Edition 40 Volume 6 - October 30, 2024

What are the vital challenges facing the region in the coming decade: II

Democracy, solidarity, sovereignty and tolerance -   Shlomo Avineri

No satisfactory explanation has been given for this "Arab exceptionalism".

Are reforms coming? -   Safa A. Hussein

Iraq has crossed a threshold and is on course toward stability and normality.

To become more than a geographic region -   Ali Jarbawi

We need to evolve into a region characterized by cooperation and the pursuit of common interests.

Israel and the lack of democracy -   Saad N. Jawad

The roots of instability were planted by the failure to justly resolve the Arab-Jewish struggle over Palestine.

Democracy, solidarity, sovereignty and tolerance
 Shlomo Avineri

When asked what will be the key challenge in the next decade for the Middle East, most people would point to the necessity of solving the Arab-Israel conflict and, more specifically, its Palestinian dimension. This is obviously a major challenge, crucial for the future of Israel just as it is for the Palestinians, yet it tends to overshadow some other, equally crucial and more structural dilemmas facing the region. Some of these challenges are common to all--or many--of the countries involved. Others are specific to individual states.

Looking at the more structural issues, the democracy deficit is the major challenge facing the Arab countries of the region. As succinctly pointed out in the UNDP Arab Human Development Report a few years ago, the Arab region is unique in the lack of significant development toward democracy. The last two decades have seen tremendous progress in this regard in practically all regions of the world: post-communist Eastern and Central Europe, Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. The only area that did not experience such a development--whether through grass-roots protest movements or through reforms from above--is the Arab world: neither a Havel nor a Walesa nor a Gorbachev has appeared in the Arab region.

Some western observers have made Islam responsible for this deficit, but this is obviously false for two reasons. First, just as Christianity--initially violently opposed to democracy--learned to adjust, the same can happen to Islam. Second, Turkey, Indonesia and Bangladesh show that democratization can take place in Muslim-majority countries. Even Iran shows elements of representation, including participation of women, that are far more developed--despite the basically oppressive nature of the regime--than anything to be found in Arab countries (Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad was, after all, elected in tightly contested elections only in the second round).

That this democracy deficit is common to all Arab countries, whether large or small, rich or poor, religiously conservative or at least partially secularized, points to a common challenge. While no satisfactory explanation has been given until now for this "Arab exceptionalism", it is obviously connected to the weakness of civil society and traits such as a lack of philosophically and socially legitimized individualism that should be addressed openly and honestly.

Lest this be misunderstood, let me clearly state that any attempt to impose democratization from outside by force (e.g., in Iraq) is both morally reprehensible and politically doomed to failure. The burden is on Arab societies themselves to create the preconditions necessary for the emergence of democracy. This means not only elections but the whole panoply of democratic culture, including how to integrate Islam into a modern, open society.

A second deficit is a solidarity deficit. In the Arab League, Arab countries have a powerful instrument of political articulation on the international scene and it has shown its muscle (with varying degrees of success) on such issues as Palestine and the confrontation with Israel. But it has failed as a vehicle for social and economic equalization between the rich and the poor in the Arab world. With some Arab countries enormously rich due to oil and sparse populations and other countries poor and heavily over-populated, an overarching Arab Marshall Plan could have transformed the entire Arab world into a rich, economically developed region, a mega-Korea. Some oil-rich Arab governments have developed mechanisms to aid some of the poorer Arab countries and some transfers have taken place, sometimes with political strings attached. But just as European Union countries have paved the way for new members by the massive infusion of funds so as to bring countries like Greece, Portugal, Spain and Ireland closer to the standard of living of older EU members, something similar could have been done--and still can be done--among members of the Arab League where solidarity already exists culturally and linguistically yet lacks concrete expression in the economic and social fields.

Thirdly, and this is more specific, there is a sovereignty deficit when it comes to Lebanon. The fact that Syria has not yet fully accepted Lebanese sovereignty has caused this country to be drawn into a number of conflicts in which it had no direct stake. In the process, this has also played havoc with Lebanon's internal political structure, which had more elements of democracy and representiveness than any other Arab country. Lately, some steps in this direction have been taken by Syria but they are still incomplete and do not address some of the structural issues involved.

