The Arab League pledges economic and democratic reform. Will it follow through?

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“Amid the bloodshed and bitterness in the Middle East over the past year, one good idea has actually begun to take root: the notion that the Arab world needs political and economic reform to survive.” Thus David Ignatius, the Washington Post columnist, writing last week before Arab leaders gathered in Tunis for a two-day Arab League summit.

This side of the meeting, which took place over the weekend, it’s an open question how deeply rooted that notion is, or how urgent is the sense among Arab leaders that their survival is at stake. True, the session produced a statement of principles containing a commitment to modest political and economic reform; but the summit was lackadaisical affair, marked, as the Los Angeles Times put it, by “a heavy sense of powerlessness.” Libyan president Muammar Qaddafi stormed out during a speech, eight leaders didn’t show up, four other leaders left early, and the documents that came out of the summit are vague by design and unlikely to translate into action anytime soon. (As the New York Times notes, “past summit meetings were littered with weighty resolutions that went nowhere.”)

The meeting was scheduled for March but was called off because Arab states couldn’t agree on a response to the recently floated Greater Middle East Initiative, a Bush administration blueprint for democratic and economic reform in the region. Bottom line: Arab states didn’t want to seem to be doing the U.S.’s bidding. (The plan, or a watered-down version of it, is still being amended and will be presented by the Bush administration to the G-8 summit in June.)

The Arab League, then, wanted to be seen to be taking the initiative in the reform process. To that end the summit declaration promised “broader participation in public affairs” and “responsible freedom of expression,” and called for human rights and the strengthening of the role of women “in line with our faith, values and traditions.”

Arab countries are badly in need of reform. Turki al-Hammad, a Jordanian-born political scientist, told United Press International: “The whole world has changed but the Middle East has not,” adding that “the Middle East is going backward instead of forward.” Claude Salhani, UPI international editor writes:

“The proliferation of the Internet, cellular telephones and satellite television has allowed many Arabs greater access to information than ever before, yet, as Secretary of State Colin Powell pointed out, the entire Arab world of 260 million people has a smaller combined gross domestic product than Spain with 40 million. …

“It is as if we are an isolated island,” said Jasem Mohammed al-Kharafi, speaker of Kuwait’s National Assembly. The absence of participation in public debate and in political decision-making has helped keep the Arab world several steps behind other countries with similar GDPs, levels of education and lifestyles. In most countries in the region, political parties are still banned, and the press is closely controlled, monitored and censored.”

Note that with the exception of Algeria, Tunisia and Lebanon, Arab countries are ruled either by autocrats whose powers are passed on to their progeny, or by self-appointed presidents-for-life, who in many cases try to do the same.

Notes the New York Times: “Although the final document mentioned issues like expanding the role of women, respecting human rights and supporting freedom of expression, it did not detail any specific steps to effect such change in a region that contains the world’s most autocratic governments. Even a participant described the measures as “wishy-washy.”

Rime Allaf, an associate fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, tells the London Guardian that the meeting was “a summit to save face. It’s a futile PR exercise – just to show the people they are not following an American agenda.”

And Michael Young, opinion editor at the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut, tells the Los Angeles Times, “The bottom line is that all the Arabs agree they don’t want real reform, but they’re very divided over how to react to the United States,” said “Everybody here is sort of going through the motions.”

Marwan Bishara, a visiting lecturer at the American University of Paris and the author of “Palestine/Israel: Peace or Apartheid” writes in the International Herald Tribune that “Arab leaders pledged to act collectively to ameliorate their peoples’ lives but produced no mechanism for implementing such intentions.”

Bishara writes that by leaving statements vague, leaders can than interpret “reform” how they please:

“Obsessed with power, Arab leaders speak of regional reforms to please Washington but fail to act on them domestically.

The leaders pledged “broader participation in public affairs,” instead of advocating free and fair elections, and promised “responsible freedom of expression” while reserving for themselves the role of judging what is responsible.

The summit statements mentioned strengthening the role of Arab women but made this conditional on “our faith, values and traditions,” which leaves women at the mercy of conservative interpreters of these cultural and religious categories.”

An editorial in Lebanon’s Daily Star is critical of the leaders’ inability to address the issue of reform. The paper writes “The only good news is that the word “reform,” according to whatever interpretation, is now a matter of general concern across the Middle East”:

“Another charade has drawn to a close. As the curtain falls on the latest performance of the veteran Arab League spectacle, the people of the Arab world wonder at their leaders’ capacity for shifting hot air and not much else. …

A better show was made of it this time: Declarations were signed, and statements made and presented as evidence that Arab leaders had committed themselves and their governments to promoting democracy, civil society and human rights. The declarations and statements, however, were broad, and short on specifics. …

We will not hold our breath waiting for reforms to be implemented, and any expectations centering on the next summit, to be hosted by Algeria, must be circumspect.”

The Post‘s David Ignatius, writing before the summit, took a more optimistic view, sort of.

What’s important right now is that a reform process is about to begin, with Arab sponsorship. As the Bush administration finally seems to understand, trying to impose change from the outside is impossible. And as the Arab leaders will see, so is trying to stop it from the inside, once the momentum gathers.


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