Some words have lost meaningArab leaders and regional reform [Archives:2005/806/Opinion]

January 10 2005

By Prof. Abdulaziz Al-Tarb
For the Yemen Times

Amidst controversy over reform in the Arab World, it has become clearer that the word “reform” has detached itself from reality.

People against and people with reform are actually taking stances against or with certain regimes. The word “against” may not mean much, and may mean too much. It implies a stance supporting external intervention in the affairs of a regime to impose full democratic elections, or topple or change a regime.

“Against” may also mean opposition on fundamentalist grounds.

Opposition may also be motivated by ethnic reasons and others aiming to oppose the state itself and not only the regime. Other types of opposition do not acknowledge the legitimacy of the state.

In the Arab world, such confusion has affected the concept of “civil community” too. The civil community has lost its power and significance, becoming like a piece of decoration and a synonym for NGOs.

As democracy has been Arabicized as “reform to the advantage of its advocates,” civil community has also come to know what it did not mean in Europe: society's reproducing itself according to laws independent of the rules of force and coercion which are characteristic of authority which enables the society to produce the state conceptually by the social contract, instead of being produced by the state as subject to the ruler.

After being adapted in the Arab world, this concept no longer means social relationships resulting from free exchange in market, or the urban community outside profit relationships, as defined in later stages of concept formulation.

If “civil community” is understood and used when necessary for the democratic transformation, it will be a really important concept. In such a case, NGOs would derive their significance as they would understand their role in this race: making the society, state and democratic transformation instead of trying in vain to take on or replace the concept of civil community.

However, if a concept replaces another or an establishment thinks its role can compensate for the functions of the civil community in terms of being able to reproduce itself outside the frame of the state and interact with it, then the democratic transformation would be adversely affected. Such transformation, after all, is the paramount goal of the Arab people.

If the aim of reform is not to remove anti-democracy economic and administrative obstacles in the system of the state and social and cultural hindrances and establish the principles essential to democratic transformation, then there is no need for this kind of reform, for it now only serves as an ornament for the regime and absorbing outside politically-based pressure.

I am afraid that there are elements who have advantages in modifying the connotations of such terms as reform, civil community and freedom of expression. There are two reasons: the first being the fact that what appears to be imported from the West is opposed in the Arab World for reasons of protecting cultural distinctiveness.

Different coalitions come to light and the regime is compelled to reconsider them on the base of plurality. Therefore, plurality gets fostered but it is in fact anti-democracy (e.g. what happened in the wake of Yemen Reunification). It is then claimed that supporting plurality is an integral part of reform, but it includes a strong current hostile to reform and change which should be considered by the reform movement.

There are fundamentalist (religious) forces which oppose democracy. They suddenly realized that reform is the gatway to find a harbor of safety. So they adopted reform and produced themselves as moderate forces for discussion and coalition with local and foreign sides.

The Arab citizen does not find a scene deserving to be watched as he sees what takes place in Gaza, and Iraq or the attack against the sovereignty of Syria. The Arab people get frustrated as they know they are forced to accept a reform void of democracy or dignity.

The American policy, which claims that it is the motivating force behind reform even with intimidation and blackmailing, is the real obstruction in the way of reform- the reform towards democratic transformation and not reform as a fashion or industry.

I can discern that reform has become as a fashion to the extent it is used as a slogan for anti-democracy forces to reach governance. Currently, the Arab rulers have not lost control despite prolonged talk about reform because they manipulate reform to stay in power only.

There is some impression that the crisis lie deep down at the core. It is an ethical problem. He is not democratic who does not practice what he preaches who agree to the propositions of the majority and implement what he wishes when this majority is tired, erecting and worshipping the statute of reform for the purpose of a coming month.

Thus, we should study experiences accurately apart from friction. We should give a chance for NGOs to participate without fear and restriction. We, in Yemen, are now in need more than ever for transparency in local and parliamentary elections so as to reflect an image to the external world confirming our own ability to make the surprise and they have only to see.

Arab rulers should make use of the lesson and incorporate appropriate modifications, and give opportunity to new faces able to stabilize the system. They also have to prepare for new experiences socially and economically as well as in terms of peaceful transfer of power.

“When will we ever understand the lesson?” I wonder.