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Working Paper
Research Unit Middle East and Africa
Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik
German Institute for
International and Security Affairs

Yasmin Ghrawi / Peter Sass
The Political Reform
Debate in the Middle East
and North Africa
Arabic Newspapers and Journals
June 2004 – February 2005

Working Paper FG 6, 2005/01
Working papers are papers in the subject area of a Research Unit
which are not officially published by SWP. These papers are either
preliminary studies that later become papers published by SWP or
papers that are published elsewhere. Your comments are always
welcome.

Table of Contents
New Life to the Arab Reform Debate .3
Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik
German Institute
Priorities of and Approaches to Political Reform .3
for International and
Security Affairs
Perspectives on External Involvement: EU vs. US ?.4

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10719 Berlin
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swp@swp-berlin.org

Yasmin Ghrawi lives in Beirut and
holds a BA in Political Studies. She
did the main research for this paper
during a six-months internship at
SWP.
Peter Sass
holds an MA in
International Conflict Analysis and
works as research assistant and
doctoral candidate at SWP.

New Life to the Arab Reform Debate
ensuring an effective League of Arab states and estab-
lishing a shared Arab market, thereby conceptually

Against the background of the September 11 attacks,
creating a new balance between state and market.
the United States’ Greater Middle East Initiative, amended Salamé also advocates youth and women empower-
into the Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative

ment to facilitate higher levels of development.
after its approval at the G8 Summit in June 2004, has
In his article “Reform from Within,” Usama Harb, a
put new life into the debate on political reform in the
member of the Shura Council and editor-in-chief of
Arab region. It triggered a series of mainly official
the quarterly Al-Siassa al-Dawlya (International Politics)
responses such as the Sana’a Declaration in January
published by the Egyptian Al-Ahram Center, attempts to
2004 and the Tunis Declaration by the League of Arab
minimize and negate the foreign influence on reform
States in May 2004. While it should be noted that the
from a more nationalist viewpoint. He emphasizes
reform debate has been going on for decades already,
that reform should be instigated from within, a proc-
these days the discussion takes place on all levels
ess which can be coordinated between the state and
within Arab societies, among politicians, intellectuals,
civil society. According to the writer, the division be-
official and non-governmental institutions alike.
tween pro-reformists and anti-reformists within soci-
Hence this overview aims at presenting the current
ety does not correspond to the division between gov-
debate beyond the official statements, as it is held
erning and governed but rather crosscuts both sectors.
among ideologically and politically diverse Arab writ-
This implies that the forces of reform also exist within
ers and intellectuals in Arabic newspapers and jour-
governmental institutions. On a second level, the
nals. The articles incorporated reflect the divergent
writer urges the reform advocates in the region to
views within Arab societies today with regard to the
coordinate and cooperate so as to minimize the re-
priorities of political reform and the perspectives on
form pressures being exerted from the outside. Fi-
external involvement. Since a culture of renowned
nally, any reform process should express and be com-
Arabic periodicals as a forum for a specialist debate
patible with the cultural and religious values specific
does not exist, the articles were taken from regional
to each country.
media sources such as the newspapers Al-Hayat and Al-
Azmi Bishara, a Palestinian writer and Arab na-
Sharq Al-Awsat and a couple of Lebanese and Egyptian
tionalist member of the Israeli Knesset, deplores the
journals.
theoretical obscurity of the reform debate in his arti-
cle “The Idol or ‘Fetishism’ of Reform.” He discusses

Priorities of and Approaches to Political
the importance of civil society and its role in the po-
litical reform process in the region, criticizing the
mutation of concepts. In his view, the now dominant

