example and the model through its strenuous efforts over the past years to resolve the Palestinian problem, and deal politically then militarily with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait , and to augment the spirit of religious moderation, tolerance and cooperation in the area. At the same time, it has achieved pioneering political, economic and social reforms that have brought about tangible progress in all aspects of life. However, our efforts to promote reform in Egypt and the Arab countries will be undermined unless our people feel that the real goal of these efforts is to promote peace, security and stability and not to give another party the chance to control or overpower the whole Arab region.

Ladies and Gentlemen.

If some of the reports have shown shortcomings in the implementation of the plans of development and modernization in Arab societies, a thing that emphasizes the importance of promoting reform efforts with more zeal and seriousness, this, simultaneously, reflects the need for strong external support of our efforts towards modernization and reform, without imposing a uniform external pattern, or aiming to achieve goals that do not agree with the plans of Arab countries in these areas.

In this respect, international cooperation that aims at establishing peace, security and stability will intensify the process of modernization and reform and deepen the national commitment to move forward with reform and overcome all obstacles. However, this cooperation should not follow the line of those that call for depending on military means only, but should rather depend on all means of international and regional relations: political, diplomatic, military, commercial preferential agreements and developmental aid, to achieve these goals.

In fact, we already have established frameworks with the world that can deepen this cooperation. The most important among these are the Euro-Mediterranean framework, the partnership agreement with the European Union, which decrees mutual cooperation commitments in various areas of reform, commerce and investment agreements. There is also the free trade agreement with the United States that includes also mutual commitments in the same areas, preferential and development agreements with Japan , China , Russia and other emerging economies and open societies. At the end, all this has to pool into encouraging self initiatives of reform which secure peace, protection and stability to all parties.

We must always take into consideration the importance of enhancing the connection between the efforts to develop the system of mutual Arab endeavor, within the framework of the League of Arab States, and the efforts exerted in each Arab country and in all Arab countries for political, economic and social reform. This should be done within a frame that would preserve the regional Arab identity, without addition or subtraction, and rely on mutual values and principles that are agreed upon in the Arab world.

We also have to start from a deep rooted conviction that Islam calls for modernization, development and keeping up with the spirit of the times. It is a religion that is built on tolerance, fraternity, compassion and not causing harm to others except in the case of self defense. Thus, the international community should not deal with Islamic culture as a culture of extremism and violence but rather as a culture of cooperation and partnership to achieve the best interest of all within a framework of compatibility and the preservation of rights and commitment to duties.

From this comprehensive specific vision of ours for modernization and restructuring, our views and remarks on the initiatives that were presented for Arab reform do not reflect a rejection of reform or a going back on our commitment to improve on the governmental and public levels. They rather reflect a commitment to giving a greater effort in that area if these initiatives underscore the Arab countries' abilities to conduct their own reforms through strengthening cooperation and partnership and opening up to the international community on a basis of equality and mutual respect.

Ladies and Gentlemen.

From this perspective we have embarked on our own path towards political reform in Egypt some years back with the aim of continuing, developing and strengthening political practice. We have given special care to establish the fundamental basis for the institutional structure of the state, to create a democratic atmosphere that places citizenship, equal opportunity and freedom of expression, regardless of gender or religion, as fundamental rights that augment both public participation and the role of the civil society. This also guarantees equality among citizens of the state and guarantees their claim to practice all civil and political rights granted them by law and the constitution within the structure of freedom, constitutionality, and the respect of human rights and the sovereignty of the law under the umbrella of a just judicial system that enriches our democratic experience.

Corresponding to all this, we have pioneering efforts in development and economic reform through which we have succeeded in the transformation from a guided market to market economy. We have also encouraged the private sector's strong participation in the national economy and we have, and will still, exert strong efforts to remove all red tape obstacles that hamper the emergence of new industries which could employ large numbers of the work force and aid in solving the problem of unemployment and, at the same time, increase exports. We have also given additional benefits that would encourage more foreign and national investments and we have taken courageous decisions, the most important of which was the liberating foreign exchange transactions and the restructuring of our financial, taxation and customs systems. We also limited the role of the state to the economic and strategic areas that are related to the well being of the majority of the people, and guarantee the monitoring of our economic movement.

On the social scale, our reform focused on improving education on all levels and erasing illiteracy and we have accomplished great achievements in the area of health as well. The government also doubled its efforts to provide basic services to the citizens, protect those with lower incomes, and give due attention to human development, especially for young people and women with the aim of providing better opportunities for a decent life and for the nurturing of new generations capable of assuming responsibility everywhere.

Ladies and gentlemen.

If we have the right to feel pride in what has been achieved by Arab countries in the path to reform and modernization, a thing that has brought a change in the quality of life and in the centers around which our societies are built, we must, at the same time, realize that our Arab world is today on the threshold of a new phase. A new phase in which we should aim at augmenting all the gains that we have achieved and strengthening the roots of reform to lay the foundations from which we can move forward towards the desired revival in all aspects of life, based on a conscious partnership between the state and society.

Egypt has taken a strategic decision to move forward towards achieving these goals by continuing to develop education and upgrade it. This decision is based on a wise insight and a strong will that will allow us to catch up with the revolution in knowledge. The future of our countries and of the coming generations depends now, undeniably, on the extent of our ability to engage in the areas of science and knowledge that are now expanding in an unprecedented manner.

This requires the re-structuring of the educational system, on all levels, on bases that secure the right of education to all, improve the quality of education and produce open minded mentalities that are capable of dealing with the spirit and challenges of the age; intellects that do not depend on traditional thinking but rather on creativity, innovation, research and criticism. This will enable our children to participate in building a modern society and enhance the chances of our societies to become functional in world competition.

