East and WestAnd in 2005 … [Archives:2005/804/Opinion]

January 6 2005

By Jamil Abdul Karim
It's 2005, a new year with some promise for the Arab world. It appears Iraq will soon get its first free elections. Palestine looks to a new future. And there are rumblings of broader regional reform.

But it's still unclear if these are the best or worst of times here. Some things are changing, but it may be somewhat like fashion in the west: a new combination of the same items, knowing that eventually the look will return to what it once was.

With that kaleidoscope, here are four stories to watch in 2005, along with my predictions of what might be in store.

Iraq's democracy: Forgive me for my cynicism, but Iraq seemed doomed from its birth 85 years ago, when it was created by Western powers trying to merge arch-rival Sunni and Shiite Muslims with ethnically different Kurds who were promised their own homeland.

Students of Iraq's history know that even before Saddam Hussein, for decades, it had plenty of bloody coups, counter-plots and assassinations.

Has much really changed? As one Iraqi here in Sana'a told The Yemen Times previously, “I was hoping for security and democracy. Instead there is only killing and bloodshed. I have lost hope.”

The U.S, $7 trillion in debt, has already spent $300 billion, three times its initial projection, trying to change things its way. That's on top of the dead. But elections or not, it appears the nihilists, fascists, insurgents, freedom fighters or whatever else you care to call them, aren't leaving.

Prediction: If foreign troops eventually leave, don't be surprised by civil war.

Arab reform: By now you know that this is the buzz-phrase here these days. It comes after two UN human development reports, written by Arabs, that lambaste regional leaders for backwardness in political, social, gender, and educational spheres. Now Time magazine even reports the EU and NATO may work together to reshape the Greater Middle East, a vast area from Afghanistan to Morocco.

You'll recall in 2004, Yemen got involved when Sana'a hosted 800 Arab delegates discussing how to modernize the region's political institutions. And you'll recall that president Ali Abudullah Saleh noted “there's no longer a place for dictatorships.”

But Arabs don't want outside solutions imposed on them. And corrupt leaders don't want to lose their privilege. Officials in Yemen in particular have things to lose, considering Transparency International recently named Yemen and Iraq as the most corrupt Arab countries.

It seems all that Arab governments want from the U.S. is cash for so-called economic reform. And polls show while everyday Arabs don't like their autocratic regimes, they don't prioritize political reform because they don't link it to things like a job.

Finally, we know that virtually all serious Arab talks on reform stall over Palestine and America's alleged blind support of Israel.

Prediction: Reform will move as dangerously slow as a turtle crossing a busy highway. (But never give up hope.)

Saddam's trial: Yes, this will be the mother of all courtroom dramas. Not much more to be said on this one.

Prediction: Saddam will seize the spotlight to go down as the great Arab Superman who could have saved the region from the both the Yanks and the Jews. (Then again, some cabbies in Sana'a (and some others here) don't even believe it's actually Saddam in custody.)

Palestinian statehood: Palestinians, no doubt, have suffered terribly over the past several decades, both inside and outside of the Occupied Territories. But I wonder if some of this could have been avoided if, for one, their leaders took a different tact.

In 2000 at Camp David, for example, Yasser Arafat refused an offer giving Palestinians 94 per cent of the West Bank, partial control over Jerusalem, resettlement rights for 100,000 Palestinians in Israel, and compensation for five million Palestinian refugees. Had he accepted, perhaps the 4,000 Palestinian deaths in the latest Intifada could have been avoided.

It does seem telling that it is only that now, after Arafat's passing, that there is real hope that Palestinian statehood is possible. And what about all these reports that Arafat allegedly siphoned untold millions of dollars in donations intended for needy Palestinians. Considering Arafat was lionized across this region, what are we to make of these things? Perhaps there is a sad truth to the Arab motto “Al-Wala'a, la al-Kafa'a,” or “Loyalty not qualifications.”

Prediction: Palestine's dream of statehood will progress when a new breed of Palestinian leader emerges.

Jamil Abdul Karim is a Yemen Times editor.

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