From Social Action magazine
Restoring Freedom to Arab Countries:
Signs of hope, but much needs to be done


This article, by Allan McDonald, appeared in the June 2004 issue of Melbourne journal Social Action. It is reproduced with the gracious permission of Social Action.
CAIRO The Arab Middle East, according to long time Middle East observer David Pryce-Jones, is a civilisation that does not know what to do with itself. Pryce-Jones, who is the author of The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs, wrote recently in National Review that freedom and democracy have been unknown quantities in Arab countries.
He continues, "Creativity is blocked in all spheres by despotisms grinding down everything. One after another, ambitious and ruthless men have seized power and held it on the principle that force is the only law. Most of them have been soldiers, though a few have been monarchs claiming a right to rule through their Islamic affiliations. The coups, wars, and civil wars of these absolute rulers have left innumerable victims. The human waste is tragic. Worse still, the strong oppress the weak and degrade society in a way that cannot be stopped from within, and so would repeat itself forever".
While Pryce-Jones is an outsider looking in, the same views come from Arabs themselves. The UN Arab Human Development Report, released in Cairo in April, points to a deficit of freedom and good governance in Arab countries. The report, written by Arab academics and intellectuals, is the third in a series.
The report notes that more than half the women in the Arab world are unable to read or write. Literacy rates vary from 28.5 per cent in Yemen to 85.9 per cent in Jordan. Many Arab countries failed to provide primary school education for all children, and enrolments in secondary school are worse.
"More than 10 million children in the Arab world are out of school, most of them in Egypt, Iraq, Morocco and Sudan", the report said.
Child mortality Child mortality for children under five is also high, about 60 per 1000 births, compared with six in industrialised countries. The report says many of these deaths occurred in the first year, primarily due to pre-natal complications, made worse by ignorance. Low rates of literacy meant that women were less able to obtain information on health issues, which contributed to the high infant and child mortality rates.
The report also said there was a dire need to invest in hospitals and clinics "in order to provide care in cases of emergency delivery and to address the causes of pre and post-natal complications".
A setting in which nothing moves and from which nothing escapes
Of all the impediments to an Arab revival, says the report, the political restrictions on human development are the most stubborn. The authors say there must be an end to tyranny, and fundamental rights and freedoms must be secured.
Their definition incorporates not only civil and political freedoms, including freedom from oppression, but also the liberation of the individual from all factors that are inconsistent with human dignity, such as hunger, disease, ignorance, poverty and fear.
The report is critical of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and the American occupation of Iraq. It goes on to say: "Even disregarding foreign intervention, freedoms in Arab countries are threatened by two kinds of power: that of undemocratic regimes, and that of tradition and tribalism, sometimes under the cover of religion. These twin forces have combined to curtail freedoms and fundamental rights and have weakened the good citizen's strength and ability to advance".
Why do Arabs enjoy so little freedom? "Why do Arabs enjoy so little freedom?" is one question posed. In answer, the authors reject claims (which are sometimes made by Western commentators) that Arabs and Muslims are not capable of being democrats. They say the failure of democracy in several Arab countries is not cultural in origin. It lies in the convergence of political, social and economic structures that have suppressed or eliminated organised social and political movements.
The authors say the dominant trend in Islamic jurisprudence supports freedom, and that the tools of democracy, used properly, are consistent with Islamic principles. Such an interpretation would guarantee public and private rights for non-Muslims and Muslims alike.
However, in Arab countries there has been a selective interpretation: "political forces, in power and in opposition, have selectively appropriated Islam to support and perpetuate their oppressive rule".
The authors say there are several interpretations available which claim that international human rights law is consistent with Islamic law (shari'a). However, narrow interpretations of shari'a are used to argue that international human rights laws are not applicable in Arab countries.
Amongst the problems in Arab legal structures, the authors note that many countries have restrictions or prohibitions on the right to strike, to demonstrate, hold mass meetings or assemble peacefully. Civil associations and their activities are subject to rigorous control.
In 11 Arab countries, press freedom is blocked or curtailed by regulations which involve censorship, or the right to publish, or restrictions on journalists. In legal matters, the independence of the judiciary is jeopardised by ideological and autocratic regimes which apply pressure in various ways.
States of Emergency One of the worst violations of human rights takes place when the executive declares a "state of emergency". "In some Arab countries, the state of emergency has become permanent and ongoing, with none of the dangers to warrant it". Egypt, Syria and the Sudan are examples of this.
The modern Arab state, says the report, has an executive apparatus "which converts its surrounding social environment into a setting in which nothing moves and from which nothing escapes".
In this political architecture, the executive centralises all power, and ruling parties, if they exist at all, are institutions attached to the executive. Parliament becomes a bureaucratic adjunct of the executive. The judiciary is used to eliminate and tame opponents. "The key support buttressing the power of the executive is the intelligence apparatus, which is not responsible to the legislature or to public opinion, but is directly under the control of the president or king and possesses powers greater than those of any other organ".
The intelligence apparatus intervenes in the work of the executive, particularly in regard to appointments. The report says the modern-day Arab state is frequently dubbed "the intelligence state".
Concentrating political power at the very top leads to economic corruption which is also widespread in Arab countries.
Nepotism The report deals candidly with the clannism of Arab societies, which implants submission, is the enemy of personal independence and intellectual daring. Clannism flourishes "wherever civil or political institutions that protect rights and freedoms are weak or absent".
Modernisation in Arab countries has produced some notable achievements, say the authors, but has yet to meet the aspirations of Arab people. "Indeed, there is a near-complete consensus that there is a serious failing in the Arab world, and that this is located specifically in the political sphere".
Internal reform, say the authors, calls for immediate action on three priorities:
  • Abolishing the state of emergency
  • Ending all forms of discrimination against any minority group
  • Guaranteeing the independence of the judiciary
  • The legislative reform required includes revision of Arab constitutions so that they guarantee fundamental rights and freedoms. Under political reform, the report calls for an end to the executives' monopoly of power, the eligibility of all citizens to vote and stand for parliament, and the development of civil society.
    After the voting in Iraq, large-scale demonstrations in Lebanon, minor concessions in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, spring may be in the air. The report reveals how much remains to be done before spring breaks out, and summer arrives.

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