SILVER LININGDemocratic reform must proceed [Archives:2006/960/Opinion]

July 3 2006

Mohammed Al-Qadhi
It is fine to have state and non-state actors meet and debate common concerns in the Arab countries like what happened last week at the Sana'a conference on democracy, political reforms, and the freedom of expression. Although the conference was dominated by the governments and its recommendations were not up to expectations, still such activities are good. It is good to encourage the networking of civil society reformers in the region by brining them together to discuss the possibilities of boosting democratic reforms in their respective countries and the challenges ahead, provided that such activities are not turned into propaganda for authoritarian regimes.

I heard the presentations made by some of the government representatives who presented a very rosy picture about democracy in their countries. In 2004, I remember attending a similar conference on participatory government in the Middle East and North Africa countries in the U.K. where I heard similarly pleasant speeches. I asked the audience then why were we there if the situation is so wonderful.

I guess these regimes will never freely realize the challenges and the democratic reform gap between us and the rest of the world. The first step towards change and reform is the acknowledgement that we have a problem. But, these guys are reluctant to admit we are sick and need to be healed.

Yes, the region is in flames. We see violent and terrorist acts here and there. However, we should not try to fool ourselves and the world, claiming this is because of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or the situation in Iraq or Somalia. Yes, these are a major headaches that affect all the countries in the region. It is illogical, however, to say that we have to postpone democratic and political reform until these issues are sorted out. This is ridiculous and nonsensical.

Even the Palestinians who are under occupation and are in a real fix nowadays have impressed the world in demonstrating their democratic rights and electing a new parliament in a very transparent manner. In fact, they gave a very good example that we as Arabs are fully mature to handle democracy. We are not juvenile or, as our regimes claim, unprepared for democracy and the peaceful transfer of power. Such kinds of discourse are fabricated by oppressive and tyrannical regimes which want to remain in power forever, preventing any possible change. They have even created this “horror movie” that they are the key element to the stability of their countries, and that if they stand down, their countries will collapse. We saw these tactic used in Sana'a last week.

I do not know what kind of stability these people are taking about. The Arab states have always lagged behind, according to the international development reports. It is really humiliating that people all over the world take to the street to demand their rulers step down while we in the Arab countries ask for the reverse. It is painful that we have come to think that our already horrendous condition is more of a blessing than the unpredictable future. Other people look forward to a better tomorrow, while we fear the future. What a pity!

President Ali Abdullah Saleh addressed the democracy conference noting that democracy and reform cannot be thought of being enacted while terrorism strikes the region. He said that the West is now making theories on democracy and civil society organizations while the people of the region are poor. Sardonically, he said, “teach us [democracy] and feed us.”

I should ask why the West has to teach us and feed us as if we were their babies. It is not their responsibility to do all this while we remain idle, waiting for their sympathetic support.

Why terrorism and poverty?

The region is plagued with terrorism because it lacks democratic traditions. Instead, it has an authoritarian culture that fails to recognize the right of others to exist or express their difference of opinion. Talking about the Palestinian issue, making it the sole reason of our plight, is unjustifiable. I understand the ordeals of the Palestinians and the outrageous atrocities the Israelis carry out against them. Yet, it is unreasonable to halt developmental and reform processes that target hundreds of millions citizens living in the other Arab countries. I know that we do not fully agree with the foreign policies of the West, but this does not mean that we should look at their support for our democratization with suspicion.

Again, our poverty and backwardness are not completely due to our lack of resources. We are poor because we lack good governance and powerful legislatures that are able to nip the corruption of the executives in the bud and hold them accountable. We are poor because nobody knows where our public money goes. We are poor because most of our budget goes to armaments instead of health and education. If our resources were channeled properly, none of the Arab countries would need the support of the West or other rich countries, or let us say our need then will be limited.

What we need from conferences such as the one held in Sana'a is not mere recommendations and polite talks. Rather, we need developed countries to exercise effective pressure on Arab regimes so that they stop harassing democracy activists and journalists. The West needs to lay down its support for greater progress in political reforms and the freedom of the media.

I agree with Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim that Arab regimes should show us timelines for democratic transitions, even though it is impossible to set a timeframe for such an open-ended and sophisticated process. Yet, such timelines would provide some evidence of their determination to implement serious action. Non-state actors should think strategically and figure out what can be exactly concretized, and not just keep their heads in the clouds. For example, in the field of media, we need to see the end of the state monopoly over the broadcast media and more room for journalists to operate without restraint. Don't you agree?

Mohammed Al-Qadhi is a Yemeni journalist and columnist.

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