Future Forum demands solid plan:Concrete steps towards reform wanted [Archives:2004/801/Community]

December 23 2004

By Peter Willems
Yemen Times Staff

The Forum for the Future held in Rabat, Morocco, earlier this month brought finance and foreign ministers from 20 Arab countries together to discuss reforms across the region. Since the event took place, some have said that many questions still remain concerning where the region is heading for reform in the future.
“One thing we discussed in the meetings of civil societies is that we have been hearing the word 'reform' being said by almost every government in the region, but the issue is will the governments be really willing to deliver,” said Mohamed Al-Tayeb, Chairman of the Committee for Human Rights, Liberties and Civic Organizations in Yemen's Shura Council, who attended the conference of civil society leaders and activists before the official forum of government officials took place. “Are the governments serious or are they just creating cosmetics here and there to avoid the pressure from the international community?”
Steps taken at the forum mostly focused on economic reform. A fund was established to help start-up projects in the private sector and small business ventures with $60 million coming in from industrialized countries and international finance institutions. Other programs aimed at boosting capital markets and micro-credit to small businesses. On the democratic front, Yemen, Italy and Turkey presented the Democratic Assistance Dialogue designed to promote and consolidate democratic institutions and values.
The final statement of the forum stressed that reform in the region needs to go “hand in hand” with support of a peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. It also stated that reform should be developed inside each country with “the sovereign right of each country within its national unity and territorial integrity, to freely develop its own democratic, political and socio-cultural system.”
The emphasis on reforms developing without outside influence first arose from a reaction to US President George Bush administration's Greater Middle East Initiative which came forward last February. Due to opposition, it was renamed as the Broader Middle East and North Africa initiative and was backed by Group of Eight industrialized nations (G8) at a meeting in Seal Island, Georgia, last June which included that reforms should come from within.
“It looks like Arab nations are gradually coming around to accept reform,” said a foreign diplomat based in Yemen. “It needs to be done from within as a homegrown process in which the G8 does not impose any reform but can share experience, give a helping hand and offer guidance.”
But some have doubts that concrete steps towards reforms will take place soon since planning has yet to be discussed.
“When it comes to the development of democracy, human rights and other areas of development, there needs to be a solid plan,” said Majid Al-Fahed, Executive Director of Civic Democratic Initiatives Support Foundation in Sana'a. “Up to now, I have not seen concrete steps spelled out in the Middle East, and it is not clear how reforms can be carried out.”
There are also questions as to whether leaders in the region will take the initiative for democratic reform and allow people to have a say in decision making.
“The development of democracy in some countries in the region will not be any easy task,” said a Yemeni analyst. “It may not be easy for those with power to give it up.”
Abdullah Al-Faqih, Professor of Political Science at Sana'a University, claims that from the launch of the Greater Middle East Initiative, it has not been clear who would take the initiative to promote reforms. “By giving in to rulers in the Middle East, America did nothing novel,” said Al-Faqih. “It continues an old policy of avoiding political and economic cost of investing in matters of liberty and prosperity of the people of the Middle East. Democracy in the region has become a product that neither Americans are enthusiastic about selling nor Arab leaders are willing to pay the cost for purchasing.”
Tayeb pointed out that a positive sign that came from the forum was that representatives from most countries were present. The next forum is scheduled to take place in Bahrain in 2005, followed by a meeting in Jordan in 2006.
“It was successful bringing the governments together. When the G8 were there in Georgia in June, only five Arab countries showed up,” said Tayeb. “It was the first real forum on reform and it is a process that is not done overnight.”
Tayeb added that the 50 representatives that attended the conference of civil societies agreed that reform in the region is essential and that the general public should become more involved.
“Civil societies concluded that we need more reforms across the board, including more liberties for civil societies. Some countries have made some progress towards reform, like Morocco, Yemen, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Bahrain and Kuwait, but there are other countries that have not yet started,” said Tayeb. “Civil societies also think that unless there is a strong, internal civil movement, the governments won't really go ahead with steps. What is needed are full partnerships between interest groups, business groups, and so forth, and the governments. It didn't happen this time, so there still needs to be full representation in decision making. People need to ask for reform. The people are the ones that make the changes.”