Arab Nations

Arab phoenix

Print edition : April 18, 2014

Anti-government demonstrators (background) confront supporters of the Hosni Mubarak regime during the Arab Spring uprising, in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on February 2, 2011. Arab intellectuals, such as those who authored the ESCWA report, dig amongst the ashes of Tahrir in search of reminders of the phoenix and for clues as to how to reconstruct it. Photo: AFP

Members of the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly celebrate the adoption of the new Constitution in Tunis on January 26. It is hailed as one of the most progressive Constitutions in the Arab world. Photo: Aimen Zine/AP

The U.N. report on Arab integration roots itself in the Arab renaissance tradition—honest about the problems that bedevil the region, but hopeful about the future that must come for a people who have ample resources to construct it.

IN LATE FEBRUARY, THE United Nations’ Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (ESCWA) released a report, Arab Integration: A 21st Century Development Imperative, in Tunis (Tunisia). Ordinarily, a report such as this does not merit comment in the press. Over the course of the past 30 years, U.N. reports have not been given the kind of consideration once afforded them. In the 1950s and 1960s, high U.N. officials spoke like oracles, providing moral leadership alongside the newly emboldened leaders of the Third World. As those leaders stepped off the stage of history and as their states convulsed before a host of problems, the U.N.’s star was also eclipsed. Wars and refugee crises marked the U.N. Its agencies, such as those for the rights of children (UNICEF) and for food security (the Food and Agriculture Organisation, or FAO), became accumulators of data on the escalating crisis of human well-being. U.N. reports seemed written to ameliorate the thin skin of the “donor states” (largely the West). What point was it to pay attention? It was sufficient to extract the data from the reports and move along.

Little in the new ESCWA report resembles what one generally sees from the U.N. It comes as the shine of the Arab Spring has begun to tarnish. The lead authors of the report are some of the leading intellectuals of the Arab world, most from the generation of the 1960s who have seen the promise of Arab independence fade and who have marvelled at the rise of the Arab masses in 2010-11. Habib Mohamed Marzouki helped write the Tunisian Constitution, Haifa Zangana is a major Iraqi novelist and activist, Abdullah al-Dardari is a former Vice-Premier of Syria, while Nader Fergany is an Egyptian scholar who was the primary author of the landmark 2002 Arab Human Development Report. That the ESCWA decided to release the report in Tunis is significant. A month before, Tunisia—where the Arab Spring first broke out —saw the passage of a new Constitution. It took its National Constituent Assembly nearly two years to draft the document, which, despite some consistency problems with Article 6 on religion, redeems the promise of the Arab Spring. The ESCWA’s head, Rima Khalaf, called the constitution “the most important in the Arab region, as it guarantees rights and liberties and consecrates the Tunisian people’s aspirations for freedom and dignity”.

Tunisia’s success is overshadowed by the collapse of the promise in the rest of the Arab world. Egypt’s revolution appears in cold storage (“Cairo’s quest”, April 4). Syria’s war continues to metastasise, with the death toll rising beyond the U.N.’s actuarial capacity (“Road to Raqqa”, February 7). An emboldened Saudi monarchy has now turned its diplomatic and financial muscle against Qatar, whose support for the Muslim Brotherhood in the region threatened Saudi interests and expectations. This Saudi-Qatari feud shows that the kingdom’s rulers no longer imagine a secular and democratic movement as their main threat. Tahrir is quiet, the guns in Aleppo are loud, and the opening of 2010-11 seems to have closed. At least that is how things seem at present.

The Phoenix takes flight

The phoenix of Tahrir Square took flight not long after it appeared. Arab intellectuals—such as those who authored the ESCWA report—dig amongst the ashes of Tahrir in search of reminders of the phoenix and for clues as to how to reconstruct it. The fruits of their consideration are in many documents—reports, newspaper columns, poems, stories, the sighs of the living room and the cafe. It is impossible to travel anywhere in the region and not find oneself in the midst of this ongoing conversation. The ESCWA report puts itself firmly in this discussion. It celebrates the uprising but its writers are too honest to be blinded by it. They turn quickly to the reasons not for its failure—because that would be too final—but for its incompletion. “The forces of change may have found themselves temporarily stalled by events,” they write, “but that does not mean that they have been deterred.”

Transitions are complex events, with much longer timescales than the expectations of the people or the news cycle of television. Comparison with the transitions in Eastern Europe provides two quick answers to its incompleteness: unlike the Eastern European situation, the Arab world’s upsurge came during the worst economic recession in recent memory and it was hastily “beset by hostile and influential forces in the region with vested interests in restoring the status quo”. The authors leave this last point vague. As a U.N. body, it cannot point its fingers at this or that member state. But the dramatis personae are clear.

Will the dynamic of Tahrir sit quietly as its promise is squashed by “vested interests”? The U.N. report is more optimistic than most other accounts. “Democracy in the Arab countries will encounter obstacles and pitfalls—as has been the case everywhere else in the world—but there is little doubt that it will ultimately prevail.” What gives the authors this confidence? They have walked the squares and streets and seen the faces of the civic resistance.

