Saturday,21 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1296, (19 - 25 May 2016)
Saturday,21 July, 2018
Issue 1296, (19 - 25 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Revisiting reform

An opportunity exists in the appearance of the ugly face of religious extremism to establish the principles of a properly modern state, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

Al-Ahram Weekly

The Arab region and the Middle East as a whole, however one might define it, entered a phase of anarchy and political and economic upheaval five years ago, as is patently obvious. Equally true, a reverse drive is currently in full swing to restore equilibrium and stability or, in brief, reinstate a form of regional security.

Military forces of Arab countries, Arab and Islamic alliances forged and led by Saudi Arabia, and regional and diplomatic efforts have been brought to bear to extinguish the fires and re-establish order in Yemen, Syria and Libya.

This is a process that cannot be ignored, even if it sometimes seems that it has run up against major difficulties and temporarily falters on occasion, or that there are certain regional and international powers that want the fires to persist for as long as possible, in order to win strategic or geopolitical advantages.

All these efforts, which are being sustained with courage and determination and making progress and gaining victories, cannot ensure ultimate victory without fortifying the domestic fronts in Arab countries that succeeded in weathering the fires. World history offers a useful lesson in this regard.

According to Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789-1848, Europe experienced two revolutions during this period: the French Revolution with all its ideas and the virulence that emerged with the Napoleonic wars that destroyed Europe’s economic and social structures, and the industrial revolution, which not only brought the domination of machines over the production process but also ushered in processes of comprehensive reform that would reorganise and rationalise European states and societies.

While the first revolution ended in failure and the imperial throne of Napoleon, the second continued until countries in Europe, and eventually the rest of the world, evolved into the modern societies we know today. In the Arab region and Middle East at present, we are in the midst of a process to overcome the “revolutionary” phase and deal with the various ambitions and designs of countries that have tried to exploit the political chaos.

But the question of reform still needs to be extensively explored in the hope of strengthening our countries’ immune systems and their capacities to confront both evident and latent threats. Clearly, the “political, economic and social engineering” process that the US tried to set in motion with its invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq led to disastrous consequences, from the fragmentation of states and disintegration of their societies to foreign invasions by evil forces.

This time, reform must come from within, as occurred in 19th Europe where the process was led by the Concert of Europe (Britain, Russia, Prussia, Austria and eventually France as well), to realise change, reform and progress through peaceful and technological means. The core of this process is naturally economic. In fact, it has already started in a number of Arab countries that have begun to relinquish their oil worship or addiction to rentier economies in general, as can be seen in the Saudi and Egyptian visions for 2030.

However, this economic process may not just be contingent on the search for new resources, sources of wealth and products. It could also depend on a courageous response to three main issues: decentralisation, the free market system based on competition, and local and foreign private sector investment.

The purpose is obvious: to generate high growth rates, such as those seen in Asian countries, so as to reduce unemployment rates and curb inflation, especially in areas where these problems are acute, such as Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and Morocco. Economic development of this sort leads directly to another course of reform, one founded on building “social capital” and a “civic culture”.

These concepts are mutually complementary. Together they form the lever to hoist societies from their stagnation and the means to generate cohesion between the diverse ethnic and religious components of society in the framework of a common citizenship and shared national identity.

Civil society has grown with varying speeds in virtually all Arab countries. In Egypt alone there are more than 46,000 syndicates, leagues and other civil society organisations that perform various social, economic and cultural roles that helped sustain the state in difficult years.

Strangely, this historic role has been ignored due to the fact that a small collection of NGOs, no more than 30, concerned with human rights managed to capture international attention, while the other societies steadily persevered to ensure the survival of society and avert collapse. This is social capital that forms the basis of maintaining the state and its integration with society, protecting it from class conflict and material and moral poverty.

The third question of reform is perhaps the most sensitive and the importance attached to it has varied from one country to the next. It concerns reform of the security sector of the state, which in a number of Arab countries emerged scarred and wounded from the era of revolutions and upheavals.

Indeed, in some countries, including Syria, Yemen and Libya, it has collapsed entirely. This sector is the hard core of the state. It is also what stands at the crossroads between the old state, with all its pros and cons, and the modern civil state that we hope to build. It also stands at the crossroads between the freedom needed for economic, social, political and cultural reform. Security has become the most precious commodity, one that societies have lacked since the age of revolutions exposed the ugly face of extremism and terrorism.

It is a difficult equation in all respects. It requires reform solutions, resources, training and a deep awareness that the future must be different from the past. Unfortunately, this sector has been targeted by Western nations and international organisations and by Arab and foreign media. All of this creates a condition of alienation among security agencies that can expose countries to risk. Yet such blackmail should not prevent the necessary processes of reform of security agencies, in order to render them more competent and to rally the nation behind them.

The fourth reform track may be the most important of all, because it is connected with Islam and the distortion and manipulation that have been inflicted on its noblest principles during the past decades by terrorist and extremist organisations, from the Muslim Brotherhood to the Islamic State (IS) group. These organisations took advantage of openings created by anarchy and mass uprisings to ride the crests of popular anger in their drives to either monopolise power or their bids to terrorise, blackmail and fragment Arab and Islamic states. Reform and renovation of religious thought and discourse is a major component of the comprehensive reform tasks that societies and states need to undertake to be able to confront all regional and international security challenges.

The crux of the issue here is not so much the international image of Islam and the damage done to it through its arbitrary linkage to terrorism, as it is how religiously based extremism and terrorism causes societies to fail and generates forms of secularist fundamentalism that frequently repel people and drive them into the arms of extremist groups.

Frankly, the opportunity is at hand, now that extremist groups have exposed their ugly face, for the forces of moderation and religious and humanitarian toleration to lay the ideological groundwork on which our societies can be rebuilt. Achieving this task is crucial, not only to resolve the conflict that is currently raging in the region, but also to realise all the reform tracks mentioned above.


The writer is chairman of the board, CEO, and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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