Pressure for political change is intensifying within the Arab world and unless Arab governments move much more quickly towards reform they could face chaotic social upheaval and violence, according to a new United Nations-sponsored report released today.
Urging a rapid acceleration of democratic reform, the “Arab Human Development Report 2004” calls for many far-reaching legal and political changes to fortify the institutional foundations of freedom, limit the monopoly on power currently enjoyed by the executive in most countries and ensure an independent judiciary and total free speech.
“In the absence of peaceful and effective mechanisms to address injustice and achieve political alternation, some might be tempted to embrace violent protest, with the risk of internal disorder,” the report, released in Amman, Jordan, warns.
“This could lead to chaotic upheavals that might force a transfer of power in Arab countries, but such a transfer could well involve armed violence and human losses that, however small, would be unacceptable. Nor would a transfer of power through violence guarantee that successor governance regimes would be any more desirable,” it adds.
The study, written by an independent group of leading Arab intellectuals and sponsored by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) together with the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development and the Arab Gulf Programme for UN Development Organizations, dismisses the notion that the problem is one of culture, rooting it in politics.
Throughout the region, the concentration of power in the hands of the executive –be it a monarchy, military dictatorship, or a civilian president elected without competition – has created a kind of political “black hole” at the centre of Arab political life, it says.
“The modern Arab state, in the political sense, runs close to this astronomical model, whereby the executive apparatus resembles a ‘black hole,’ which converts its surrounding social environment into a setting in which nothing moves and from which nothing escapes,” the report declares.
It did note some recent progress such as elections in Iraq and the Palestinian territories, domestic political mobilization in Lebanon, municipal elections in Saudi Arabia, the announcement of major presidential election reforms in Egypt, legislative elections with women voters and candidates in Oman and a competitive, multiparty presidential contest in Algeria.
But overall, the pace has been disappointingly limited. “Certainly, incipient reforms are taking place in more than one of the priority areas identified in this report, but for the most part those reforms have been embryonic and fragmentary,” it states. “Some gains are undoubtedly real and promising, but they do not add up to a serious effort to dispel the prevailing environment of repression.”
Among other points, the report argues institutionalized corruption and pervasive “clannism” reinforce the black hole phenomenon and says Arab countries have failed to meet their own peoples’ aspirations for development, security and liberation.
It also notes Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, which “continues to violate the individual and collective freedoms of Palestinians through assassinations, raids on heavily populated civilian areas, arbitrary arrests, house demolitions and repeated closures.”
And it singles out for condemnation attacks against civilian non-combatants by armed militants in Iraq as well as the civilian casualties of armed actions by United States-led occupation forces, which it faults for failing to meet their obligations under the Geneva Convention to provide security to Iraqi citizens. “After dismantling the old state, the US-led authorities made little progress in building a new one,” it asserts.