The Arab Reform Movement

Taking Stock after One Year

This year there has been increasing discussion of reforms in the Arab world. But what progress has the democratization process actually made? Political scientist Amr Hamzawy analyzes the current situation.

photo: private
Democratisation in the Arab world currently has a very low priority for Western politics, says Amr Hamzawy

​​Now that 2004, the year that marked the dawn of the Arab reform movement, is drawing to a close, it is time to step back and look at what has been accomplished thus far. We would like to take this opportunity to sound out the limits and potential of these reforms, aware of the fact that we are primarily, although not exclusively, talking here about the democratic transformation of Arab societies.

It will probably come as no surprise that I will be placing emphasis on the central importance of two structural problems that hinder democratization.

The first of these is the lack of a collective force that would be able, or even willing, to drive forward the realization of the required changes. The second is that the general public refuses to acknowledge democratization as the goal of the present societal transformation, or, even worse, fails to tie any social expectations at all to the achievement of democracy.

The problem of the missing collective force can only be dealt with fairly if we do not limit ourselves to examining only the efforts of the political and non-political elites in the Arab nations.

Much more can be gained by taking into consideration all of the forces in the international community that exercise an influence on what happens in the Middle East, namely the USA and the European Union, which set the tone of the discourse on reform being conducted today outside the Arab world.

Against this background, I contend that the year 2004 has demonstrated on many different levels how high of a priority the democratization of the Arab nations really is for Western politics: in fact, it is extremely low on the list.

Despite the never-ending series of initiatives, statements, and declarations coming from the Western powers that be, which blink at us brightly from illuminated signs everywhere we go, a prime example of which is the document drafted by the G8 nations on a "Partnership for Progress and a Common Future with the Region of the Broader Middle East and North Africa," Washington, London, Paris and other European governments ultimately support the Arab systems of government only as the one guarantee of stability of the region and thus as a safeguard for their own strategic interests.

The model becomes an illusion

It is evident that the Republican government of George W. Bush, in the face of the ongoing escalation of the situation in Iraq and widespread international rejection of how it has handled itself there, has now distanced itself bit by bit from the intention proclaimed at the time of the invasion of compelling the Arab governments to undertake reforms.

At the moment, Washington seems more interested in assuring regional support for its efforts to reconstruct the Iraqi security forces and government institutions, and in using its excellent relations with certain Middle East states to try to regulate the currently erratic political pulse of the region.

The great adventure known as the "export of liberal democracy to the Arab world" was entirely based on geostrategic calculations made by the new conservatives. Nothing of this endeavor, not even the mere illusion of a democratic model, managed to reach Iraq, from whence it was supposed to send ripples out over the Arab peninsula, the Fertile Crescent, and the Nile Valley.

All that is left of this undertaking today is the desire to achieve a balance between the stability of the systems and the protection of the West’s own interests, with a few liberal flourishes on top, which are sold to the world as the first steps toward a comprehensive democratic watershed. Behind it all is the pressure exerted by the USA as world power, which claims to be respecting the supposed special character of 21st-century Arabs.

We will not go into here the discussions and thesis papers on fundamental conditions set by the European Union, or more precisely, the way in which the EU ties its economic support to the call for political change in the needy country.

Europeans' insistence on the codex of human rights and the demand for a constructive dialogue that is made in a few carefully selected moments is also better left out of the equation. In the end, it is clear to see that, in Europe as well, people have not deviated one millimeter from the principle of giving economic interests uppermost priority. It is this principle alone that dictates the relations entertained with the region.

The fact that all of Europe is currently rushing to Libya to rub shoulders with Colonel Gaddafi, and showing comparatively little interest in what is happening in Palestine, and the fact that people seem to have arrived at a consensus on Iraq, are clear demonstrations of the above-mentioned tendency to put financial concerns in the foreground.

On the Arab side, one finds oneself confronted with an awkward choice between ruling elites, all of whom have no desire to initiate reforms, and political and religious forces who do not have it in their power to change the prevailing conditions.

Let us now add some color to this over-simplified and bleak scenario. There is no doubt that the discourse over reforms has found an echo in most of the Arab systems.

On the whole, however, no real changes in the political power balances can be found in these so-called reforms. The central issues are brushed aside, or those in power try to play down their true content by reformulating them in such a way as to make them appear negligible or like mere technicalities.

The situation of the NGOs

Exceptions to this rule on the negative side are some cases in which not even the most rudimentary form of democratization is being considered. The positive exceptions are a small number of energetic attempts at a dynamic democratic transformation, shaped decisively by increasing pressure from various social forces, such as in Morocco and Bahrain.

Some people argue, not without justification, that elites that cannot be counted among the ruling powers are hardly in a position to initiate reforms, either because they lack broad popular support, or because they almost pathologically cling to the state apparatus.

Nevertheless, in some Arab countries, such as Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen, there actually are citizens’ initiatives and other very active movements that are well anchored in society. The problem is that the social and political visions of these groups are not in harmony with the goals of a democracy.

I am talking here mainly about the moderate Islamic movements (where the expression "moderate" is meant to distinguish these from organizations that carry out violent acts in the name of religion).

While these moderate Islamic movements now speak of the necessity of political reforms leading toward greater liberalization, as did Mahdi Akif, leader of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, in the campaign he launched last summer, the ideological tenets of such movements, judging by their social context, clearly manifest reactionary tendencies.

They intend to win back every last bit of public life and dedicate it to the noble spirit of religion, dubbing this goal Islamicization and authenticity.

In the final analysis, such tendencies, once they have gained any real ground, can only serve to generate societies that reject pluralism and are incapable of tolerance. Yet pluralism and tolerance are the basic conditions for democracy.

The dream of the Arab masses

This leads us to the second structural problem that is antithetical to democracy in our region. There is no general acknowledgement here of democracy as the ideal form of society.

In fact, there is no general demand for democracy on the part of the Arab masses at all. Instead, they still labor under the delusion that various totalitarian forms of society and politics are the answer, vacillating between the call for a righteous dictator and the dream of a fundamentalist state. This is an expression of the mass paranoia that holds many Arab citizens in its thrall.

Unlike countries that have reached a similar stage of development in Latin America and the African continent, the poor economic and social conditions in the Arab world and the enormous gulf between rich and poor in matters of everyday life has hardly caused the middle classes to draw closer together.

On the contrary, difficult living conditions have become just one more factor causing the masses to blindly cling to the present political systems as their only hope, or serving to reinforce totalitarian ideologies with their simplistic formulas.

The conviction that democracy in its liberal form, molded in the West and practiced from India to Brazil, represents a genuine chance for progress, that it can form the basis for a solution to the chronic economic and social problems here and that it embodies a political will by which we can achieve the renewal of public institutions and their working methods – this is a conviction that, even after three intensive discussion forums, has, as far as I can see, not spread beyond the circle of a small intellectual elite.

The picture remains grim, even after our attempt at lending it some brighter colors.

Amr Hamzawy

© Amr Hamzawy

Dr. Amr Hamzawy works at the Otto Suhr Institute for Political Science at the Free University of Berlin and is currently teaching at the University of Cairo.

This article was previously published in al-Sharq al-Awsat, a Pan-Arab daily published from London

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