Arabs Seek to Reconcile Liberty and Nationalism
SHAKEN by the Gulf war, many in the Arab world are seeking to regroup and forge a new political identity. At the core of their efforts is an increasingly open debate over the need to reform authoritarian systems and restore unity in the region. From Morocco in North Africa to Qatar in the Gulf, Arab intellectuals are challenging their governments by advocating unconditional democratization.
This political soul-searching is a direct outcome of the Gulf war - specifically Iraq's defeat and the stark divisions between the small, wealthy Gulf states and the larger, poorer Arab states.
The reassessment is spearheaded by some Arab thinkers who see the general absence of political freedom as a major factor allowing Iraq's occupation of Kuwait and the subsequent armed intervention in the Gulf to occur.
But there is friction over:
*-Who is to blame for precipitating the Gulf war - Saddam or the Arab nations who joined the alliance against him?
*-Arab attitudes toward citizens of the Gulf states.
Iraqi political scientist Wamidh Nazmi concedes the absence "of the minimum level of democracy in Iraq" was one of the major "mistakes" of the leadership. Mr. Nazmi, who took part in a recent conference sponsored by the Center for Arab Unity Studies here recently, argues, however, that this did not justify other Arab governments' participation in the war against Iraq.
"If Iraq had committed mistakes, these governments had committed great sins by taking part in the war against the Iraqi people," claims Dr. Nazmi, who has been openly critical of Iraqi abuses of human rights in Kuwait.
Many Gulf intellectuals disagree. They say Iraq's occupation and lack of other Arabs' solidarity with the Kuwaiti people compelled them to support the war.
"A major problem is that many Arabs do not see the people in the Gulf as part of the Arab nation," says a Gulf activist. "The Gulf crisis has revealed we are viewed as a distinct wealthy class that deserves to be penalized.... Many Arabs definitely do not distinguish between the Gulf regimes and the people."
Abdul Khaleq Abdullah, a professor and advocate of democratization from the United Arab Emirates, warns that this attitude will deepen divisions. "The nature of the political rhetoric that is being used will only serve to alienate the people in the Gulf," he says.
At the conference, some proponents called for democracy as an end in itself; others saw pluralism as a means to reestablish a sense of solidarity and independence from foreign influence.
According to Talaat Musalam, a retired Egyptian Army officer, the destruction of Iraq's military might and the presence of foreign troops in the Gulf has undermined Arab security and tipped the balance of power in favor of Israel. Mr. Musalam cites the "weakness or absence of political popular participation" as a major cause of imbalance in the Arab political order, which increases vulnerability to foreign threats.
Still, discussions and publications about the war reflect a trend to address shortcomings in Arab society rather than attribute all problems to foreign factors.
"Democracy should not be sacrificed for any other value or cause - including Arab unity," said a recent declaration approved by more than 60 prominent pan-Arab thinkers.
This conclusion could be a turning point in pan-Arab nationalist thinking which in the past gave priority to sovereignty and political unity over democracy.
Many Arab governments have indicated a willingness to introduce some legal reforms. But experts say change is limited - and constrained by the prevalence of emergency laws, absence of press freedoms, and rise of conservative Islamic fundamentalism.
Even as demands for democracy have become louder, violations of civil rights continue as some governments resist change. A striking example is Kuwait, where there are reports of torture and summary trials for those suspected of collaborating with Iraq.
In Saudi Arabia, an embryonic democratic movement is reportedly facing resistance from conservative Muslims. Recently, thousands of supporters of an outspoken cleric converged on the governor's palace in northern Saudi Arabia when he banned the cleric from preaching. Riyadh is expected to replace the governor, and some Saudis worry that it might crack down on reformists.
Many Arab intellectuals say the most promising models for democratic transformation are Jordan and Algeria - both of which, in response to popular sentiment, refused to join the US-led coalition against Iraq. Jordan last week adopted a national charter legalizing a multiparty system.
But Algeria's experiment received a setback when violent fundamentalist protests led to a state of emergency and postponement of elections in late May.
"The real threat is in that the Islamic fundamentalists are using democracy to end democracy," a Moroccan rights activist says.