Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Testing systems in Arab world

Amir Taheri, Gulf News:
What should Arabs do to meet the challenges they face in a world not made by, and for, them? The question, debated in many Arab countries since the middle of the 19th century, has been posed with even greater urgency since the 9/11 tragedy which persuaded many in the West to regard all Arabs as enemies.

It is remarkable how the answers given today are more or less the same as they were 150 years ago. READ MORE

One answer, and for some decades the one most popular with the elites, is that Arabs should westernise as fast as they could.

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, promoted by Jamaleddin Assadabadi (a.k.a. Al Afghani), was that the best hope for Arabs, indeed 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, as fashionable today as it was decades ago, is that the secret of Arabs' "decline" lies in the fact that they have distanced themselves from Islam.

The formula, therefore, was simple: let us return to Islam, which, in practice, means imposing the Shariah, and all will be well in no time.

The problem with all three views was that they were based on an assumption that could not be verified: that there was an ideal form of government which could be adopted by any society at any given time.

The real question, however, is not whether or not this or that Arab system was good or bad, compared to any real or imaginary model, but whether or not it performed its proper functions.

In other words what was lacking was a pragmatic approach. Before asking whether something was good or bad, right or wrong, modern or traditional, we have to ask whether or not it works.

Applying that rule to Arab states today, we will find a range of experiences. There are Arab systems that, although, based on our ideological beliefs, we might not like them, do work.

And then there are those who appear closer to our ideals but simply do not work. What matters is that a system that works is good in its own terms while a system that has failed is doomed even though it may be idealised in the context of political or religious beliefs.


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

The first is that the system in place should allow for a measure of opposition within society itself. Thus, 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.

The second test is whether or not 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.

The third test relates to the degree of violence and counter violence that affects the country's political life.

Regardless of the initial reasons for anti-state violence, its persistence is a sure sign that the system in place does not work properly.

Thus, the most successful Arab countries, those that work, are ones where there are no exiled opponents, no prisoners of conscience, and no politically motivated violence and counter violence.

Going clockwise, we find few Arab countries that pass all three tests: Oman, the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait.

Saudi Arabia passes two of the tests there is little opposition in exile and, at least at present, no prisoners of conscience. But there is violence.

Bahrain, for its part, does not face a significant level of violence and has few prisoners of conscience but fails the test because much of its dissent is centred in exile.

Yemen would have passed all three tests had it not been for a series of recent insurgencies fomented either by Iran or by the remnants of Al Qaida.

Iraq has few political prisoners and allows much space for dissent inside but fails the test of violence.

Syria fails all three tests while Lebanon, which has no exile opposition and no political prisoners, is also marred by violence, albeit at a relatively low level. Jordan, too, passes the first two tests but fails the third regarding violence.

Egypt fails two of the tests, the existence of political prisoners and violence, although it is making significant progress on both accounts.

Since last year's presidential election, it is also making progress on the test concerning the space allocated to internal dissent.

Sudan and Somalia, both technically part of the Arab League, fail all three tests. They could be regarded as failed states, although the recent advent of oil in Sudan has given its system a respite.

Libya fails two of the tests, on political prisoners and internal dissent, but passes the one related to violence, as it has not suffered any major insurgency since the 1990s. A similar judgment could be made of Tunisia, although it faces a stronger exile opposition.

Neighbouring Algeria still faces violence but could pass the tests related to political prisoners and internal dissent.

The recent mass return of opposition figures from exile is certain to improve the country's overall performance. Next, Morocco passes almost all three tests, although it has been subject to occasional acts of violence.

Without trying to draw too many lessons from generalisations, it is important to note two facts. The first is that most of the relatively successful Arab states are those with the most traditional forms of rule.

The second is that the central problem of almost all Arab states is political violence against the state and the violence that the state 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 or the necessity of dealing with its reality, 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.

Iranian author Amir Taheri was the editor-in-chief of Kayhan, one of the most prominent newspapers under the Shah. He now lives in exile in Europe and is a member of Benador Associates.