The participants in the debate hold differing views as
equation of civil society with NGOs obscures any clear
regards the fundamental approaches to and the basic
understanding of the potentials of civil society in in-
concept of reform. The role of civil society and its
teracting with the state to engender democracy,
relation to the state is a major topic in the discussion.
thereby blocking the process of democratic transfor-
According to Ghassan Salamé, former Lebanese minis-
mation. According to Bishara the notion of reform,
ter of culture and a professor at the University of Paris, cleared of its proper definitions, has been misused as a
attaining reform falls under a single headline: devis-

tool to attain completely different objectives. Basi-
ing a new social contract between state and society in
cally, he argues, it has become a banner under which
the Arab world. For this, Salamé offers several formu-
conferences are held and money is circulated. There-
las in his article “Towards a New Contract between
fore, Bishara demands that genuine reform should
State and Society.” Above all, a comprehensive reform
entail removing administrative obstructions in the
process should encompass fundamental economic and state apparatus and social and cultural obstacles to
social reforms, Salamé argues. An essential and tangi-

democratic transformation. This in turn requires a
ble aspect of a new social contract would be the intro-
clear understanding of the main players and factors in
duction of a taxation system which is thought to en-
the reform process, above all regarding the crucial
sure the requisite trust for any reform initiative. Other role of civil society.
suggestions, following the European example, aim at

Similarly, in his article “Four More Years for Bush:
Any Arab Work Plan?,” Hassan Munaimna, a Lebanese
SWP Berlin
Arab Reform Debate
writer and a co-director of the Iraq Research and
Perspectives on External Involvement:
Documentation Project based at Harvard University,
EU versus US?
regards civil society as being primarily responsible for
initiating a comprehensive Arab reform project. As

Thus, the debate about political reform in the region
goals of the reform process, he spells out the need to
today revolves around the external forces of change,
attain a political system based on civic freedoms, citi-
particularly the American pressure. Albeit for very
zenship, separation of powers, democratic participa-
different reasons, most discussants agree on the repu-
tion, popular representation, and transparency. Fur-
diation of American intervention as an external re-
ther priorities suggested include battling corruption,
form factor. At the same time, external involvement is
guaranteeing the non-politicization of the armed
rarely perceived as American versus European. In-
forces, and fostering the transition from a state based
stead, in most cases, Western intervention is equated
on coercion to a state genuinely concerned with social
with American interference. When the distinction is
welfare.
made, however, Europe is viewed as being a more
Setting priorities differently, Arfan Nizam al-Din, a
credible and accepted partner in the reform process
Lebanese journalist and writer, in his article “Reform
than the United States.
According to the Way of Marie Antoinette” asserts that
For example, in his article entitled “Rice Opened
political reform cannot start without the resolution of
the Doors before Bush,” Arfan Nizam al-Din urges the
the Middle East conflict. According to the author, a
Arabs to invest in their relationship with Europe, ar-
final, comprehensive, and just solution to the Middle
guing that the Europeans show a better understand-
East conflict enforcing the rights of the Palestinians
ing of Arab viewpoints and are more experienced with
and providing for the end of the occupation is a sine-
the political realities in Arab countries. The geo-
qua-non condition for any regional reform effort. As a
graphical proximity of both regions, he assumes, en-
further prerequisite, he identifies the withdrawal of
tails that the European Union may eventually border
the American troops from Iraq and their replacement
the Arab world following the EU accession of Turkey
with international and Arab forces. These should work and Cyprus, which augurs a deepening of Arab-
within a set time frame to restore stability and secu-

European relations. Apart from some reservations,
rity in the country and assist in implementing a de-
Nizam al-Din regards European assistance as more
mocratic system. Simultaneously, the struggle against
credible and conducive to the Arab reform process.
terrorism should continue with tackling its sources.
Arguing divergently, in the above-mentioned article
According to Nizam al-Din, all other national chal-
Usama Harb fundamentally rejects any form of im-
lenges, including unemployment, education, freedom
posed foreign intervention in the reform process ex-
of speech, and obliteration of corruption are to be
cept for requested assistance. The writer considers the
treated as secondary problems.
external calls for reform to be destructive, fearing that
In addition, the writer demands that the reforms
they would trigger negative responses within Arab
should be advocated from within as opposed to any
societies. Moreover, anti-reformists could take advan-
foreign dictation, while ensuring that they are reflec-
tage of external reform pressures by defaming the
tive of the needs of the people and in accordance with
internal advocates of reform as allies to the refuted
Arab culture. Accordingly, Nizam al-Din refutes any
external intervention. In accordance with Nizam al-
form of foreign intervention on the basis of its incom-
Din’s position, Harb states that reform initiatives are
patibility with Islamic beliefs and Arab culture and its
the duty of domestic forces who should be the primary
detachment from regional conditions. External reform agents of reform as they possess comprehensive
pressures, he maintains, only touch upon the façade