This requires the re-structuring of the educational system, on all levels, on bases that secure the right of education to all, improve the quality of education and produce open minded mentalities that are capable of dealing with the spirit and challenges of the age; intellects that do not depend on traditional thinking but rather on creativity, innovation, research and criticism. This will enable our children to participate in building a modern society and enhance the chances of our societies to become functional in world competition.

Similarly, we have started to lay the foundations for a modern economy to begin a new phase based on launching economic energies in all sectors under the umbrella of free competition with the aim of raising the rate of development, promoting production, encouraging national and international investments and, modernizing the industrial and services infrastructure to increase our capacities for international competition.

Nevertheless, adopting the free market economy does not mean absolving the state of its role and giving in to market powers without regulations. On the contrary, it means, primarily, finding a functional institutional framework capable of adjusting the tempo and monitoring the performance of the market and guaranteeing free competition and flexible response to the economic changes that are imposed by the increasing integration with international economy. Thus, we have engaged in setting a comprehensive economic reform program to allow us to cross over from the phase of structural reform, which was the focus of our efforts over the past two decades, to the phase of institutional and legislative development and modernization corresponding to our policy in liberating the national economy.

This goes hand in hand with our perseverant attempt to move ahead with the policies of liberating trade which stems from the belief that our economic future depends on reaching markets abroad and promoting export through an ambitious program to upgrade national industries. If reforming our internal structures depends on creating the institutional frame necessary for managing economic activity, our external direction to find new trade outlets also depends on augmenting dealings with our trade partners within a system of agreements that secures competition based on compatibility and expands our competition privileges while feeling confident that we are capable of international competition.

Linked to all the above, the implementation of our ambitious vision of and promising hopes for reform will, undoubtedly, come up against great challenges that should not discourage us to continue moving ahead with executing what we have committed ourselves to. In fact, this should encourage us to exert more effort, take firm steps and have unwavering resolve based on new ideas and a wise vision; a vision that emphasizes that meeting these challenges is not the sole responsibility of the state but rather the responsibility of society as a whole.

Since the state undertook the task of setting the fundamental basis for a modern society, this new phase of reform requires active participation from all sectors of society to make it a principal partner in the process of development. Here, it becomes a necessity to strengthen the path of political reform parallel to our endeavor to move forward with the process of economic and social reform.

Our experience has proved that our achievements over the past decades and the challenges that we have overcome by the will of our people have been achieved by allowing public freedom of opinion, expression and political participation. Now that we are heading towards more complicated challenges, enforced by the forthcoming phase that we have decided to embark on, we must enhance our democratic path according to a clear vision of political reform.

This vision must rely on an important pivot that includes expanding public participation in political and social life. Developing our political institutions and political parties, in particular, should be our starting point. These should be a real platform for the expression of the hopes and ambitions of the people, offering solutions for their problems according to party programs that are capable of seriously handling the challenges of real life and work to preserve the best interests of the people within an active multi-party parliamentary system.

From the same perspective, we have worked on developing the constitutional and institutional framework that directs the activities of the civil society and its organizations, which represent the real center for reform. In the light of international political and social developments, we have to be aware that the strength of nations is no longer measured by their military power or their economic performance only but is also measured by the extent of the vitality of their societies and the potential of their people as represented in their unions, culture, cooperative and civil organizations that all work together to advance the lives of people in all areas and represent the solid foundation that preserves national unity and social stability.

Moreover, our democratic endeavors cannot be completed without enhancing respect for human rights. This should not be done only through establishing a functional institutional structure, primarily activating the role of civil society, to preserve the basic rights and self-respect of the individual, but should also be done through instilling the general principles and values of human rights in all sectors of society. Thus, we will be able to create a political and cultural atmosphere that augments this direction and so respect the constitution and the laws that we have made sure should state that the right of the citizen represents a fundamental pillar in our society. This is closely linked to the great importance we give to removing all forms of discrimination against women to further enhance a pioneering pathway that was rooted in Egypt in the early part of the last century and, promoting the complete participation of Egyptian women in all areas which stems from our conviction of their central role in achieving the desired social revival.

Ladies and Gentlemen.

In this critical phase of our nation's history, I have great faith that Arab societies are capable of meeting the challenges ahead of us and capable of arming themselves with all our potential to achieve the desired development in our societies. However, this cannot be achieved except by adopting new ideas and a progressive, intelligent vision: a vision that would allow Arab countries to make use of successful experiences of other Arab countries in the various areas of modernization and development.

A vision that will permit us to make maximum use of our own potential in the Arab world to develop and upgrade our societies, including promoting investments, augmenting inter-trade, and strengthening mutual interdependence between Arab governments and the Arab peoples.

A vision that would allow us to make the best use of The League of Arab States to formulate unified positions on important and pressing issues to emphasize that the Arab nation has a strong will and is capable of handling challenges and changes no matter how great they may be.

A vision that will enable us to deal with the outside world from the position of cooperation and institutional work that aim at unifying our interests and directions towards dealing with other geographically and ideologically different groups.

A vision that will develop the international view of our tolerant Islamic religion and confirm that extremism and conservatism are an exception and that moderation, tolerance and relations based on compatibility are at the core of our religion.

A rejuvenating vision of how we should present our issues to the world; a vision that underlines what we have achieved, the efforts we have exerted over the years in development and modernization, and how we have fought terrorism and extremism.

I am extremely hopeful that your conference will come out with a clear, enlightened vision that will help our direction towards upgrading and reform. A vision that will also emphasize our willingness to transform this inclination into serious, functional efforts to achieve what is best for our peoples and our societies within a frame that adheres to the noble principles that we have adopted as a bases for our endeavors in these areas, and through our growing openness to the world within the structure of mutual respect based on achieving common interests.

May God bring us success and be our help and aid.