Last and not least, there is a tolerance deficit regarding minorities. In this case, it is Turkey that has to come to terms with the existence of its large Kurdish minority: the Kemalist disregard for minorities and its construction of Turkish nationhood as a seamless garment has to be revisited.

Many more challenges can be mentioned, not the least regarding Israel. The reason I did not deal with Israel is because there is a rich literature focusing on its problems. In contrast, the issues I tried to address here receive, in my view, less attention than they deserve, and addressing them is crucial to the future development of the region.- Published 30/10/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Shlomo Avineri is professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and former director-general of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Among his many books are "The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx" and "The Making of Modern Zionism".

Are reforms coming?
 Safa A. Hussein

Throughout its long history, the Middle East has been a major center of world affairs. It will largely remain in the headlines in the next decade, as it focuses the world's attention on issues related to political and economic reforms, violence and conflict, terrorism and nuclear weapons. These issues are important for the West in particular because they threaten its interests--directly on its own territory as in the case of transnational terrorism, or with regard to oil exports as an aspect of regional conflict. Many people believe that stability and development in the region, which is generally underdeveloped and politically unstable, can only be achieved through economic and political reforms.

The Bush administration believed that such developments could only emerge through democratization. The 2024 National Security Strategy stated, "promoting democracy is the most effective long-term measure for strengthening international stability, reducing regional conflicts, countering terrorism and terror-supporting extremism, and extending peace and prosperity." Yet the greater Middle East project that aimed to extend democracy to the entire region was hardly successful. Indeed, the lesson from the Iraq war is that imposing democracy from the outside is too costly. Thus the key questions we address are: what are the chances that political and economic reforms will take place in the region during the next decade, and what are the obstacles to reform?

Iraq has crossed a threshold and is on course toward stability and normality. Elsewhere, however, developments anticipated in the region in the next few years could inspire opposition and demands for political reform. The existing regimes will resist and in the best case will maneuver tactically to implement easily reversible reforms. Leaders are frightened to let go of power insofar as this might cost them not only their social, political and economic dominance but, in some cases, their lives.

Another tactic that regimes may adopt is to play the sectarian game. They may portray the democratization process in Iraq as the revival and ascendance to power of Shi'ite Islam in order to incite fear among Sunnis in countries with Shi'ite populations. In addition, Arab regimes may use the Arab-Israel conflict and increased Arab-Iranian tensions as excuses for domestic repression. Conflict would then be cited to rationalize the diversion of national resources into excessively strong national security establishments, thus hindering political and economic reforms.

Some of the Arab-Iranian tensions are based on territorial disputes, as is the case with the UAE; others are based on political differences, e.g., with Saudi Arabia over Lebanon. But the most serious tensions are based on the fear of Iranian promotion of "revolutionary Islam" that could destabilize other countries. There are also concerns about Iran acquiring nuclear weapons that would give it extra leverage in potential future disputes with its neighbors. Competition between Iran and the US in the region could fuel Arab-Iranian tensions even more. The implications of a US or Israeli military operation against Iran over the nuclear issue could be disastrous to the already weak political reform process in the area.

High oil prices might be good for the region in the short term, but not necessarily over time. Current high oil prices (assuming they don't drop any further) would temporarily allow the oil-producing regimes to continue practices such as public sector domination, high government spending, buying off major social constituencies and elites and enforcing regime power, thus rendering it easier to avoid political and economic reforms that would otherwise be necessary. If prices continue to fall in the next 5-15 years as some specialists anticipate, demands for political change will become extremely acute at the same time that regimes have fewer resources to counter them, thus possibly producing a major crisis for the oil-producing regimes.

Some regimes could seek foreign support to oppress their oppositions by stoking American and European fears of the rise of Islamic governments if elections are held. They would exploit the fact that in many countries in the region the major opposition groups are Islamic. Similar arguments were made by the same regimes in the 1960s to gain US support against the "socialist" opposition of the day. If the US supports these authoritarian regimes the political situation will stagnate, US credibility as a promoter of democratization will be lost and popular Islamic parties will become more radical.