knowledge of the respective conditions and the result-
rather than contribute to comprehensive solutions of
ing priorities regarding their country.
the deep-rooted problems in the Arab world.
From a normative idealist perspective, in his article
“Towards a New Contract between State and Society,”
Ghassan Salamé sheds light on why in his view the US
position as a contributor to the reform process is gen-
erally revoked and lacks credibility in Arab societies.
The disregard for international law, violation of hu-
man rights, and breaching of international protocols

SWP Berlin
Arab Reform Debate
May 2005
4
place the United States, as the writer puts it, in the
and particularly American — political agenda, Tara-
“suspicion booth.” Thus, the American demands on
bishi contends.
the region to respect ethical values and conventions,
In his article “Bye Bye Reforms” Faisal al-Qassim,
which the US administration itself disregards, present
an anchorman on Al-Jazeera TV, maintains that reform
its position as being blatantly hypocritical, Salamé
is only feasible through an interplay of external and
argues. Consequently, American interference is re-
internal factors. In his opinion, those who claim that
jected by all forces within society, pro-reformists and
reform only emanates from within simply advocate
anti-reformists alike.
the perpetuation of despotic Arab leaderships. On the
In similar vein, in his article referred to above,
other hand, external involvement would not be re-
Azmi Bishara considers US calls for reform to be an
voked, he supposes, if calls for reform were genuine.
obstacle to “genuine reform” in the region. This no-
However, the American demands fall short of incen-
tion is to purport a process of democratic transforma-
tives for extensive change, such as confronting human
tion in contrast to a mere “ornamental” reform which
rights violations and the removal of despotic authori-
he claims is advocated by the United States. This im-
tarian regimes. To strengthen his argument, al-Qassim
plies that recent regional developments show a clear
contrasts the American support for political change in
consensus among the US and Arab leaderships on
Eastern Europe in 1989–90 with the US approach to-
merely implementing a few façade changes which
ward the Arab region today. Although he concedes
actually perpetuate the rule of the current elites.
that certainly American interests were involved in the
Therefore, the only way to conceive of successful re-
case of the Eastern European countries, these eventu-
form is to generate root changes to the ruling elite,
ally benefited from US involvement by becoming EU
the author concludes.
members after the abolition of their communist re-
In a more elaborated manner, in his article “Façade
gimes. Yet while today the US administration rhetori-
Democracy: The Extent of Western Demands to the
cally encourages regime change similar to the Eastern
Arab Leaderships” George Tarabishi, a Syrian writer
European “white revolutions,” it simultaneously sup-
and editor-in-chief of the Dirassat Arabia (Arabic Stud-
ports and stabilizes the despotic Arab regimes de facto
ies) journal, criticizes the way Western democracies
to safeguard its own interests. Therefore, the Eastern
befriend despotic Arab regimes. Nevertheless, Ta-
European scenario of a gentle regime change is not
rabishi refrains from condemning the West per se to
transferable to the Arab world, al-Qassim concludes.
be hypocritical for two reasons. First, he puts forward
A more affirmative perspective is put forward by
that there simply exist two “versions” of the West —
the former Yemeni foreign minister Abdallah al-Asnaj
European and American — which assume different
in his article “Are the Arabs Playing with Lost Time?”.
roles and approaches. Second, he concedes that gener-
He encourages cooperation between the United States
ally the Western position has become more assertive
and Arab states to instigate the process of democratic
toward its despotic Arab allies since the September 11
reform in the region. Al-Asnaj criticizes the condem-
attacks, resulting in a geo-strategic transformation in
nation of the American calls for reform. He claims
Western policies. Nevertheless, to Tarabishi it is still
that the reason for such criticism does not lie in the
evident that as long as the interests of the West are
direction or credibility of American policies. Rather,
fulfilled, Arab regimes are not forced to pursue de-
he assumes, it is to be found in the absence of a com-
mocratic transformation.
prehensive consensual and self-initiated Arab reform
According to the author, there are two kinds of
project. Consequently, al-Asnaj argues for the neces-
Arab despotism, one which is hostile to the West and
sity to adapt to the changes in international politics
hence rejected — as was the case in Iraq — and another
and to obey the rules of the international game as
one which is loyal to the West and accepted, as in the
dictated by the United States. Furthermore, he advo-
case of Tunisia. Accordingly, the recent case of Libya
cates strengthening the relations with Washington
regaining Western appreciation through merely
while taking into account the regional capabilities
changing its foreign policy instead of domestic politics and circumstances, in order to begin advancing re-
in his view has shown that none of the despotic politi-

