Analysis: While the Arab world slept

By CLAUDE SALHANI, UPI Contributing Editor  |  Dec. 8, 2008 at 1:49 PM
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WASHINGTON, Dec. 8 (UPI) -- The end of the year traditionally is a good time for reflection. It is a time to take stock of what has been accomplished during the past 12 months and to look forward to what one hopes to achieve over the coming new year. In the case of the Arab world, it's been a dismal year, and the outlook for 2009, regretfully, hardly looks any better. Unless ...

The region's leadership has demonstrated complete lack of political foresight. Their inability to place petty quarrels aside, combined with an absolute lust for power that takes precedence over national or pan-Arab interests, has contributed to keeping the Middle East trailing behind other regions.

The Palestinian-Israeli peace talks have been treading water while Hamas, now in full control of the Gaza Strip, and the Palestinian National Authority, whose authority extends only to the West Bank, continue to squabble. The possibility of settling the Israeli-Palestinian dispute has never been closer, with encouraging statements from both sides. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recognized, in an interview granted to Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth earlier this year, the need for Israel to withdraw from "nearly all, if not all, of the (occupied) territories."

And the Palestinian National Authority's Prime Minister Salam Fayyad stated: "We don't just seek peace. We seek a meaningful and lasting peace with Israel. We seek strong ties with Israel. We seek strong economic ties between the independent states and Israel and Palestine. We seek warm relations with Israel. We do not want to get to the point where we just accept each other."

Yet, instead of focusing their energies on solving the issues and creating a better future for their people, Hamas and the PA continue to battle each other.

And the Palestinians are not alone in that category. Lebanon hardly fares better, with recent armed clashes proving that in Lebanon, at least, the bullet remains a more convincing form of politics than the ballot. How depressing.

Other countries in the region don't even bother with balloting, and power passes from father to son as though running the country were a family business.

In Libya, Moammar Gadhafi has been in power since 1969. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak has been president since 1981, and if he could have his way Mubarak would hand power over to his son, Gamal. In Syria, Hafez Assad came to power in 1970 and ruled until his death in 2000, when he was replaced by his son Bashar.

During that same period of time the United States has had eight presidents: Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton and Bush Jr.

The tragedy in the Arab world is that some of the area's leadership still appear to be caught in a time warp, stuck in the twilight zone of the 1960s when totalitarian regimes flourished in Eastern Europe and Central and South America.

The sad result is that, despite the area's many riches, from oil to minerals to manpower, many of the 22 members of the Arab League continue to come in at the back of the queue of politically mature nations, trailing behind other countries with similar GDPs in terms of respect for human rights, guaranteed freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of religion.

While countries that were somewhat in similar situations have moved forward in leaps and bounds, many countries in the region remain stagnant. The former communist nations that once were part of the Soviet empire are today free and democratic. Some have joined the European Union and others the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In Latin America, dictatorships from the left as well as from the right have all but disappeared and, with few exceptions, have been replaced by democratically elected governments.

Many in the Arab world raised their voices -- rightfully so -- in protest at the United States' extrajudicial limbo established in Guantanamo, where suspected terrorists were detained. However, just a few months ago Egypt reopened detention camps where political prisoners are detained and routinely tortured. It is in one of those facilities that outspoken blogger Mohammed Khairi is currently being held. An order from the government prosecutor demanding the blogger's release was ignored because the camps operate outside Egypt's legal system.

According to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, neither the prosecutor general nor any other civil department has the authority to do anything about it.

A good example of the Arab world's ill-preparedness when it comes to playing in the greater geopolitical arena is the absence of a unified approach from the leaders of the Arab world toward members of the incoming Obama administration. As, indeed, is the absence of any contacts between the Arab League, speaking on behalf of all its members, and Israel's two top contenders for the prime ministership, Binyamin Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni.

As a comparison, the European Union -- 27 countries speaking 23 languages and belonging to more than a dozen different religions -- presented the Obama team with a unified paper on what steps it believes the United States should take regarding a number of sensitive issues.

Rather than being proactive, the Arab leadership prefers to adopt a wait-and-see policy, and later complain. As Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University, commented a few years ago, "The Arabs love to complain."

And that, no doubt they will do.


(Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times.)

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