At their June summit, the G8 countries launched a new initiative to promote democratic and economic reform in the "Broader Middle East and North Africa". The plan is a watered-down version of the US "Greater Middle East Initiative", says Nader Fergany.
The revised version of the plan reiterates the need for a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict and stresses the fact that democracy cannot be imposed from outside.
In this interview, Dr. Nader Fergany, head of the Almishkat Centre in Cairo and coordinator of the UNDP Arab Human Development Reports, conveys his view on the subject.
Dr. Fergany, do the G8 governments have sufficient credibility to promote democratic reform in the Arab world?
Nader Fergany: The current US administration has absolutely no credibility to preach democracy to anybody. A united Europe that is perceived as both independent of the USA as well as a fair and influential global player might have the credibility that the US definitely lacks.
Democracy is a bottom-up affair that requires a domestic base. What can foreign governments contribute?
Fergany: They can reinforce an internal reform dynamic by ensuring first that the key freedoms, of opinion, expression and organisation, are fully respected in Arab countries, but then allow the internal reform dynamic to take its course.
The present Arab regimes are the gatekeepers to the initial legal and organisational reform that is needed to respect the key freedoms and they are amenable to pressure from outside.
Which actors in Muslim states are relevant to make democracy and modernisation possible?
Fergany: A reformed civil society, functioning in a climate of freedom, is the natural societal vanguard for the long struggle for freedom and good governance. This would include, in particular, media, political organisations as well as the private sector.
Intensive exchange with the Europe I described earlier, not limited to governments but extended to civil society, can play a major role in reinforcing internal reform.
What must be done to stabilise Iraq and to foster democracy?
Fergany: End occupation. Help Iraqis regain complete sovereignty on the strict basis of citizenship.
Some say the core elements of the G8 initiative – empowerment of women, strengthening civil society, promotion of free media and the private sector – are not far-reaching enough. What is needed in the Arab world are crucial political reforms reducing the scope of non-elected power, strengthening legislatures and establishing independent judiciaries.
Fergany: In terms of governance reform, I agree the G8 does not go far enough. The reason is simple: the current US administration is, in my opinion, not genuinely interested in truly democratic regimes in this part of the world. Such regimes would tend to be nationalistic, hence in opposition to US imperialist interests.
Such regimes, in addition, would not be kind to present-day Israel. The US is generally more comfortable in dealing with individual despots.
At its last summit in Tunis at the end of May, the League of Arab States missed the opportunity to draft an own strategy for democratic and economic reform to counterbalance the pressure from the West. Are Arab governments really interested in democratic reform?
Fergany: Of course they are not interested in serious governance reform. It is in the character of despotic regimes to try to avoid radical reform to the distribution of power and the way it is exercised at all cost. In this respect they are in clear agreement with the American administration.
Some Arab commentators worry that the G8 initiative would impose "Western" views and rules on the Arab world. In what sense should Arab or Muslim democracy differ from Western democracy? Aren't the fundamentals universal?
Fergany: I have deliberately used the term "good governance" instead of democracy because I believe that the West, especially the US administration, has given democracy a bad name, because of the way civil and political liberties have been eroded and international legitimacy violated.
Hopefully, if the internal reform process I referred to earlier takes hold we can end up with a system of good governance to which some present-day failed democracies then can aspire.
How do the people in the Muslim world react to Western pressure? Do they agree with their governments or would they appreciate modernisation?
Fergany: The West needs to abandon its ethnocentrism. I believe all people in the world should find their way to the modernity they would find enriching without loosing their identity.
What role does the Arab-Israeli conflict play? The G8 accepts that a solution of this conflict is an important element of progress in the region. At the same time it argues that democratic reform may contribute to resolving regional conflicts.
National liberation is an integral element of any meaningful concept of freedom. The Israeli occupation of Arab Palestine and the continued violation of legitimate Palestinian rights will continue to be a major concern for all Arabs and a major determinant of how Arabs feel towards the outside world.
I am of the opinion that good governance regimes in the Arab countries would help promote all types of freedoms, including national liberation.
For this result to materialise, however, national good governance needs to be complemented by good governance on both the pan-Arab and the global levels.
Interview by Hans Dembowski and Tillmann Elliesen
© Magazine Development and Cooperation 7/2004
Dr. Nader Fergany heads the Almishkat Center for Research and Training in Cairo and coordinates the UNDP Arab Human Development Reports.