Pandering to power
As the region's regimes retrench, with tacit approval from Washington, democratic reform is off the agenda. Is it a permanent condition, asks Gamil Mattar*
It is rare these days for Arabs to meet without their understandably falling into a lament about conditions in the region. With every passing day the dreams of Arab people for a stable, free and dignified life seem to move further out of reach and their pride and self-respect sinks ever lower. Meanwhile, the meddlers intensify their meddling, the despairing emigrate or kill themselves, the foolish remain benightedly innocent and the corrupt amass ever greater fortunes while not far away, and in silence, anger multiplies.
The Arab people feel they are the victims of a grand deception; told for decades that our countries would be free of all forms of foreign control, told as well that Israel could not come into existence, and when it did that it could not survive, and when it survived that it would never be recognised, and when it was recognised that Arab countries would never submit to it or abandon the Palestinians to fend for themselves, can they be blamed?
We were told that class and social divisions would narrow, that soon every Arab would know how to read and write, that we would advance by leaps and bounds towards modern science, modern ways of thinking, modern values. After the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and the boom in oil prices the Arabs, boasted many, were on their way to becoming the sixth super power. A few years later South Korea emerged as the dynamo of scientific and technological progress. By the end of the same decade China announced that it would beat South Korea's achievements, and then it did.
Then the US, leading the West and goaded on by Israel, decided that the Arabs needed to be reeducated and retrained if they were ever to climb aboard the train of progress. Washington was now controlled by a group of individuals who for years had been planning to "destroy" the dreams of the Arabs and their industrial bases and intellectual elites, weak and frail as they were, while simultaneously using America's diplomatic, military and economic might to accomplish Israel's aims in as short a time as possible. And although this clique suffered greatly under the impact of US failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, American might continued to be employed on behalf of Israel as the Arabs adopted American policies of by proxy.
Just look around after years of US dictated economic and political reforms. What do you see? There's no denying that economic "reform" accomplished much. It has dissipated our national wealth and assets under the rubric of privatisation. It has subordinated our national economies, one after the other, to the dictates of the market, for which read Israel. It has given rise to a new entrepreneurial class that is now the main pillar of existing regimes, and will be so for regimes to come. Their role is to dominate the media, monopolise the service and productive sectors and oversee the freeing of the educational system from creeds and values deemed outmoded. In the opinion of international agencies the most important achievement of economic reform has been increased growth accompanied by a decline in development.
Political reform tells another story even though it, too, received its initial impetus from the strenuous US pressure placed on Arab governments. Most of these governments yielded to these pressures grudgingly, and with every intention of undoing reform measures at a later date when international, regional and domestic circumstances, singly or combined, allowed. The people, on the other hand, did not behave in the way that Washington or others expected or wished, for the simple reason that they knew what their governments' intentions were. Arab populations know that the people in power in this region will not relinquish it.
A significant proportion of the intellectual and politicised elites in our societies were suspicious of US intentions. From the outset commentators aired their concern that the real purpose of the political reform Washington was pushing for was to divert attention away from major domestic and regional concerns. Today those who espoused this opinion feel vindicated. They point to widespread official and popular apathy towards such critical regional issues as the Palestinian crisis, Iraq, Somalia and Sudan, and towards the democratic crisis in Arab societies, arguing that this attitude is one of the repercussions of a political reform process that was characterised by deception and the cynical manipulation of hopes for real democracy.
But if it was the strategy of Arab regimes to play along with the US and toy with their people's aspirations until it became convenient to change tack, developments elsewhere in the world gave them reason to pause for thought. They watched as Russia and China, after a period of wavering, decided to dig in their heels against Western pressures for reform. They also saw South American leaders such as Morales and Chavez refusing US dictates.
Whatever else was happening in the world, however, Arab governments remained primarily focused on the US, and their backtracking on political reform came in the wake of American shock at the massive Islamist victories scored in elections held in response to its pressures for democratisation. The turning point came when Washington's ruling circles changed tack, and the pragmatists once again moved into the ascendancy. In the wake of military defeats and political setbacks, the evangelical ideologues surrounding Bush, and who had pushed the administration into the believing that democratisation was a foreign policy panacea, had suddenly lost ground to the pragamatists as the US woke up to find anti-American hatred stronger than ever, and Islamists entering the political process in every territory in which the US had pressured for democratic reforms.
The US administration underwent an even greater change, suddenly discovering that its "war on terror" required a revamping of its own democratic principles. Many observers in the Middle East cringed at each US government move to further restrict American civil liberties and rights to privacy. Though the issue does not appear to concern us directly, we had a creeping sense of foreboding when Bush moved to broaden the scope of the official secrets act. That foreboding grew with legislation permitting search, surveillance, detention and arrest of American citizens, and tipped into bafflement when we learned of provisions sanctioning secret government investigations into library books borrowed, e-mail correspondence, web searches and the like. It grew into outright alarm when the US administration claimed the right to monitor personal financial transactions, to eavesdrop on all telephone calls and, most recently, when Bush accused the New York Times and Los Angeles Times of breaching national security -- tantamount to accusing them of high treason -- for reporting on the government's illegal domestic intelligence operations.
Ruling elites around the world watched these developments closely. I know of many senior Arab officials who sympathised with the Bush administration's anti-democratic behaviour. With all its setbacks in its war against terrorism, it had no choice but to restrict the scope of democratic freedoms at home, they argued, adding that in times of national emergency national security and political stability must take priority over freedom of expression and the autonomy of the press. That was when I knew that Arab regimes had concluded that Washington would no longer pressure them to lift their own restrictions on the freedom of the press, the right to protest or to form political parties.
Suddenly, disputes over questions such as succession subsided, dropped from the checklist of foreign pressures. At least two regimes declared their determination to perpetuate the existing authority while others escalated their clamp down on domestic adversaries, with special focus on fundamentalist trends. These same regimes quickly imposed a media cover-up on other embarrassing issues, such as corruption within the ruling class. Arab governments made it clear that they intended to avenge themselves against anyone who, during the brief spell of reform, had presumed to "offend" the ruling elite.
Regimes in the region are undoubtedly counting their lucky stars that the sword of political reform no longer hangs over them. Democratic and human rights activists in the Middle East and abroad are equally despairing at the unspoken truce between the US, beleaguered in its "terrorist wars," a resurgent Russia calling for a multipolar order, and China, eager to safeguard its economic achievements and reorder regional balances in favour of its own security and economic needs. The Arab region will now "stand firm", citing cultural/religious factors that cannot respond easily to political reform, as the reason why it is business as usual.
Unfortunately for the regimes in the region the long stagnant waters of the domestic political arena have begun to ripple with new life. No amount of dams and obstacles will cause these waters to stagnate again. Too many hopes have been frustrated, to many illusions shattered and, in many places, patience is running out. In many corners, on the margins and sometimes even at the centre, people are looking for individuals, as opposed to ideas and institutions, who might solve their problems. This should make opponents of political reform really rejoice: their most cherished dream, the postponement of democracy in our region and the decline of democracy in its erstwhile bastion, has come to pass.
* The writer is director of the Arab Centre for Development and Futuristic Research.