Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Reformatting the Middle East

Like democracy, “reform” is a catchword these days in the Arab world. Leaders promise it, media sing it, and people wish to believe it. But is it believable? Or is it just too good to be true? Or maybe something in between — buy one true promise and get ten lies free?
Before we decide which case is the case, let us review our progress on the road to reforms, so far.
The question of reforms is not new, and didn’t arise after 9/11. The promise arrived with every revolution and evolution phase in our modern history.
After we fought with the Allies in World War I against our rulers, the Ottoman Empire, the new regimes that replaced them promised to deliver us to a new world of freedom, progress and democracy.
The Western colonizers brought in some enlightenment, some sophistication, some modern infrastructure and some democracy. Many Arab metropolises like Cairo, Aden, Baghdad, Damascus, Khartoum and Casablanca became world class. They had life and semi-free press, parliaments, labor unions and other democratic tools and privileges. Airports, railways, ports, highways and many other modern infrastructure networks were built. In Egypt, the Suez Canal was finally dug and operated. In Aden, the new port was one of the world’s biggest and busiest.
It wasn’t enough, though. Humans hate to surrender their decision-making right to foreigners. Reforms were mostly in big cities and towns. Villages and remote areas were left almost as backward as they were found. Education was a minority privilege.
The military academies were for certain class. And the final decision on real matters, including who stays in power, was squarely in the hands of the occupiers.
Parliaments get dissolved, elected prime ministers dismissed, and kings assassinated. Alliances, wars and peace agreements have to get through London, Paris and Rome before they can be made. Nationalist movements were fought and subdued politically and militarily. In the end, only the army was left as a national institution capable of effecting change.
Nationalist officers swept the Arab world as one successful revolution encouraged another. From Egypt to Iraq, from Libya to the Sudan and from Syria to Yemen, Arab armies were on the march to reclaim their nation’s destiny.
Like the colonists, they promised reforms, but unlike the colonists they delivered few. In fact, freedoms were lost and democracy became a show business, a big lie, and a facade for police regimes. Prisons in the new states grew larger, the infrastructures older, the economy weaker and poverty more endemic.
There was growth in other sectors, like education, but quantity did not always match quality. Graduates of Egyptian, Iraqi and Sudanese colleges were way better, if lower in numbers, than today. Cultural life became too much politicized and propagandist.
The media turned into tools for state control and “political education” rather than means for free discussion and debate, as well as watchdogs on government performance. The revolutions that promised to correct, reform and then leave, became permanent. (Whom are you revolting against, if you are the ruler?)
So, could anyone blame Arabs for suspecting any claim of true reforms? Now many Arab governments are talking about reforms — real this time! At the same time, America is pushing a new agenda for the Middle East. The world would be safer, they reckoned, if disillusioned, dissatisfied, poor and angry Arab masses were given the chance to live a better present and dream of a brighter future. With good education, vibrant economy, real democracy, they won’t be easy recruits for the likes of Osama Bin Laden and Al-Zarqawi, the theory goes.
Reform or else was the message that reached Arab capitals. Many didn’t need much convincing. In Saudi Arabia the call for reforms and national dialogue preceded 9/11. In Yemen, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Morocco, Algeria, the Sudan and Jordan, regimes felt the need to reform for their own reasons. Those include civil wars in the Sudan, Algeria and Yemen, civil liberties movements in Kuwait and Egypt and new leaderships in Morocco, Jordan, Syria, Qatar and Bahrain. Are these reforms deep and wide enough? Not much or not at all. But they are good, small steps in the right direction. We need to encourage them, blow the wind in their sails, and make those steps steady and sure. Intellectuals in each county must take the lead and call for public involvement and participation. We need to continue building civic institutions that deliver the goods, not just the “see me I am here” charade.
And we all need to remember that to survive in the new world of borderless trade and transparent governance, this is the only way to go.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

‘Tribalizing’ Democracy!

Democracy is such a magic word! Politicians love to pretend it, intellectuals to explore it, people to demand it, media to measure it, and a bunch of organizations to watch it. Few, however, really understand what it is and where they stand on it — especially in the Arab world.

Lately, I read many scholarly and news reports about fake democracy in the Arab world. Almost nobody is rejecting democratic reforms these days for fear of looking bad before world public opinion. More importantly, it is politically dangerous to do so, since Uncle Sam may put you on his list of “failed regimes.” Depending on how much oil or terrorism you may have, or how inconvenient you are to Israeli and US interests (in this order), you could be erased, modified or seriously talked to.

Most governments either pretend to be more democratic than America, on their way to be, or don’t need to. When put under pressure and scrutiny to hurry reform measures and be more transparent about them, they play the “injured dignity,” you-hurt-my-feeling card. (How dare you instruct ancient civilizations on governing art?)

