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.