EDITORIAL : A political spring in the Arab world?

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Long-oppressed peoples are getting a taste – or promise – of democracy

The last six months have seen a series of encouraging political surprises in and around the Middle East, starting with unexpectedly peaceful elections in Afghanistan and culminating in Lebanon’s little “people’s power” uprising of the last two weeks. In between, there has been a breakthrough of sorts in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, a successful general election in Iraq and last month’s announcement by Egypt that it planned to soon hold at least a nominally competitive presidential poll.

The Bush administration can fairly claim a share of the credit for triggering many of these developments. Whatever its real intentions in this oil-rich part of the world, it boldly declared it was intent on pushing the cause of democracy in the Middle East when it moved against Iraq and it has kept up the rhetoric, even on allies like Egypt. And for all the negative consequences that flowed from the American invasion in Iraq, there could have been no democratic elections in January if Saddam Hussein had still been in power.

The hand of fate has also played a timely part, bringing to an end Yasser Arafat’s suffocating control of the Palestinian cause and making a martyr of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.

It is clear that America’s aggressive response to the September 11 attacks has put every despot and undemocratically elected leader in the region on edge as their citizens watch millions of formerly disenfranchised subjects around the region get the vote.

In fact, it has reached the point that we now have the rather ludicrous situation of Saudi Arabia – home to one of the most backward and repressive political systems in the world – joining in the chorus for Syria to pull out of Lebanon and give the people there full sovereignty and the chance to decide their own leaders.

The challenge for Washington and the rest of the international community now lies in finding ways to encourage these still fragile trends without letting their own interests get in the way and subverting the process. The record of the imperial powers in the Middle East is not one of enlightened, selfless decision-making.

It goes without saying that political change in the Middle East is long overdue.

Despite a history rich in culture, literature and science, the Arab world has really gone nowhere for hundreds of years. Some 65 million Arabs (two-thirds of them women) are illiterate. Fewer books have been translated into Arabic over the past millennium than some medium-sized European countries translate in an average year.

The 280 million citizens of the 22-nation Arab League, which includes Egypt and Saudi Arabia, produced a combined GDP of just US$550 billion in 2000 – barely double that of Thailand. For the last two decades, the region has grown at a rate of 0.5 per cent per year.

The blame for this belongs squarely with the unaccountable and unrepresentative governments in the Arab countries themselves. There is not one real Arab democracy and the region as a whole has the lowest UNDP “freedom score” in the world – even lower than that of sub-Saharan Africa, which also beat it on the number of Internet connections per capita. It is little wonder then that such an isolated culture became a breeding ground for the Islamic fundamentalism that spawned the al-Qaeda organisation.

A look at the Arab world today provides clear evidence that feudalism not only stifles economic growth but also human development. It also generates misery. According to one recent study, roughly half of Arab adolescents interviewed say they want to emigrate.

It is far too soon to be certain or even confident about how the current political restlessness across the Arab world will play out.

In Iraq, a deadly insurgency competes for headlines with post-election democratic manoeuvring. In Lebanon, the Hezbollah group, with more than 60,000 men under arms, appears intent on resisting the Syrian withdrawal as well as the warming relations between Israel and the Palestinian administration.

Recent history also offers less than heartening precedents. From Cambodia to Russia, true democracy has been able to make only shallow inroads against entrenched authoritarian cultures. There is also an argument that until the world weans itself off its need for oil there will never be true democracy in the Middle East.

Still, there is reason to be cautiously hopeful that we are witnessing a genuine shift towards a break from the Arab world’s repressive political cultures. It is about time.

Published on March 09, 2005

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