Others lecture you on how democracy must be homegrown, not imported, fit-for-all takeaway; and how we need time to grow our own. That “time break” means ages. By the time we reach there, they won’t be there, you won’t be there, or you won’t be interested anymore — an effective stalling technique.

The funny ones try to sell you the claim that we already have democracy. Look how the people adore their rulers, they say. Note how our leaders come from humble origins, visit with the roots and interact with the common man. People and destiny have chosen them. This is ultimate democracy.

The frustrating ones are smarter. They play the game as it should be played. “You wanna democracy? No problema! We give you one.” Then they give you a big show. Constitutions get changed, candidates run, media criticize, analyze and cover events, and the whole country party-celebrate! It is Elections Time! But the whole game is designed to re-elect the same aging rulers and preserve the same oldie regimes. The only difference is: It is now legitimate illegitimacy. Go figure.

One of those fakers gave me a lecture the other day. He went on and on about the history of democracy and its “rotten” application today. “Did you know that the original Athenian concept was democracy for free men only, as was the case in the first American version? Women, slaves and the poor were excluded,” he argued. “Western democracy is custom-made for the white man. The West is based on individualistic system, we are based on consensus. With tribal societies, like ours, we already have our own version of democracy. Leaders are ‘accepted’ by the people, and led by consensus. They have their ways of seeking, building and enforcing such consensus. At the end of the day, the whole nation — not just those who voted ‘yes’ — is on board in any project.”

I say to him and to all those like him, if you are so sure about what your people want, let them say so. Put in the scientifically proven mechanisms to measure their sentiments. Give every runner an equal chance and provide a level-playing ground. Allow the media to play its role as the people watchdog. Let all vote for whoever wishes to run and let the world scrutinize the vote and see that you won fair and square.

Once empowered with such mandate, you can implement your agenda with powerful authorization and public support. The civilized world may disagree, but they would have to respect the people’s choice.

Does this sound science fiction or foreign play? That is because nobody reads history.

History showed that only those who win people’s hearts by democratic means stay in power or leave peacefully. Democratic systems develop in time. Autocratic regimes do not evolve peacefully; they come with a revolution ... and end with one.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Who Hangs the ‘Wake-Up’ Bell?

Democracy is about free debates on all issues relating to public interest. It is the supermarket of ideas, to which all members of society contribute and benefit from available intellectual products.
Saudi Arabia is now ripe with discussions about all kinds of opportunities and challenges facing our nation. From rights for women, guest workers, children and minorities, to education, extremism, globalization and social decadence, all the cards are on the table. Players include men and women, old and young, conservatives and liberals, Sunnis and Shiites. No one is excluded from taking part in this mental exercise. If not in the mainstream media and forums, then at least you could say what you want without censorship on the Internet.
Is this good or bad? Too early or too late? Too fast or too slow? Those are valid questions for the debaters to address. But it is vital for society to continue its roundtable, round-the-hour dialogue. The exercise is good for our mental health. We got mentally fat with all the junk thoughts we had been fed for ages. It is about time we slimmed down and muscled up with a healthier diet, better digestion and a good workout.
“What is the use?” I was asked by a frustrated youth after a long night of discussions in a weekly “dewania” (intellectual gathering). “We talk and talk, and by the end of the day, we all go home to catch a football game, a fat meal, and sound sleep. Nothing happens overnight, nothing happens the next day. And when we meet again, it is the same story all over, for nobody has done anything to change the status quo since our last meeting.
“Isn’t it better for the sake of our cholesterol level and blood pressure, serenity and sanity to save our breath and time, and look for better things to do?
“Isn’t some quality time with your kids, a gem exercise, and a trip to the sea or a desert camp more fun and useful than the smoky discussion that is all hot air and no substance? Personally, I am having colon problems from listening to all these intellectual debates that agree on solutions but not on how to implement them. Bottom line is, without ‘do’ and ‘doers’ we are wasting our mental and physical energy for nothing!”
This reminds me of the “Who will bell the cat?” tale. For those who don’t know this classic Aesop tale, it is about a group of mice meeting to figure out how to defend themselves from attacks by the cat. One wise rodent pointed out that a bell around the neck of the cat would herald the cat’s movements and thus all the mice could escape the feline’s clutches in time. The mice agreed that a bell was indeed a brilliant solution, and after a long pause, one inquired, “Who will bell the cat?” No one volunteered and no problem was solved.
Solutions are plenty and cheap. You can buy one and get ten free. The problem is when it comes to action no one likes to be in the driver’s seat. Most prefer to be in the audience. Few care to be in the play.
This has to change. In the new mode of civic institution building, reforms and dialogue, we need more effective participation. This means more individual and group initiatives — speaking out, joining forums, participating in public institutions, forums and actions.
Talk for talk’s sake is not enough, but also not bad. After a long rest it is not easy to jump right into action. We need time to flex our mental muscle, open our eyes and ears and awaken our senses to capture present and future trends, modes and drifts.
Once you get the picture, you start pondering and reflecting. Others do the same, and you get together to exchange thoughts and ideas. Then you get bored of sitting still, and warm up for action. Since doors are now opened for participation, you join in with your own thoughts, actions, and contribution.
That’s how I hope we all do. But truth is: I am not sure we are all up to it. Decades of dependence on the government to make all decisions and do all the work for us have left us with little understanding and weak motivation to make the right move and do the right thing.
I hope and pray this attitude changes soon. Some of us should hang the bell, the rest support them. Our present reforms and future progress depend on such courageous initiative, and cooperation.

