The ongoing socio-economic and political
ills that mar potential progress in Middle Eastern countries can largely be
attributed to the ill-defined foreign policy of the United States.
Utterly desperate situations have arisen whereby US clients
rule with an iron fist, making prospects for a meaningful democracy sit at an
all-time low. However it would be nothing less than self-deception to elucidate
Arab social, economic and political ailments exclusively on US-Israeli military
and political belligerency; there needs to be an element of self-reflection and
responsibility to make viable any pragmatic steps towards improvement and
The Arab Human Development Reports list political and
economic regressions, rampant corruption, utter inequality, oppression of
women, and indeed men, lack of cohesion, planning, and forward thinking as
significant problems in Arab countries. The 2005 report laboured to put a
positive spin on negative situations, choosing to focus on the empowerment of
Arab women, who, in some Arab societies are denied access to schools, economic
independence and political representation.
The oil boom of the 1970s and the wave of neo-liberalism in
the 1990s have turned most Arab countries into class societies, either creating
new disparities or deepening already existing ones. But there is little class
�conflict� to speak of today; the poor are, in many cases, literally struggling
to survive on day-to-day basis, while the rich have surpassed, in arrogance and
attitude, the positions assumed by the elites of Central America. Their access
to political power, economic wealth, and total control over most media channels
have significantly deepened the divide. Many of Morocco�s poor are braving the
tumultuous Mediterranean waters to make it to Europe, to secure meagre jobs
with meagre pay, and an uncountable number of Egyptians are in constant hunt
for opportunities elsewhere. The situation everywhere is becoming more dire,
opening the doors for even greater corruption and nepotism.
The media cannot be counted on to represent the reality on
the ground. Al Jazeera and Al-Arabiya remain the exception, but they, too, are
receptive to political and economic pulls. And even without these, it takes
more than a couple TV stations to cater to the local and national needs of
hundreds of millions of people whose cultures, immediate realities and economic
and political challenges are too varied to be encapsulated in a few news
bulletins, erratic TV debates and passing slogans.
Saddest of all is the fact that Arab masses lack the ability
to even vent their frustrations, having lived under a tight grip for decades
and crushed mercilessly whenever they dared to march for their rights.
While the ruling elites lavishly spend to set themselves
apart from those at the bottom, the latter are forced to learn the language of
power, to cater to the elites� every whim. No wonder many turn to the most
immediate ways of escaping such reality. The Internet is thriving in major Arab
cities, not so much as a tool of meaningful communication, but mostly for
purposes of chatting and pornography. Both of these create alternate realities.
Chatting could also represent the start of new opportunities -- that of
premeditated �love,� or, just maybe, a green card or its equivalent in some
The situation is particularly dismal for Palestinians caught
between a brutal Israeli occupation and their own corrupt elites. While many
live under various regimes with an almost impossible legal status as stateless
people, rich Palestinians in the Gulf (and elsewhere) seem blissfully
far-removed; the immense Palestinian wealth abroad is yet to benefit the 1.4
million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, 80 percent of whom are dependent on
international aid for their survival.
The US and various European countries are contributing to
the chaos, compounding neo-liberalism with neo-imperialism, controlling the
former colonial outposts via economic dependency in the form of aid, political
and military posturing, and NGOs. The National Endowment for Democracy (NED)
and USAID are two prominent examples. NED, funded mostly by a congressional
annual allocation, was founded in 1983 to serve US foreign policy. It claims to
be �guided by the belief that freedom is a universal human aspiration that can
be realized through the development of democratic institutions, procedures, and
values.� Considering NED�s role in the coup against Venezuelan democracy in
April 2002 and other instances of soft intervention, one cannot help but
question the organization�s democratic values.
The Arab peoples are in a situation that warrants little
envy. In countries like Iraq, a functioning socioeconomic and political
structure -- despite its shortcomings -- was simply written off in May 2003,
with the signature of L. Paul Bremer, the first US ruler of Iraq. The
disbanding of the army was followed by the country�s de-Baathification
(undermining Sunnis for merely being the favored sect of Saddam), showing utter
disregard for the welfare of the Iraqi people.
The Iraq scenario has set a dreadful precedent. Those not
content with their current rulers were forced to rethink their priorities when
they saw the US-induced chaos in Iraq in action. Those who giddily capitalized
on the democracy window were mercilessly crushed. Palestinians were subdued and
democracy was snatched away from its proper owners, the majority of the people,
and was handed back to the corrupt few. In Egypt, coercion and corruption
during elections has managed to maintain the status quo.
There are no easy answers here, no snappy recommendations or
full-proof solutions. The task is truly overwhelming. But it is clear that the
true interests of the Arab peoples can only be served by Arabs themselves;
reforms can not be imposed, true, but that is impossible to achieve under the
current power relations -- rulers setting themselves up as unquestionably
superior to their people, TV channels promoting rampant consumerism and providing
endless distraction, and uncountable multitudes seeking deliverance, escapism
and, often, falling prey to extremism. For Arab countries to have some hope of
a meaningful future (and, indeed, present), grassroots work must replace
intellectual detachment, wealth must be invested in building self-sustained
societies, and, most importantly, the dignity of Arab women and men must be
preserved above all else.
Ramzy Baroud is a Palestinian-American author and editor
of PalestineChronicle.com. His
work has been published in numerous newspapers and journals worldwide. His
latest book is The
Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People�s
Struggle (Pluto Press, London). Read more about him on his website: ramzybaroud.net.