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Ramzy Baroud: Reform as Euphemism for Stagnation

Reform as Euphemism for Stagnation


by Ramzy Baroud

The Arab reform debacle is widening as Arab leaders fail to achieve neither a unified nor a comprehensible position on the collective future of their own countries. Under various guises and pretences, coupled with Qaddafi’s usual and pre-orchestrated fiascos, an Arab Summit held in Tunisia last May only deepened the unfavorable, albeit unsurprising belief that Arab leaders are incapable of formulating indigenous reform initiatives.

One’s worst fear is now actualizing; an imported foreign vision of reform and democracy in the Middle East may be the only feasible – even though the least beneficial – option.

The utter failure of Arab leaders to espouse a genuine reform agenda in Tunis – substituting the urgently needed strategy with an inconclusive and ill-devised Tunis Declaration that will not absolve them from their historic responsibility before the world and their own nations- must have generated untold bitterness among millions of already disheartened Arabs.

On the other hand, such a shortcoming must have also represented an unequalled opportunity to the US government to further market its own designs in the region. Cleverly, the US government 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 long worded title of course, which will be unleashed during the Group of Eight Industrial Countries (G8’s) annual meeting in the state of Georgia, can also be referred to as the GMEI, since the condescending tone of the earlier leaked plan retains its spirit. 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 the greatest international political body, the United Nations, has repeatedly failed to enforce.

However, it seems that the main players in this reforms charade are catering to each other’s political and economic needs, rather than fulfilling the conditions that a true democratic endeavor stipulates.

For example, the Arab League Summit’s final statement last May condemning the “indiscriminate killing” of Israeli and Palestinian civilians was obviously responding to outside pressures, particularly American, who has been adamant in its insistence on labeling any form of Palestinian resistance “terrorism”. This murky condemnation –certainly not an ideological stance - came at a time when Arab countries remain, almost completely out of the loop, as far as tangibly supporting the Palestinian aspiration to achieve an end to the Israeli occupation of their land.

This position compelled reciprocation from the US government: an invitation to some Arab countries to attend the G8 summit, so that it might appear that Arab governments have a say in their nations’ future, feared to be wholly shaped by the will of the world’s only superpower.

In the midst of these seemingly more lenient positions, there has been a change of emphasis on the nature, scope and reach of reforms.

Certain neoconservative elements in the US administration, for example that have touted for Middle East reforms on exclusively ideological and strategic grounds are being silenced, in favor of others who are now discussing a different reforms value in which business and economy claim prominence.

It was quite a shift 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 early June that reforms are good for business. (Compare this to the rhetoric of moral responsibility to change the ‘Arab mind’ infused by the same neo-cons who wanted to make Iraq a beacon of democracy in the Middle East.)

“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, adding, “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 the composition of the US reform initiative in the Middle East and the subsequent Arab response–and to a lesser extent the European handling of the matter- one can confidently conclude that the intensely debated Middle East reform is a play out of self-centered values, be it strategic, economic or political. What has been almost completely discounted is the plight of those whose welfare should’ve been kept in the forefront of any sincere democratic change: the disfranchised, largely unemployed and freedom-deprived Arab masses.

Although it is never easy to measure Arab public opinion, it seems that while many Arabs distrust the US government policies in the region, they don’t reject the concept of reform at hand; they simply hope that their leaders would be prudent enough to espouse internal reforms that cater to the individual Arab, rather than to merely attempt to secure its turf from the uninvited American intervention in their affairs. At one point, there seemed to be a hidden desire among ordinary Arabs that the US pressure to reform would inspire the region’s leaders to hurriedly look for homegrown alternatives that are focused on the well being of the people, not the maintenance of the self-seeking regimes.

Arab governments are capable of negotiating their way out of the reform debacle, through well-examined concessions, most likely made to US interests and to the interests of the its favorite regional ally, Israel. The US government is equally capable or rearranging – or renaming its priorities- in the Middle East, with unbinding cosmetic assertions, such as the addition of the Arab-Israeli conflict clause in the recent GMEI version.

If such reconciliation of interests–which seems to be the case – defined the current reforms legacy in the Middle East, the ultimate beneficiary of genuine democratic reform, the people of the region, will become its ultimate fatality. Unless some serious reconstruction of priorities and an emergence of an Arab civil society that is capable and willing to take charge of its own destiny arise, such a gloomy end will prevail. Then, no matter what it’s called, the ‘Greater Middle East' will remain a euphemism of greater political stagnation, injustice and imperial designs.

-The content of this article was the subject of discussion on National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation” with Neal Conan, aired Monday, June 07. It is the third article in a series dealing with reforms in the Middle East.

-Ramzy Baroud is an Arab-American journalist.


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