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BEHIND THE ARABS' FAILURE
by Amir Taheri
New York Post
June 26, 2006

June 26, 2006 -- WHAT should Arabs do to meet the challenges they face in a world not made by, or for, them? Debated in Arab countries since the middle of the 19th century, the question has been posed with even greater urgency since the 9/11 tragedy persuaded many in the West to regard all Arabs as enemies. Remarkably, the answers given today are more or less the same as those of 150 years ago.

One answer, long the one most popular with the elites, is that Arabs should Westernize as fast as they can. Abdul-Rahman al-Kawakibi, the father of modern reformism in the Arab world, saw traditional political, cultural and social structures as the principal cause of what he branded as "the historic decline of our nation."

A second answer was that the best hope of Arabs, indeed of all Muslims, lay in finding a benevolent despot who, rather than spend time enriching himself, would lead them into creating a modern society.

The third answer is that the secret of Arabs' "decline" lies in the fact that they have distanced themselves from Islam. The magic formula, therefore, was simple: Return to Islam, which in practice means imposing the shariah, and all will be well in no time.

All three views share one problem - the assumption that there is an ideal form of government that can be adopted by any society at any given time. The real question, however, is not whether this or that Arab system is good or bad, compared to any real or imaginary model, but whether or not it performs its proper functions.

In other words, what is lacking was a pragmatic approach. Before asking whether something was good or bad, right or wrong, modern or traditional, we have to ask whether it works.

In today's Arab states, we find a range of experiences. Some Arab systems that we may not like, based on our ideological beliefs, nonetheless do work; others that appear closer to our ideals simply do not work. And a system that works is good in its own terms, while a system that has failed is doomed no matter how is idealized in political or religious belief.

How do we know if a system works or not? Many tests could be suggested. But let us limit ourselves to just three.

First: Does the system allow for a measure of opposition within society itself? Societies where the opposition is in exile are those that do not work. Allowing some space for internal dissent is in itself a sign of self-confidence that is common to systems that work.

Second: Does the system, in order to survive, needs to imprison large numbers of its political opponents? The larger the number of prisoners of conscience in a country, the greater the failure of the system in place.

Third: How much violence and counter violence affects the country's political life? Regardless of the initial reasons for anti-state violence, its persistence is sure sign that the system in place does not work properly.

* A few Arab countries pass all three tests: Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait. Yemen would have passed all three tests - were it not for a series of recent insurgencies fomented either by Iran or by the remnants of al Qaeda. Morocco passes almost all three tests, although it has been subject to occasional acts of violence.

* Saudi Arabia passes two tests - there is little opposition in exile and, at least at present, no prisoners of conscience. But there is violence. Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq also fail the test of violence, as does Algeria.

* Bahrain, for its part, faces no significant violence and has few prisoners of conscience, but much of its dissent is centered in exile.

* Libya and Tunisia fails the tests on political prisoners and internal dissent.

* Egypt fails two of the tests, political prisoners and violence, although it is making significant progress on both account. Since last year's presidential election it is also making progress on allowing space for internal dissent.

* Syria fails all three tests, as do both Sudan and Somalia (both technically part of the Arab League). Those latter two countries could be regarded as failed states, although Sudan's oil has given its system a respite.

Without trying to draw too many lessons from generalizations, it is important to note two facts. First, most of the relatively successful Arab states are those with the most traditional forms of rule. Second, the central problem of almost all Arab states is political violence against the state and the violence that the state is often chooses to use in response.

In most cases, it is actual or threatened violence that forces the state to close the internal space for dissent and drive its critics into exile. And that, in turn, helps nurture further violence, creating a vicious circle that neither the state nor its violent opponents can break.

Fear of violence and/or the necessity of dealing with violence are key factors in hampering reform in most Arab states. The experience of Algeria and to some extent even Egypt shows that the defeat of terrorism is the first crucial step towards democratic reform.

Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.

 

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