Leaders must reform to survive [Archives:2004/799/Viewpoint]

December 16 2004

The recent 'Forum for the Future' conference that was concluded in Rabat, Morocco, signalled clearly that governments in the Broader Middle East and North Africa region (BMENA) are realizing that reforms have become necessary to their survival. Despite this, however, the pace of development continues to lag behind expectations.
I was fortunate to meet the delegation of Yemeni officials at the forum, and I saw that global realities are pushing them to undertake reforms for the sake of the government, and the Yemeni people.
While some critics continue to slam the US and its allies for allegedly imposing reform in the region, enlightened reformists in Rabat highlighted that the majority of Arab regimes use this same line of reasoning to argue that change must be gradual and must not upset “national interests.” The event in Rabat demonstrated that Arab regimes fear losing their tight grip on power if they undertake solid and courageous reforms.
However, the regimes are also aware that sooner or later there will be a transfer of power, and the Arab foreign ministers attending the forum seemed to realize that this transfer is better made peacefully than by force.
From my observations in Rabat, I saw that what the regimes fear the most is the loss of their personal interests. If power and decision-making becomes decentralized, Arab leaders fear that this momentum will eventually pull their power out from under them.
If this is the way our leaders think, genuine reform is not going to be in the horizon for some time. The tactics of time wasting, rearranging priorities, and changing the subject will continue to be extensively used by regimes that are seeking to escape changes to the status quo.
The issue of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle has always been the top priority, or if I may say, the top excuse for not undertaking serious reforms. Palestinians themselves have expressed that they are fed up with this approach. A Palestinian once called the al-Jazeera channel and said, “we don't want nor expect anything from Arab leaders, let us manage our affairs and they manage [theirs]. We are tired for being blamed for not carrying out reforms in other Arab countries.”
If there is any lesson that we need to take from Rabat, it is that there seems to be little seriousness by Arab regimes to take concrete reform at any satisfactory pace.
But as members of civil society, let us pretend that they are sincere and act naively, as if we are unaware that regimes do not want change. Let us build on the assumption that Arab regimes see reforms as inevitable and apply pressure in this direction.
If we fail in our attempts to make change possible, perhaps then there could be other measures taken.