The Arab world and democracy
By MD Kini
2009 Issues > September 13 2009 Open Forum
There is a mixed future of democracy in the Arab world. The oil wealth has given the means for the growth of Arab world but it has not enhanced its human resources development- freedom of thought and expression, promotion of innovation and enterprise which the Arab world had centuries ago. Life expectancy has increased, literacy has gone up, educational and medical facilities have multiplied. However, there is a huge scientific and industrial gap.
The Economist of London has published a 14-page special report on the Arab world (July 25/31,2009 issue) which sums up the dilemma of the Middle East, entitled, "Waking from its sleep’. The various sections in the report give an inkling in the current situation in the Arab world : The world of the Arabs - What do they have in common; Imposing freedom - Well, that didn’t work; All change, no change - Mountain above, volcano below; How to stay in charge - Not just coercion, sham democracy too; The fever under the surface - A silent social revolution; Which way they will go? - A great struggle for ideas is under way in the Middle East. The Arab world has experienced two decades of political stagnation, but there is a fever under the surface, concludes Peter David.
A fact-sheet from the report
The 22 countries (including the unborn Palestine) that belong to the Arab League are called, Arab world. This is a heterogeneous agglomeration of some 350 million people (Maronites, Copts, Berbers, Kurds, and Africans as well as Arabs and Muslims). Majority of Arabs are under 25 years old.
60.4 percent of the world’s oil (1.3tm barrels) is in the Middle East and North Africa.
The tension and conflict between Arab countries and Israel since 1948.
Up to a million citizens of the Arab world may have perished violently since 1990 in wars and conflicts ( Darfur, Algerian civil war, invasion of Iraq, war for Kuwait, and Israel-Palestian conflict).
No genuine democracy. Extraordinary degree of repression is used to stay in power by kings and in countries with a single party rule.
The Arab opposition is divided - secular parties and Islamists. The secular parties fear the Islamists more than they dislike the present regimes. The regime offers their supporters the patronage of the state. The Islamists offer their charity and social services through the mosques. The secular parties have no such favours to offer.
The total manufacturing exports of the entire Arab world is below that of the Philippines. Miniscule number of patents registered by five Arab countries ( 367) in contrast to the huge numbers of South Korea (16,328) and Israel (7,652) between 1980 - 2000. Number of books translated into Arabic every year in the Arab world is one-fifth the number translated by Greece into Greek.
The lowest employment rate in the world and one of the highest rates of youth unemployment, with about one in five young people out of work.
The Arab economy is based on oil, property and tourism.
In a survey of Arab economies published in 2007 by the Peterson Institute for International Economics reported that on fundamental social indicators such as literacy, poverty, and education the Arab countries do as well as or better than most other countries with similar incomes. In 2002, the Economist noted that the six desert monarchies since 1970 had trebled literacy levels to 75 per cent, added 20 years to average life expectancy and created a world-class infrastructure by spending a total of $2 trillion.
The well-managed sovereign wealth funds of Arab countries have added to the financial health of the Arab world and a big force in the world economy as strategic investors.
The 2002 Arab Human Development Repohttp://www.organiser.org/dynamic/modules.php?name=Content&pa=showpage&pid=308&page=26t prepared by an Egyptian academic Nader Fergany and published by United Nations Development Programme was extraordinarily frank about the flaws and failures of the Arab world and the urgency of reform.
America’s ‘Freedom Agenda’ did not go very far. Arab politicians, intellectuals and civil society organisations, meeting under the auspices of Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, a declaration was issued expressing support for democratic reform, freer speech and human rights in 2004.
In Arab countries, the opposition is divided - secular and Islamic who do not join hands. The secular parties fear the Islamists more than they dislike the present regimes. The regime gives patronage to their supporters and the Islamists offer their charity and social services through the mosques. The secular parties have no such favours to dole out.
Social revolution is underway. Fertility is in decline. More people, especially women, are becoming educated. A young labour force has new aspirations. Arabs know far more than they ever used to know about the world and about each other, thanks to satellite television. Entrepreneurs are playing a growing role in the economy which was dominated by the state. All these has created what Ahmad Galal, a distinguished economist calls " a fever under the surface". This may not be a game-changer, but has some political consequences.After the al-Jazeera phenomenon Arabs no longer put up with the old tradition of enforced public consensus. They are making their leaders explain and justify themselves as never before. Access to airways and the internet has democratised Islam. Of course, this is no substitute for electoral democracy.
Democratic future ?
It is a mixed picture. The oil wealth has given the means for the growth of Arab world but it has not enhanced its human resources development - freedom of thought and expression, promotion of innovation and enterprise which the Arab world had centuries ago. Life expectancy has increased, literacy has gone up, educational and medical facilities have multiplied. However, there is a huge scientific and industrial gap.
During the Islamic Golden Age, between 8th and 13th century, Arab countries were the depositories of knowledge. After the fall of the Roman Empire and the dawn of the Middle Ages, Greek and Roman literature and heritage, were lost to the Europeans. However, they were translated and developed in Arab kingdoms. Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, Istanbul and Toledo in Spain became the centers of science and knowledge. Art, architecture, literature, mathematics, algebra and chemistry flourished. Koranic injunctions include quest for knowledge such as " Go in quest of knowledge even unto the distant China", " Ink of the scholar is more holy than the blood of martyrs" etc.
Islam, a religion which spread far and wide, with the banner fraternity should have been the natural foundation for democracy but has aligned itself with the unbridled rule of dictators and kings. As Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian columnist has observed, Israel is ‘the opium of the Arabs’ and is also an excuse for the suppression of dissent. The oil money has enabled rulers to give sops to the people and buy allegiance. This does not befit a proud civilisation.
Of course, change has to come from within. The majority of Arabs are young, educated and exposed to TV and internet and this may stir a new awakening for freedom and democracy. Al-Jazeera television has attracted attention of the people with its fair reporting of the Arab world. There may be a ‘fever under the surface’, however, it may require moral support ( not war or weapons) from the democratic countries for a democratic transformation in the Middle East as oil and the fundamentalist Islam is an explosive mixture. A democratic and peaceful Middle East is in the interest of the Middle East and the world. The world has to bear even if democracy throws up some fundamentalist party for the time being. In addition to this, the Arab intellectuals have to highlight the democratic and pluralistic roots of Islam to fight the fundamentalist interpretation of Koran which may inevitably lead to the clash of civilisations. Only this reformation can bring about a renaissance in Islam and allow the Arab civilisation to flower and flourish in a democratic world.
(The writer can be contacted at 133, Bond Street, Bridgewater, NJ-08807, USA.)
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