Building Bridges With Americans

American visitors to Saudi Arabia come with their baggage of perceptions and get their first cultural shock on day one — especially those who come for the first time. Thanks to media and education, our image as backward, savage, and fundamentalists persists. Misperception leads to perception and if repeated enough times and long enough it becomes reality. Once in the news, you’re always in the news and it is difficult to remove the stigma once it sticks.
Some reporters and researchers write their reports during the long flight to Saudi Arabia, and come here to fill the gaps. They look around every corner for political tension, religious extremists, battered women and street wars. They do find, now and then, what they look for and jump on it. That would be fine if at the same time they report the other side of the story, which represents the norm more than the spicy stuff.
Just imagine if, after a visit to America, I write only about drugs, crimes and racial discrimination. While those problems exist in America as in any other society, they are not what America is about. The same is here. We have our share of social ills such as fundamentalism, extremism, marginalizing minorities, consumerism, drug abuse, abuse of women and foreigners. But we also have our bright spots. Look around you and you will see the inspired and inspiring people, young and old, men and women, liberal and conservative, Sunni and Shiite.
Such was the case with a visiting group of American intellectuals. We met in the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry last week. Our group, the International Relations Committee, is made of concerned citizens volunteering to build a bridge of communication and understanding with the rest of the civilized world. The chairman of the committee, Amr Khashoggi, is an intellectual businessman, educated in American universities, like most of us, father to two bright kids who have just graduated and returned home to serve their country. They were all present at the meeting and at another gathering with Karen Hughes, US undersecretary of state for public diplomacy.
Committee members come from different business, academic and government backgrounds. They include economist Dr. Nahed Taher, businessman Eng. Omar Khalifaty, journalist Ms. Maha Akeel, merchant Dr. Ghazi Binzagr, psychotherapist Assia Khashoggi, and political scientist, Ms. Ranya Bajsair.
Guests and hosts talked in a spirit of openness and friendship. Some were emotional, apologetic or frank. However, all expressed their sorrow, anger, disappointment, confusion, misunderstanding and criticism in a civilized way. At the end, we all felt like hugging each other. It was a great group therapy.
Alta Schwartz, director of Outreach program in Georgia Middle East Studies Consortium touched my heart. She expressed her dilemma as a Jew trying to reach out to us. She told me about a recent visit to Gaza and her shock and dismay at the Israeli abuse of Palestinians. How could she dissociate herself from Israeli policies and actions? She wants to rescue her religion from the extremists who have hijacked Judaism in Israel and America. She spoke about that tense moment when she tells an Arab she is a Jew and how she got used to the frank discussion that follows and the friendship that results.
I told her of my experience in America when my best friend suddenly told me that he was a Jew as well as a Communist! I had that double-shock moment but it passed quickly. It really didn’t matter what his religion was as long as he treated me right. As it turned out, we ended up helping each other in school projects and learned a great deal about one another’s perspectives. After reviewing my dissertation about US media bias toward Israel, he thanked me for moderating his views about Middle East history. I thanked him for standing up for me. He, and other colleagues, advocated changing class schedules to accommodate my Ramadan fasting hours. Similar tense moments became easier, like when I found out that the wonderful doctor and nurse who took care of my newborn daughter were Jews. Alta liked my calling her a cousin. I explained to the rest that Jews and Arabs are Semite cousins. An American pointed out that we are all cousins. What stands between us can easily be torn down. The biased media, ignorant intellectuals, inconsiderate politicians, and geographic, cultural and political barriers can be overcome with a simple smile, hello and a handshake.
As soon as we talk and visit each other’s homes and meet with family members, we will discover how strikingly similar we all are. We all wake up every day worrying about school grades and job security, family well-being and neighborhood safety.
We go through our days striving for a better life, and a brighter future. And when we sleep, we get nightmares about losing the ones we care about, and confronting those we don’t. We dream about an environment of peace, love and prosperity.
If we just understand these basic facts about each other, it is the perfect win-win. Only the merchants of hate, war and misery lose out in this eventual battle of bridge-building for the sake of all humanity.