Illusions of reform
Arab intellectuals talk about reform but don't want to think about Islamism, writes Hassan Abu Taleb*
"Arab reform" has turned into a catchphrase. It is the subject of initiatives coming from the four corners of the earth, the inspiration for a flurry of support and opposition. High-flown as the rhetoric is, the deeds are disheartening. One can see a certain degree of political hypocrisy spreading among Arab intellectuals, among those who used to call for reform without really meaning it. Some want to exclude fellow political activists from public work. Some want to keep Islamists barred from forming political parties, thus depriving the latter of a legal conduit through which to serve their countries, leaving them to the mercy of detention and imprisonment. A politics of exclusion is never in the interests of democracy.
One notes a widening gap between the people who expect something to be done and the rulers who play for time, hoping that the storm may blow over and the status quo may be preserved. But the issue is not one of standing up to foreign pressure, regardless of how suspect these pressures, with their sugarcoated intentions, are. The real issue is that the Arab situation is under immense threat, Syria a case in point. The only way ahead is through genuine and immediate reform. The alternative is chaos and popular uprisings, and there is no lack of foreign hands eager to fuel sedition.
Since the avalanche of reform initiatives hit our shores, Arab ruling elites have been worried. Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia, along with Sudan, Yemen and Jordan, have been holding intensive exchanges with a view to formulating a response. The official Arab discourse has so far articulated four responses: first, that Arab countries are already reforming, but at their own pace; second, that any reform formula imported from abroad would cause regional chaos and evoke unpleasant colonial memories; third, that if immediate reforms are introduced, reactionary forces would take over; and fourth, that reform is hinged upon settling the Palestinian problem, for the latter is the main cause of violence and fanaticism.
These responses are based on two implicit assumptions. One is that political reform has to be introduced gradually in order not to jeopardise the "stability" nations enjoy under current Arab elites. The second is that Arab societies are not ready for democracy because the Islamists are poised to win, a prospect due to the weakness of other brands of opposition.
Such assumptions, conveyed as a disguised warning to Washington and the West, are politically untenable. If Islamist forces are still the most influential on the Arab scene, after all the detentions and pre-emption, this can only be a result of years of misguided policies, of measures that weakened civil society and partisan life, of restrictions to freedom. The absence of genuine political rivalry has rendered ruling parties inept, corrupt and symbiotically linked to authority, with no public support to mention. If such is the outcome of the past three decades, how can one expect the same elites that created this multi-faceted Arab crisis to spearhead democratic reform? The inability of Arab societies to experience democracy is just an excuse the elites are making in order to stay in power, in order to pursue the same futile policies, or perhaps a more refined version thereof.
What goes for Arab elites and their desire to monopolise power goes also for some Arab intellectuals. The latter not only reiterate the same premises of the ruling classes but also provide the latter with theoretical and intellectual explanations. Some intellectuals believe that the continuation of the status quo is their ticket to popularity. Others say behind closed doors what they dare not express in public. The duplicity is never worse than on the point of the ban on Islamists.
Some intellectuals believe that democracy should be confined to those sharing the same vision -- a view that negates the very meaning of democracy. Other intellectuals believe that secularism excludes religion from life. But religion is a driving force in the lives of Arabs and Muslims. Secularism, therefore, should focus on regulating the role of religion, not denying it.
The crisis of Arab intellectuals was clear during the conference organised lately at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina under the slogan of "Arab Reform: the Vision and the Implementation". The participants were summoned in a hurry, within less than a fortnight. They were all mostly from the same political mindset -- not one was from the Islamist current. The reason given for this omission was lame. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina officials said two Islamists, Tareq Al-Bishri and Mohamed Selim Al-Awwa, were invited but declined to come. Would the presence of two Islamists, among a crowd of 160 liberal, pan-Arabist and independent intellectuals have been anything close to proportionate?
The aim of the Alexandria conference was to formulate a vision reflecting the role of civil society in Arab political reform. But even this task was lost in the zealous support the conference offered to Arab governments. The final statement of the conference, said the Bibliotheca Alexandrina chief, was to be submitted to Arab leaders at the coming Arab summit.
The conference statement is full of positive things in political and social matters, in economy and information, most of which have been said and endorsed before. What the statement lacks, however, is detail and documentation commensurate with the calibre of the intellectuals present. Interestingly, some of the demands the statement makes matches those made by the Muslim Brotherhood at the conference held recently at the Journalists' Syndicate in Cairo: constitutional and legislative reform, abrogation of extraordinary and emergency laws.
As for civil society, the conferees came up with follow-up mechanisms, such as a forum of debate, an annual conference to compare human rights efforts, workshops for reform, and a bi-annual follow-up committee. It was as if the role of civil society in reform is confined to debate and discussion. What about action mobilising people around the cause of reform? Where is civil society-based monitoring of elections? Where is the effort to examine government performance? It is sad to see civil society abandoning its grassroots to become a conduit for seminars and conferences. Conferences are a good thing, but reform is about public participation.
* The author The writer is an expert at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and chief editor of the Arab Strategic Report.