Reform as a Euphemism for Stagnation

The Arab reform debacle is widening as Arab leaders fail to achieve either a unified or a comprehensible vision for their own countries. Under various guises and pretenses, the Arab Summit in Tunisia last May only deepened the impression that Arab leaders are incapable of devising their own reforms.

My worst fear is now unfolding: an imported vision of reform and democracy in the Middle East may be the only feasible – though the least beneficial – option.

The utter failure of Arab leaders to develop a genuine reform agenda in Tunis must have generated untold bitterness among millions of already disheartened Arabs.

On the other hand, such a shortcoming also presented an opportunity to the U.S. government to further market its own designs in the region. Cleverly, the U.S. 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 wordy title, unleashed during the G8’s annual meeting, can still be called the GMEI, since it retains the condescending tone of the earlier plan. 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 have not been enforced. 

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

For example, the Arab League Summit’s final statement last May condemning the “indiscriminate killing” of Israeli and Palestinian civilians was obviously a response to outside pressures, particularly American, to label any form of Palestinian resistance “terrorism.” This murky condemnation comes at a time when Arab countries remain unwilling to genuinely support Palestinian aspirations.

The condemnation compelled the U.S. to invite some Arab countries to the G8 summit so that it might appear that Arab governments have a say in their nations’ futures, which some fear will be wholly shaped by the world’s only superpower.

There has also been a change of emphasis in the U.S. on the nature, scope and reach of reforms. 

Certain neoconservatives in the Bush administration who have touted Middle East reforms on exclusively ideological and strategic grounds are being silenced in favor of others who demand that economic considerations take prominence.  

It was quite a change 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 in early June that reforms are good for business. (Compare this to the neocon claims that the U.S. has a moral responsibility to change the “Arab mind” and 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. “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 substance of the U.S. reform initiative in the Middle East and the subsequent Arab response, one can confidently conclude that all talk of Middle East reform is self-centered, in strategic, economic or political terms. What has been almost completely discounted is the plight of those whose welfare should have been kept in the forefront of any sincere democratic change: the disenfranchised, largely unemployed and freedom-deprived Arab masses.

Although it is never easy to measure Arab public opinion, it seems that while many Arabs distrust U.S. policies in the region, they don’t reject the concept of reform; they simply hope their leaders would be prudent enough to pursue internal reforms that help regular Arabs. At one point, there seemed to be a hidden desire among ordinary Arabs that U.S. pressure would inspire the region’s leaders to focus on the well-being of the people, not the maintenance of their own power.

Arab governments can negotiate their way out of the reform debacle through concessions to the U.S. and Israel. The U.S. government can also make a show of changing its priorities in the Middle East with non-binding assertions, such as the addition of the Arab-Israeli conflict clause in the latest version of GMEI.

If such a reconciliation of interests occurs, the true beneficiaries of genuine democratic reform, the people of the Middle East, will lose. Unless a serious shift in priorities occurs, and an Arab civil society that is willing to take charge of its own destiny emerges, the results will be gloomy. Then, no matter what it’s called, the “Greater Middle East” will remain a euphemism for stagnation, injustice and imperialism. 

The content of this article was the subject of discussion on National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation” with Neal Conan on June 7.

Author: Ramzy Baroud

Ramzy Baroud is editor of the Palestine Chronicle. His latest book is My Father was A Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press).