“That public, especially its younger cohort, has flexed its muscles, tasted freedom and demonstrated the power of active civil resistance in the face of injustice. It will not brook a counter-revolution on its watch.” But nor will the “vested interests”—the Gulf Arab monarchies and their Western allies.

The Gulf monarchies have much more to lose than the republican dictators of the Arab world. For the latter, the removal of the leader (Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak) did not mean the destruction of the state. State institutions, such as the military, remained intact and provided the platform—for good or ill—for the new order that emerged. In the Gulf, the collapse of the ruling family would mean the collapse of the state, which ironically means that the ruling families have a much deeper coalition that works to retain them in power. The social base of the counter-revolution, therefore, is much more secured than it seems from the outside. Arabia without sultans? After the sheikhs? This seems more wishful thinking than realistic analysis.

Rather than a full frontal assault on the “vested interests”, the U.N. report provides a strategic vision for Arab regionalism. It calls for the three goals to enhance freedom, two of which are long-term threats to the culture of monarchy and of dictatorship. A call for a robust notion of dignified Arab citizenship with a new social contract challenges the idea that Arabs are culturally incapable of democracy and politically unwilling to fight for it. The idea of dignity was a fundamental call in the streets during 2010-11—in Tunisia, they named their uprising the Thawrat al-Karamah, the Dignity Revolution.

Economic integration, the second freedom goal, is far more familiar to the ESCWA. The U.N. created regional economic and social commissions to promote integration of national projects in the Asia-Pacific (ESCAP, 1947), Latin America (ECLAC, 1948), Africa (ECA, 1958) and West Asia (ESCWA, 1973). These commissions have worked with nation-states to find ways to increase regional trade, reduce burdens of customs duties to enhance trade, and provide ways to integrate the social and cultural landscape of neighbours. The most successful example of regionalism in the current period has been in Latin America, where—under the influence of Bolivia, Brazil and Venezuela—its states have attempted to draw the continent together and to develop along an alternative policy path. Nothing like that has worked elsewhere. The ESCWA does not look to Latin America in its report, but it might. Its own suggestions remain within a neoliberal policy framework.

The third freedom—“to unshackle Arab culture from self-inflicted limits and conflicts”—is a powerful challenge. Too often the global South looks outward to the West for cultural validation. This longing turns the elite against its own population and drives a wedge between a country’s present and its past. Cultural freedom also includes a challenge to religious thought—“the aim is to break the doctrinal and institutional chains that have confined religious thought to the past and to liberate true Islam from rigid interpretations by restoring independent reason”. Some would cavil that scholars of Islam have always been in the midst of the confounding debate over reason. This might be so but it does not translate into educational institutions that favour rote learning over critical thought, the latter being a crucial element in the revitalisation of Arab institutions. Any Arab renaissance—as any renaissance in the global South—must contend with the debate between reason and received wisdom, whether in the domain of religion or in economic policy.

Jewish state

One of the great impediments to Arab integration has been the unresolved Palestinian struggle. The West’s unflinching support for Israel has corrupted the ability of states in the region to find common ground. Old trade routes that linked Syria to Egypt have been interrupted and resources that should have been turned towards social development have perforce been shifted to military purposes. Billions of dollars of military aid from the United States to Israel and Egypt and U.S. treaties for the defence of Saudi Arabia’s monarchy lower the need for regional peace.

Arab Integration wades firmly into the morass of discussions about Israel. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry claims to have a new approach to bring the Palestinians and the Israelis to the table. There is little regional pressure to make this happen. Egypt and Jordan both have full relations with Israel, and the Gulf Arab monarchies play a duplicitous game with Palestinian aspirations. The report challenges the Arab states to live up to their international obligations, including a boycott of goods produced by Israeli industry in the burgeoning settlements on Palestinian land. Without directly naming them, the report points to Egypt and Jordan as Arab states whose purchase of illegal Israeli products hinders the possibility of a Palestine state.

One other barrier to Arab integration and to Arab dignity is the constant suggestion in the Western media and in Israel that Arabs are incapable of democracy and that Israel is the “only democracy in the Middle East”. The report frontally challenges this assertion. “Israel insists on being recognised by the world and the Arabs as an exclusively Jewish state,” write the authors. “It imposes this recognition as a condition for reaching a settlement with the Palestinians. This policy is based on the concept of the religious or ethnic purity of states, which brought to humanity the worst crimes and atrocities of the twentieth century.” These are strong words. It implies that a better comparison for Israel than its preferred glance westward is to the south—to Saudi Arabia, another state that bases itself on religious supremacy and denies minorities rights. It is a comparison that the Israelis might not want to adopt. No wonder that they have strongly opposed this report, and asked the U.N. Secretary-General to rectify the situation.

The report ends with a quote from the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s “Identity Card” ( Bitaqat Hawiyya, 1963): “Write down, I am an Arab!” Darwish was a nahdawi, a person of the Arab renaissance, who was eager for his world to make its appointment with modernity. The ESCWA report roots itself in that tradition —honest about the problems that bedevil the region, but hopeful about the future that must come for a people who have ample resources to construct it.

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