Radicalism could also be greatly affected by developments in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Saudi Arabia remains the sponsor of Salafism, the basis of many terrorists' ideology. The power of radical Islamists in Pakistan is very worrying. US policy toward Pakistan is mainly Afghanistan-oriented. A political vacuum in Pakistan might have disastrous consequences. Yet it is unlikely that al-Qaeda will regain its position as a centralized hierarchical organization as it was prior to its defeat in Iraq. Rather, terrorism will become increasingly diffuse and the region will witness the growth of small, decentralized movements.- Published 30/10/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Safa A. Hussein is a former deputy member of the dissolved Iraqi Governing Council. He served as a brigadier general in the Iraqi Air Force. Currently he works in the Iraqi National Security Council.

To become more than a geographic region
 Ali Jarbawi

There are many pressing challenges facing the countries of this neighborhood, but perhaps the most pressing is to actually become more than simply a geographic region whose boundaries were drawn by outsiders and colonizers. We need to evolve into a region characterized by cooperation and the pursuit of common interests--a real community of nations.

In our so-called region there are many, many long-standing disputes and unresolved issues that set nation against nation and divide our societies. There is, for instance, Israel, which refuses a settlement to its conflict with the Palestinians unless on its own, unreasonable terms. It continues to reject the Arab peace initiative, which would close this file, and so instead the conflict simmers and continues to be a major driver of regional instability. Iran, on the other hand, in its determined pursuit of power and influence in the region, is promoting fractures along ethnic and religious lines that go far beyond the Sunni-Shi'te divide.

We have also been "blessed" with oil. Our large oil reserves are the main reason for major powers to interfere in our internal affairs. This meddling has divided the countries of the region against each other making them easier to control. This has been the case since the beginning of the last century, is true today and will be so for the foreseeable future. We must redouble our efforts to neutralize this tool that has been used to divide us for too long.

Foreign interference, driven primarily by energy-related interests, has resulted in an increasing animosity toward the West, and the US in particular. Conflict and occupation in Iraq have fueled the growth of mutual distrust and hostility between the West and Arabs and Muslims. This has culminated in a broad-spectrum jihad against liberal democratic institutions that fails to acknowledge what we can and must learn from the western experience. Reversal of this trend will require sustained efforts in which we, as a regional community, need to take the initiative. We must lead the effort to stabilize and build states in our region through negotiation and consensus, instead of leaving the way clear for misguided and counterproductive foreign interventions.

Internally, Arab states are in disarray and Israel is looking increasingly fractured domestically. There are three major challenges we must confront. First, most of the states face a problem of legitimacy as a result of regime stagnation. The major concern of every regime seems simply to be self-preservation. In many Arab states, there is now hardly any recognizable difference between republics and monarchies. None allow any genuine political participation, there is little respect for citizens' rights and freedoms and democracy is a distant dream. In addition, because the regimes are mainly concerned with their own survival, the delivery of public services is very poor, souring and disintegrating their relations with their citizens.

The second challenge, which may have arisen as a result of the first, is the surge of traditionalism and conservatism over modernity and liberalism. This reactionary trend has nurtured the phenomenon of terrorism, both internal and international. It's a challenge to be reckoned with. Israel is not immune--its rightist and orthodox sectors are also problematic in this regard.

It is little wonder then that regimes consume all their energy simply surviving. That in turn means little money or effort is devoted to the third challenge facing the countries of this neighborhood: to develop their societies. Across the region there is rising poverty, illiteracy and greater economic disparity and the Arabs lag far behind in terms of scientific and technological achievement.

If we do not face up to these challenges, there is a very real possibility of state collapse. Vibrant, visionary, committed and bold leadership is needed. Sadly, our track record is not encouraging. In the 1960s and 1970s, the main concern of Arab states was Arab unity and the dream was a United Arab States. Today, because of a lack of trust, regime rivalries and a toothless Arab League that has failed to come up with regional solutions to regional problems, states are facing a real danger of disintegration. Rather than Arab unity, countries like Sudan, Iraq and Lebanon face a very imminent danger of fragmentation. Israel, the US and Europe, whose policies have reinforced this regional disintegratiion, have demonstrated great irresponsibility in postponing the completion of a comprehensive regional peace agreement. To all intents and purposes, under the noses of the US and Europe, Israel has ignored its long-term interests in favor of a short-sighted quest for more territory and natural resources.

