Signs of change in the Middle East
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.
Topics: Arab World
"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!
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.