Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 March - 6 April 2005
Issue No. 736
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Osama El-Ghazali Harb

Inside and out

Reformists in the Middle East should take advantage of international conditions while developing their social base inside, writes Osama El-Ghazali Harb*

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The debate over the role of external factors in achieving reform in the Middle East has become so heated as to practically obscure the real issue. The question is not whether external forces do or do not have an impact, but what the boundaries of this impact should be and, most importantly, what domestic forces plan to do in order to achieve reform.

It is a historically established fact that external forces have always had a significant impact on change in the Middle East. The push for modernisation, the emergence of national liberation movements, nation-states, the policy of non-alliance, to name only a few examples, were all the result of the interaction between indigenous, domestic factors and external influences. Whereas external influences have been a constant, their impact has been varied -- a mixture of positive and negative. Foreign influence has brought in its wake colonialism and pillage, just as it has introduced notions of political liberty and social equality. The post-independence "revolutionary" regimes in the region owed something to the US strategy of containing communism, just as the socialist tendencies adopted by these regimes in the 1960s reflected the growing strength and influence of the socialist camp at the time.

External interest in, and impact on, the region has in fact systematically increased. Where once foreign powers were interested in the Middle East for sake of its geographic location, their involvement intensified with the discovery of oil in the region, the establishment of the state of Israel, and the escalating rivalry between the two superpowers after WWII. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US, the sole remaining superpower, focussed on the Middle East as the source of the major emerging threat to its national security: the terrorism of radical Islamists. In responding to the attacks of 11 September, the US developed a strategy of intervention that has placed the Middle East firmly at the centre of international politics. The implementation of this strategy began with the destruction of the Taliban and the establishment of a new political system in Afghanistan and proceeded to the destruction of Saddam Hussein's regime and the creation of a new Iraq.

The latest stage of this strategy involves bringing reform and democracy to the "greater" Middle East. US pressure for reform does not stem from any sense of mission, but from the realisation that the forces of extremist Islam, so helpful in getting the Soviets out of Afghanistan, have now directed their anger against the US. These forces are seen as being nurtured by the political despotism, economic backwardness and cultural stagnation ailing most Arab and Islamic societies. Cutting radical forces at the roots requires spreading democracy and liberal values throughout these societies.

There is, at the same time, growing discontent from within the Middle East regarding the successive failures of the regimes in power, both the post-colonial "revolutionary" regimes and the conservative ones that have enjoyed US protection and support. This growing social discontent has culminated in the widespread conviction that political, social and cultural liberalisation presents the only path forward.

We stand at a unique historical moment when mounting social pressure for reform from within societies in the Middle East coincides with international pressure, particularly from the US, to implement reform in order to combat the forces of extremism and terrorism. The respective role of internal forces and external pressure must, however, be made abundantly clear. It is first and foremost up to domestic social forces to define and implement reform. No external pressure, however intense, can produce true democratic transformation on its own. Active domestic forces are a necessary condition for achieving political change. While history informs us that most social movements that succeeded in overthrowing foreign occupiers or domestic despots have received some form of external support, it also clearly reveals that external pressure cannot compensate for the lack of such social forces.

The problem with the current US campaign for reform is that it appears somewhat arrogantly to assume that it can in fact "manufacture" such domestic forces. I draw attention to the comments made by US columnist Thomas Friedman in The New York Times on 21 February and 10 March 2005 in which he laments the absence of alternative leaders capable of mobilising mass movements; leaders like Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa. There is a danger that the US experience with Latin America may encourage it to believe that it can "manufacture" both leaderships and social movements through manipulation and generous funding. Such a practice would have catastrophic results in Arab society.

Moral, public support from the international community and the US can have the effect of strengthening the movement for democracy; direct intervention and manipulation can only be counter-productive.

The forces championing reform in the Arab world must at this point cease to argue about external pressure and focus on developing an agenda for reform and a plan of action to implement it. They must channel their energies towards removing obstacles within their societies and exposing the internal forces that impede reform. Their overwhelming priority must be the achievement of real, tangible change. This alone will allow Arab societies to benefit from external support, while at the same time preventing it from overstepping its boundaries and having a subversive impact.

* The writer is editor-in-chief of the quarterly Al-Siyassa Al-Dawliya , issued by Al-Ahram, and a member of the Shura Council.

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