Reform? What reform?Talk is cheap, it’s time to act [Archives:2004/798/Opinion]

December 13 2004

By Prof. Dr. Abdulaziz Al-Tarb
For The Yemen Times

Talk has increased in recent months about issues of change, reform, and democracy in the Arab World. The theme has been noticed in every Arab country.
Arab regimes compete in giving prolonged speeches about each one's efforts in terms of reform and the achievement accomplished so far on their own initiative and not due to external pressure.
This raises a question as to the degree of vitality of Arab policies. Flabbiness and stillness that has affected bilateral relations has raised questions and worry. The dynamics of modern regimes emanate basically from healthy relations between peoples and rulers. This does not appear to be there in the Arab arena. Here are some remarks about that.
First: political and constitutional reform govern other variables. Nobody should imagine economic, cultural, or social reform without tackling the political and constitutional reform. Reform should start at the head, because corruption starts at the head as it is evident in some regimes unable to live up to the spirit of the age and catch up with the pace of change. It is after all the policy package in different fields. Therefore, political and constitutional reform is the independent variable presiding over other variables.
Second: the reform slogan has been abused. This raises concern and invites fears. Extravagant chanting of a slogan is a covert abortion of it and a way to evade it. Criticism of the ideology of reform on the basis that it has been imposed on us is a right word to get bad purpose. Our need for reform and change is bigger and more important of the claims of foreign intervention or dominance.
Third: we have indicated earlier of the distinctiveness and conditions of every Arab capital. Yet, this point should not be misused as a boost to nullify reform, and warn of imaginary dangers. Distinctiveness does not go against the prevailing of law, respect for liberties, and enlargement of political participation to include all forces in public life. So, that excuse does not virtually reflect reality.
Fourth: Arab-Israeli conflict or Palestinian-Israeli confrontation does not serve as a valid reason for procrastinating reform. Our real misery in managing that conflict is attributed to short-term slogans lifted to give an impression that the Arab-Israeli conflict is the main obstacle to democracy and development. We slowed down on the way to reform and gave up seriousness on the ground that battling is more important than anything else. Meanwhile, Israel won not only its military battles but also the political one due to its scientific, technological, industrial and military advancement. Adopting democracy helped the Israelis, notwithstanding that its democracy has a racist touch.
Fifth: the gap among Arab countries we noted in previous articles in terms of intellectual and social development sets starting points differing respectively, but does not define a ceiling limiting the ambitions of any of them. We should learn lessons from newly-independent small African states. They are admirable for adopting democracy and fostering plurality so much that they laid aside some of their historical leaders, and replaced independence heroes with new leaders through elections and democracy which should be revered.
Sixth: poverty and low living standards are of the commonplace phenomena in the Arab communities. There is no doubt that the failure of some Arab regimes to fulfill their commitments towards the limited-income class and the proliferation of administrative and financial corruption (legitimate son of political corruption) are due to poverty. Therefore, poverty is the main hurdle and a considerable challenge. Thus, reform is very significant. I don't exaggerate if I say that terrorism is also the son of poverty, social backwardness and ethical collapse. In the past, Imam Ali bin Abi Taleb said “If poverty were a man, I would kill him.”
Seventh: the developments taking place in reality, besides the series of expected trials of ousted former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, will reveal an important part of the Arab shame. We must admit that the ousted regime is unmatched in the region. It is an example for others to heed, and proves that the dictatorial governance leads to hardships and catastrophes. There must be an honest evaluation of internal policies in Arab countries amidst the current regional and international conditions.
Eighth: human rights are the gateway of people to the future. Human rights have taken on broad concepts and comprehensive contents not confined only to fighting torture in prison and detention centers, but go beyond that to involve political, economic and social dimensions the first of which is a minimum of living standard that ensure the dignity of the Arab citizen.
Ninth: the most dangerous threats before reform, change and democracy is the fact that most of the people targeted by reform lead the crowd who lift the above discussed slogans. It is an extremely alarming point that the people who call for reform are the ones who should be uprooted by the forthcoming wind of reform. This issue may arouse fears related to many excuses such as distinctiveness, and national identity.
Tenth: there is still a suspended question regarding the intentions of foreign powers who call for democracy and reform in the Arab area. The question that poses itself is whether the US has any interests in the existence of democratic regimes in the region. With an expanded scope, we may ask “Is Israel enthusiastic to see real reform in the Arab World?” To answer these questions requires sincerity which we cannot feign to have. Actually, we believe that adopting democracy, reform and change contradicts the interests of the powers anxious to seize the resources of the region. They only want to control the area and be present in it.
These are observations intended to clarify that the current of reform whose slogans have swept the region and whose ideas have grown in many directions needs a scrutiny and a comprehensive view that can distinguish between varying phenomena and size them up according to their real nature.
We need also indicate that the status of systems and value of governments are determined by their vitality degree and ability to acclimatize with the surroundings.
We, Arabs, confuse stillness with stability; the former depends on the degree of stillness regardless of the undercurrent interaction, while the latter is the aggregate of a number of factors leading to social balance, class reconciliation, liberty respect, and peaceful transfer of authority.
It is no secret that most Arab governments are characterized by violence in dealing with citizens. Their human rights records do not live up to the standard, let alone that some of them are not free from authoritarian traits emanating from dictatorial rule and idolization of leadership.
All of these notions have been outdated and put in the history margin. Hence, Arab countries must be redeemed from the manacles of political backwardness for them to catch up with the great events of the era and swift developments. Nobody should think that the Arab-Israeli conflict or the anarchy in Iraq is apart from political reform. Nay, but we think that reform is the natural and sole approach to get out of the dilemma and open up new horizons for Arabs.
In concluding, we, as Arabs and Muslims, should earnestly take up the issue of reform. Among our historical mistakes is lifting slogans without applying them and starting a journey without reaching the destination. Now, taking into account the difficult challenges and perilous condition, time is ripe for us to upgrade our mindset and broaden our view so as to cover the future with its expectations, surprises and events.
Since we always talk about civilizations conflict and cultures clashes, we should first harness ourselves in order to change our gloomy image in the eyes of the otherness. I may say here that when I remember the aired episodes of Saddam's trial, I immediately conjure up a sense of the pains and predicament of our nation. I have come to an unshakable belief that solution is only represented by real change, complete reform, and permanent democracy.
Here in Yemen, an interim government in preparation for the coming elections may be a good way to achieve that.