form from within.
cal systems in the Arab world is confronted with real
Along the same line of argument, in his article re-
pressure to allow for political change. Instead, these
ferred to above Hassan Munaimna states that political
regimes are simply expected to adjust to a Western —
reform is simply inevitable. The only two options to
SWP Berlin
Arab Reform Debate
choose from include a reform based on a work plan
Hence, the fundamental break to be faced by Arab
which places the common and specific Arab interests
societies today may concern the opening of society
on top of the list, or a reform project which is con-
and the very establishment of a political public able to
fined to meeting American and other foreign de-
lead a debate on reform, in the first place, which is
mands. Thus, external intervention is not necessarily
not merely academic but politically salient. This idea
encouraged but is still seen as inevitable.
is taken up in an outspoken editorial by Youssef Ibra-
Arguing for a more pragmatic perspective in his ar-
him, former Middle East correspondent of the New
ticle “Free at Last through an Arab-Western Joint Ven-
York Times, entitled “Fear Dominant in Arab Psyche.”
ture,” Rami Khoury, editor-in-chief of the Lebanese
His article in Gulf News identifies a basic dread perva-
English-language newspaper The Daily Star, affirms that sive in Arab minds, surfacing both in self-censored
the debate between those in the Arab world who have

media and everyday life in the form of “nervous jokes
argued that reform can only come from within and
and absurd commentary that wastes hours describing
others who have been arguing for strong pressure
black as white.” Ibrahim views this fear as the main
from abroad may eventually be in vain. In light of
obstacle to any movement for social and political
recent promising events such as the elections in Iraq
and the Palestinian territories and the popular move-
“Our governments, our schools, our social systems,
ment in Lebanon, Khouri considers it more important
our economies, and our very sense of ethical conduct
“to focus on what needs to be done by all concerned
are all failed models whose shelf life is over. If Arab
parties, rather than argue about who started the ball
writers and pundits cannot say this, document it,
rolling. We both did. Let’s keep it rolling, so that all
analyse it and focus on it without fear, we cannot even
Arabs, like their counterparts in other lands, can be
begin to reform. And if we cannot reform, what is left
free at last.”
of Arab civilisation will evaporate making place for a
new agenda set by someone else. This is happening in

Iraq, and it will happen to every society that blocks
the oxygen to its people.”

There is indeed a lot of discussion taking place con-
The notion that the Arab world now stands at a wa-
cerning the political reformation of the region. How-
tershed is shared by Hassan Munaimna who con-
ever, as this overview shows, the problem appears to
cludes that the main challenge facing the region today
be that the debate on political reform is held in a
is to realize that the current developments will have a
rather abstract manner, often centering on conceptual lasting impact in reshaping the region, constituting a
and fundamental issues, without relating them to

new era rather than a passing phase.
elaborate political programs. Moreover, the discussion
tends to be highly emotional, especially when focus-
ing on outside intervention. By shifting the focus of
the debate from Arab states and societies to external
interference, the latter is often portrayed as the main

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