Legitimacy of blackmail

The third Arab Human Development report, published recently, angered the US by blaming its Middle East agenda for continuing poor governance and oppression. But Arab leaders also don’t escape criticism for using the war on terror to quash civil rights. Massoud A. Derhally reports.

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By  Massoud A. Derhally Published  April 24, 2005

|~|200.jpg|~|OPPRESSED: The UNDP report’s authors took Israel to task over its treatment of Palestinians.|~|The first two UNDP Arab Human Development reports highlighted how little Arab rulers have done to enhance their people’s future. The third, published earlier this month, also pulls no punches when criticising failings in the region’s leadership. According to the report, a “legitimacy of blackmail” is helping Arab governments hold onto power, while also putting a block on the spread of democracy, education and knowledge. “Of all the impediments to an Arab renaissance, political restrictions on human development are the most stubborn,” reads the report. “By 21st century standards, Arab countries have not met the Arab people’s aspirations for development, security and liberation despite variations between one country and another in that respect … there is a serious failing in the Arab world … located specifically in the political sphere,” it adds. The 248-page document, compiled by 39 Arab intellectuals and analysts covering 22 Middle Eastern countries, says that it is the responsibility of Arab governments to empower their people. It warns that they either illustrate a respect for basic human rights or else risk the consequences. These, the authors say, will probably include an upsurge in violence. “Some regimes now bolster their legitimacy by adopting a simplified and efficient formula to justify their continuation in power,” it states. “They style themselves as the lesser of two evils, or the last line of defence against fundamentalist tyranny or, even more dramatically, against chaos and the collapse of the state.” The report unequivocally acknowledges the failure of democracy in the Arab world and inadequate levels of governance. “Undoubtedly, the real flaw behind 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 actors capable of turning the crisis of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes to their advantage. The elimination of such forces has sapped the democratic movement of any real forward momentum.” What is stifling the spread of freedom and democracy? Well, by and large, the obstruction is attributed to “undemocratic regimes”, and the other threat is “tradition and tribalism”, which the report argues come at times under the guise 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,” maintains the report. The report, the third in a series of four, was released to the public some six months after its scheduled publication date, amid American and Egyptian objections to its findings. It is said to have irked the United States as it blames the Bush administration’s war in Iraq as a contributing factor to poor governance and oppression in the Arab world. The US is the biggest single funder of the UN’s Development Programme (UNDP), providing 12% of the organisation’s budget. “As a result of the invasion of their country, the Iraqi people have emerged from the grip of a despotic regime that violated their basic rights and freedoms, only to fall under a foreign occupation that increased human suffering … The occupation forces struggled to restore basic facilities, but were unable to bring electricity, water and telephone services back to their pre-war levels,” the report states. It also highlighted that out of the US$18.4 billion allocated by US Congress to help Iraq’s reconstruction, the US government had spent only US$1.3 billion by October last year. The authors also took Israel to task, saying the Jewish state’s continued presence in the occupied territories impeded their human development. Palestinians, says the report, have “sustained enormous social and economic losses”. “Currently 58% of the population subsists below the poverty line. Between May 2003 and June 2004, and as a result of repeated invasion and bombing, a total of 768 Palestinians were killed and 4064 injured — 22.7% of Palestinians killed during that period were children under 18,” it adds. The report also says that Arabs and Muslims have been persecuted under the pretext of the “war on terrorism” and that this has weakened the efforts of reformers in the Arab world who have been vying for democratic change in the region. Equally damning though is the assessment that Arab governments have exploited the war on terror to quash civil rights and curtail pluralism. “Several [Arab] governments have cited fear of terrorism as justification for steps to impose even higher restrictions on their citizens,” says the report. Journalists, meanwhile, suffered the brunt of prosecutions in 2004 — a year dubbed as the worst ever for press freedom in a region considered the “second largest prison” for journalists in the world. “During the period between 2001 and 2003, journalists in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, the Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen and other Arab countries were repeatedly targeted for prosecution on the grounds of opinions they had expressed. Some of them were convicted and given harsh sentences, while in Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia and Yemen, journalists were assaulted or detained,” it adds. The grave reality, the report continues, is that although some Arab governments “adopt a public discourse supporting press freedom and openness … in reality, the situation is only becoming worse”. Constitutions in the Arab world do not implement the laws they set out to, or worse, violate ones that they do. This was the message of Rima Khalaf Hunaidi, the director of the regional bureau of Arab States at the UNDP, in her foreword. “Sadly, what Arab constitutions grant, Arab laws frequently curtail. And what laws render legal, actual practice often violates. People are thus besieged in their own country, their takeoff is held back, their development is blocked and their nation is weakened,” writes Hunaidi. After accusing the US and Egypt last year of putting pressure on the UNDP because of the report’s findings, Nader Fergany, head of the Almishkat Centre in Cairo and the lead writer of the report told Arabian Business that it remains to be seen whether Arab governments would be receptive to its recommendations. “We have to wait for the government reactions. This report is different. In the last two reports we have witnessed governments moving in the direction of the recommendations of the reports. This time, it is a bit more critical,” he says. However, Fergany said the priority wasn’t to criticise, but to create an environment that brings about constructive debate. “The issue is not to be critical. The issue is to raise issues in a solid manner and pave the way for a good debate,” he explains. William Orme, the author, who has been a vocal critic of the US for much of the past year, said he hoped Arab governments would be more willing to share power with pro-reformers. “What’s timely about it is that it deals with events that took place during 2004; political reform initiatives or a lack of such, and looks at them on a country-by-country basis. It’s kind of a snapshot if you will of the political evolution in the region,” Orme told Arabian Business before the report was published. Education and science, areas Arabs were once pioneers of — albeit in the 6th and 7th centuries and during the age of ancient Babylon — are today the region's Achilles’ heel. “The spread of education is restricted by the prevalence of unacceptable rates of illiteracy and the denial of the basic right to education of some Arab children,” states the report. It adds: “The value of education is also diluted by its low quality and the resulting failure to instil the basic capabilities of self-learning, critical analysis and innovation among those educated.” Other than freedom and knowledge deficits, the authors write that the region also faces persistent levels of gender inequality — arguably one of the most salient issues that need to be addressed by governments, as noted by the first report in the series. Though the latest document notes progress has been made with respect to the advancement of women’s rights — such as the revision of family laws in countries like Morocco where women are now considered equal partners of their husbands, and in some Gulf countries were women have been appointed as government ministers — there is still much that needs to be done to alleviate the prevalence of gender discrimination in the Arab world, the report states. “Nowhere in the Arab world do women enjoy equality with men, even though equality is a fundamental human right,” reads the report. “There have been laudable efforts to promote the status of women in some areas, but others have been largely neglected both by governments and by society in general," it adds. ||**||

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