Signs of change in the Middle East

Category: Middle East, World Affairs Topics: Arab World Views: 4887

The brisk pace of domestic political change towards more freedom and democracy in several parts of the Arab world this week has already triggered a passionate argument about whether this is the result of the American-led invasion of Iraq or is more of a home-grown, indigenous Arab phenomenon. This fascinating and emotional debate is something of a sideshow and a wasteful diversion of energy. We would all be better off to argue less about who is responsible for the fresh democratic impulses in the Arab world, and instead work together more diligently to keep the process moving forward.

The signs of change are blossoming all around, and reflect varying degrees of democratic change due to a variety of local and global reasons. The most dramatic moves in my view are the events in Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt (all of which reflect indigenous forces that were evident well before the U.S. led the troops into Iraq). A powerful, spontaneous Lebanese movement of ordinary citizens and establishment opposition politicians has forced the resignation of Prime Minister Omar Karami and elicited Syria's pledge to pull back its troops from central Lebanon. More significant changes are possible, including a sensible and fair electoral law, clean parliamentary elections in May, a full investigation of the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, further Syrian troop withdrawals, and an end to Damascus' involvement in domestic Lebanese politics.

In Palestine, the elected Parliament last week quashed an attempt by old-style politician Prime Minister Ahmed Qorei to name a new Cabinet of familiar cronies, and forced him to come up with one comprised mainly of qualified technocrats and younger new faces. 

In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak made the surprise announcement that he will ask the Parliament to pass a law allowing for a real presidential election among several competing candidates, instead of the current practice of a lone candidate (himself for the past 24 years) being offered by the single dominant party for a sham national referendum. These are isolated, early, incomplete steps, to be sure, and some of them ultimately will prove to be insignificant. Some, such as the Egyptian president's move, may even be designed to forestall real change, rather than to prompt it. Time will soon tell.

It is clear now, though, that these are historic, important signs of established power structures being compelled to change by the force of will of their own people - people in the streets who risk imprisonment, retributive punishment, or even death by challenging and resisting their prevailing power elite. A threshold of fear has been crossed in all three cases.

At the same time, however, it is fair to acknowledge that the presence of the U.S. and other foreign forces in Iraq also certainly has played a role in focusing the minds of various Arab leaders on their need to change and modernize quickly - partly because of pressures from their own people as well as diplomatic and even military pressures from Western countries and the UN. The balance sheet of Arab political transformation due to indigenous demands or foreign pressures is rather even.

This is novel for this generation, but not new in a longer time frame. 

History has always recorded such a joint venture and shared impetus for modernization from local and global actors. This has been going on since Alexander the Great in the fourth century B.C. was the first foreign general to lead his troops into the Middle East and reorder its political configuration to reflect the imperial power's own values and systems; the Islamic Arabs returned the favor when they moved into parts of southern Europe in the eighth century A.D. and ultimately sparked the European renaissance and the ages of science and enlightenment. History tends to advance through civilizational joint ventures, not solo raids.

The urgent, significant, unprecedented political reality now is that ordinary Arabs, the U.S. government, and like-minded European allies may share mutually advantageous common goals and a good reason to work together to achieve them. The imperative would seem to be for Arabs, Americans and Europeans to grab that opportunity and find a way to overcome past rancor and resentment, and instead join forces for a great transformation in the three principal issues at play here: the nature of Arab governance, the relationship of Israel with the Arabs, and the manner of American interaction with the Arab world.

The goals to work for are about promoting more open, democratic, responsive, accountable governance systems in the Arab world, which would go a long way to reducing a major cause of terrorism; pushing for comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace that treats Israelis and Palestinians according to the same standards of law, rights and morality, reducing another prime issue that stokes the deviant passions of terrorists; and, inducing the United States to use law and diplomacy rather than its armed forces and preemptive war and regime change, as core instruments of its foreign policy in the Arab world and the wider Middle East - yet another way of reducing the attraction of terror as the tactic of choice for some disenchanted and dehumanized young men in the Arab and Asian region.

Events will move quickly in the coming months and years, as the Arab people and foreign powers push to improve existing Arab governing norms and policies. This can be a historic moment for mutually welcome change, if Arabs across the region and their partners abroad work together to define the goals of change and how to achieve them. This has never happened in recent memory, which is why it is important now to focus on what needs to be done by all concerned parties, rather than argue about who started the ball rolling. We both did. Let's keep it rolling, so that all Arabs, like their counterparts in other lands, can be free at last.

Rami G. Khouri writes a weekly commentary for the Daily star.

