Arab Rulers and Promises


By Nir Boms and Erick Stakelbeck
May 2, 2005

A year ago last month, in Egypt, a group of more than 100 Arab scholars, ambassadors and political leaders signed the “Alexandria Declaration,” an ambitious agenda for political, economic, legislative and institutional change designed to help Arab societies move “towards building concrete and genuine democratic systems.” In the 13 months since the declaration was signed, the world has witnessed successful elections in Iraq, widespread pro-democracy demonstrations in Lebanon, municipal elections in Saudi Arabia and constitutional reform in Egypt. (The latter two are widely viewed as transparent attempts to alleviate U.S. criticism.) 

Add to these developments last October’s free elections in Afghanistan and the continued democratic rumblings among the young people of Iran, and it appears that the Alexandria statement — combined with the Bush administration’s unwavering commitment to a democratic Middle East — may have started a trend. Until, that is, you talk to the signatories. 

Indeed, attendees of a recent meeting marking the first anniversary of the Alexandria Declaration expressed disappointment with the pace of reform in the Arab world, pointing to the continued stranglehold on power wielded by autocrats from Damascus to Algiers. 

A progress report on the Alexandria Declaration presented at the meeting reported a “lack of commitment to speeding up reform” among Arab nations and concluded that the original statement offered “little in the way of realizable plans.” But despite its disappointing content, this statement was, in a way, refreshing — indeed, such calls for democratic reform usually come from outside the Arab world and are not delivered so sharply from within. 

The reasons for this and for the overall freedom deficit in Arab nations deserve greater scrutiny. But such a discussion is not easily triggered due to the propensity of many in the Arab world to pass blame onto Israel and “Western imperialism.” An example is the UN-sponsored Arab Human Development Report (AHDR), released last week. 

The report is the third installment of an annual series produced by a group of Arab scholars and intellectuals. The first report, published in 2002, caused a stir in the Arab world when it outlined how the region was falling behind in development. The second report criticized an “Arab knowledge deficit” in contrast to the rest of the world. The latest installment, much like the Alexandria Declaration, focuses on the lack of freedom and democratization in the Arab world. 

But unlike the statement crafted in Alexandria, the AHDR report cited the creation of Israel in 1948 as a major reason for the lack of political and economic freedom and human rights in the Arab world, and chastised the U.S. for supporting Israel and occupying Iraq, among other supposed transgressions. 

The AHDR’s shameless scapegoating of the United States and Israel is particularly disappointing given that other sections of the report were actually on point in their assessments. For example, the report refers to increased talk of reform in the Middle East as “real and promising,” but warns that it is not enough “to dispel the established environment of repression” in Arab countries. 

As for Saudi Arabia’s recent municipal elections, the report rightly brands them “cosmetic and superficial” and “calculated.” The report also suggests a “peaceful negotiation on the redistribution of power in Arab countries” (which it calls “Izdihar”) as the ideal way to speed up the reform process. 

Both the AHDR and Alexandria statements assert that Arab rulers are doing little to cultivate democratic reform aside from making hollow promises. But while the AHDR warns Arab rulers of “change forced by outsiders,” the fact remains that Arab reformers — who are working, often at great risk, to bring freedom from within — have had little success thus far in terms of results. Indeed, the very “outsider” the AHDR refers to — the United States — is the only country with any real track record of bringing freedom to Arab and Muslim lands. 

The fact that prominent Arabs are beginning to talk openly about the urgent need for reform is undoubtedly a positive development. And yet the Alexandria Declaration and the AHDR–while sharing many of the same conclusions — ultimately represent two vastly different takes on how the Arab world became what it is, and how it can move forward. Until Arab reformers find some even ground and begin to affect real change from within, the “outside influences” that many of them so disdain must continue to play a vital role in helping to open Arab societies and put the reform discussion on the table. 

Nir Boms and Erick Stakelbeck are co-founders of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East in Washington. 

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