Perhaps it is the clear and present danger of collapsing states that will finally help forge a community, crossing all ethnic and religious boundaries, committed to working together to find solutions to the challenges in our neighborhood. Our nations need to face reality, tackle the problems that have festered in our neighborhood for decades and become serious player in the broader international community that shapes responses to global challenges. If we do not, the current trend of stagnation, fragmentation and disintegration will continue to drive regional instability and ultimately condemn us to the role of permanent bystander.- Published 30/10/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Ali Jarbawi is professor of political science at Birzeit University.

Israel and the lack of democracy
 Saad N. Jawad

The challenges facing the Middle East in the coming decades are numerous. Some of these challenges are existential. The region is in danger of being divided into even smaller entities. While offset by the abundance of oil, most of the region suffers a dangerous scarcity of water. Across the region, religious ideology is in the ascendancy and the methods of extremism and terrorism are rising with it. Meanwhile, states have failed spectacularly in building democratic and affluent societies. Wise leadership could tackle all these issues, but foreign interference makes this difficult.

One could argue that the roots of instability in the region were planted by the failure to justly resolve the Arab-Jewish struggle over Palestine in the beginning of the last century, with the West favoring Zionist demands over Arab ones. The main challenge to the region in the last century was undoubtedly the establishment of a Jewish state in its midst, coupled with the denial of the same for Palestinians and later the refusal to accept the return of refugees after their forced exodus from Palestine.

From then on, this conflict only deepened and its repercussions for the region were dramatic. One side pursued an aggressive expansionist policy and the other single-mindedly insisted on regaining the whole of Palestine. On a regional level, most of the turbulent upheavals here were in some way related to the conflict. Five major wars and several minor ones were fought over the issue, and Arab regimes were either toppled or faced harsh domestic criticism for not facing down the Zionist presence. But instead of ushering in more open regimes, changes of rule turned out to be dictatorial ones.

The unexpected visit of Anwar Sadat, the late Egyptian president, to Israel in 1977 and the Camp David agreements in the following years that were meant to provide a diplomatic solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict only plunged the Middle East further into confusion and brought resolution no closer. Perhaps the most dangerous result of Israeli intransigence in the face of war and diplomacy equally has been the ascendancy of Islamic militant groups. Israel is involved in several attempts at destabilizing the region and in return, countries of the region are extending assistance to elements threatening Israel. These efforts will surely continue in the absence of any just and acceptable solution to the Palestinian dilemma, a solution that must enable Palestinians to establish their own state at least over the territories occupied in 1967.

Thus the long-standing failure to establish a Palestinian state will continue to be the greatest challenge to the region and the longer it continues the more this challenge will grow. The heavy backing the Jewish state receives from the US and the West only add to this challenge.

Within the countries of the region, one can fairly say that the lack of democracy is the second important challenge facing the Arab Middle East. It is interesting to note that the colonial powers, especially the British who managed to establish fairly stable democratic regimes in Asia and to a lesser extent in Africa, failed completely in the Arab world. As a result, instability has prevailed as majorities in different countries have been deprived of the possibility of participating in the political process.

Of course, this challenge is closely related to the first one. Many regimes have argued that in order to meet Israeli aggression they have had to rule with an iron hand. The truth is probably the opposite. Most regimes have seen their popular legitimacy eroded because of their adherence to dictatorial methods, while opposition movements have gained legitimacy as a result of regimes' failure to find a just solution to the Palestinian problem. Some scholars argue that Britain, and later the US, only supported dictatorial and backward regimes precisely in order to put the Arab nation at a disadvantage in the Arab-Israel struggle. That position has been boosted by the occupation of Iraq and the fast-fading promises to establish a democratic oasis there that would serve as an example for the rest of the region.

Indeed, most Middle East analysts today argue that the West has no intention whatsoever of establishing democracy in the region. The interests of the West, these analysts argue, lie in propping up regimes that will sign diplomatic agreements with Israel and ensure the flow of oil. Indeed, it is a sad fact that the affluent Arab oil-producing countries have not exerted any efforts to create democratic and developed societies but have rather overseen the slide of this region into one of the most corrupt in the world.

Yet western politicians fail to see that their interests will be much more greatly endangered by the growing antagonism toward them in this part of the world. It is partly this antagonism that makes the challenges of the region challenges for the world.- Published 30/10/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Saad N. Jawad is a professor of political science at Baghdad University.

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