  Category: Middle East, World Affairs
  Topics: Arab World
Views: 4887

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Older Comments:
As a new convert to Islam, more than anything else one observation keeps re-occurring in my mind. Because Muslims lack Unity they are suffering at the hands of American and Russian thugs. If it had not been for the spineless leadership of countries like Qatar, Kuwait, Pakistan, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, Americans would never have been able to entrench themselves the way they have with all their bases in these countries from where they attack other Muslim countries. Look at the map of recently organized US bases in the Middle East and Asia; even a blind man can see how the bases follow a pattern that follow the largest oil & gas fields of that region, obviously to provide the protection and fire power that would be needed. The key for Muslims is to come back to Islam, not fear any but God, as life and death are already pre-ordained by Him and know that life under Oppression and Submission is NOT life but a Living Death, Without Any Honor. But even one days existence spent fighting in God's way, for his pleasure to benefit generations to come is more valuable than a billion life times. Muslims must UNITE, organize & strengthen themselves and overthrow their American and Russian stooges. Will Allah's blessing come to a nation of cowards or to those who Sacrifice all in His name?

"powerful, spontaneous Lebanese movement of ordinary citizens and establishment opposition politicians has forced the resignation of" Spontaneous(???) Who happen to be mainly Christian... It seems the killing of Al-Hariri mainly worked to the advantage of France & America and the Lebanese Christian Right. Let's pray it does not go to sectarian violence (again)

"This can be a historic moment for mutually welcome change, if Arabs across the region and their partners abroad work together to define the goals of change and how to achieve them."
A government is only recognised by America as a democracy if it is to America's liking. The word is a sham; it does not go beyond the throat of those who claim to represent it. One only needs to look at history to realise how many democracies America has destroyed because the elected representative was not in their favour. You only need to look at Iraq history to see it. As to the wind of change, there is a wind; it brings with it the stench of death and the blinding dust generated by the new crusading armies.

"The goals to work for are about promoting more open, democratic, responsive, accountable governance systems in the Arab world"
Shouldn't it start at home (America, UK; Italy's Berlusconi). Let's face it, it's a ruse!

"Let's keep it rolling, so that all Arabs, like their counterparts in other lands, can be free at last."
What like Pro USA South American Countries? Or maybe eastern countries like Pakistan or Uzbekistan?

Democracy and Islam do not mix. Allah law is LAW! Gott ist mein Fhrer!

Assalamou ailaikoum. Now let's be not more nave than most of us really are. First they will never be a democracy in any of those countries as long as the United States of America and the European countries, namely England and France are still putting their big noses in the affairs of this rich and strategic region. The United States mostly, will always prevent the implementation of a real democracy as they understand it; otherwise it will be the end of the American fraudulent economy and "power". In a real democracy, a government is elected and employed by the people, the government does what the people hire them for, the whole world knows what the people of the Muslim countries want; fair pricing on anything they produce, the restoration of the whole land of Palestine to their rightful owners, and a total non interference in their internal affairs. Also, as long as the European and American outpost called israel is there, there will always be a miserable situation in that region, phony democracy or not. This is the THIRD CRUSADE against the Muslims, and the only way to put an end to it, is to end it the way the previous ones ended, and with the help of Allah for good this time. As for the so called democracy, we do not need any non-sense of the Robespierres or Karl Marx of today, we do not need their justification of the use of terror, we do not need any of the failed ideologies such as the supremacy of Reason, the supremacy of Senses, or any the non-sense called Marxism, and so on, they all failed Human Kind for the last 300 years, because they are as weak as the mortals that came up with these unintelligent "religions". Muslims have the Divine Guidance and the Sunnah to manage their worldly life as well as to help them prepare for the Big Day, if only the filthy materialists keep their fat hands off our lands and homes. Let the majority people choose the system of government that works for them, and not let others select a system that works against them.

I See no change in the MIDDLE EAST b/c there is NO change at the pump. The gasoline price is still going up...I wonder what are the 40 thieves of Washington doing with the STOLEN OIL from Iraq?

That's news for me? "Arabs... can be free at last"
Free from what?

I think if R. G Khouri wants Arbs to be colonised again by another foreign power that tells them what to do and how to do it.
Of course he is entitled entitled to his opinion. But he shouldnt speak for himself in lieu of speaking for the others arabs or muslims...and also
Thanks to God I always felt free even though "our rulers" weren't always working toward our best interest or being respectful for our basic rights.
Bur as far as I am concern I am not spending my time waiting for a foreign country or power to tell how should I think. Specially from a country that is guilty of many evil things over its short existence.
My hope is we are many who think that way.

Mr R.G khoury I think you should first free your mind. It is really polluted.

I have just read a fiction. I am not against the changes that are taking place in the Arab world. But I dont want to see a change for the cost of so many lives. For how many years the Palestinians are struggling to get their own country? That tells us their intention. Hello! Wake up! They were depending on US and the western countries. The result we all know. But unfortunately we do not want to admit that. It is all about controlling the world energy resources. Most of us are addicted to this western money making system. That is why willingly or unwillingly we are playing by their rules. Go back to your comfort zones and have sweet dreams.