Politics & Policy

Reaching For Reform

A cautious--but promising--trend in the Middle East.

In the May 31, 2004, issue of Newsweek, Fareed Zakaria, who could hardly be called supportive of U.S. efforts in the Middle East, admitted, “Bush’s efforts to push for reform in the Arab world–despite the irritation it has caused–has put the topic front and center on the region’s agenda. Everywhere in the Arab world, people are talking about reform…. ‘People won’t admit it, but three years ago reform was something few talked about,’ said a Jordanian diplomat. ‘Today it’s everywhere…’”

Since the Bush administration announced the U.S. Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) on December 12, 2002, governments in the Middle East have given this and subsequent U.S.-sponsored reform initiatives a chilly reception. The concept of reform, however, has since taken root in the Arab world in a manner previously unimagined–such that even the Arab League grudgingly climbed on the bandwagon this week.

As the president of the American University of Kuwait, Shafeeq Ghabra, wrote in the Lebanese Daily Star on March 16: “The issue of reform was not even addressed in the Arab region a few months ago… It was officially dealt with when the U.S. administration brought it up. Talk of reform will most probably disappear if the U.S. administration stops calls for it… [But] Arab countries that refuse reforms being imposed are the same ones which adopted imported socialist and revolutionary thought and imported the doctrine of military coups, capitalist doctrine, or other ideas generated by the West.”

While the governments of the Middle East insist that they will never accept reform dictated from outside, a look at each country reveals that widespread debate regarding reform is now underway. Conferences on reform have been held this year in Yemen, Egypt, Jordan, and Qatar. The daily headlines of most Arabic newspapers discuss reform, while substantial time is given to it on television. Almost every speech made by Arab leaders also mentions reform.

A growing list of Arab states, including Yemen, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Mauritania, are dependent on grants directly from the MEPI. The initiative focuses on four pillars: economic, political, educational, and women’s issues. Other Arab states such as Egypt and Jordan increasingly rely on U.S. foreign aid, some of which is directed to reform initiatives. According to State Department statistics, the U.S. quadrupled funding for the MEPI since it was launched. In 2002, the Bush administration committed $29 million to the MEPI, while $100 million was spent in 2003 and $145 million in 2004.

The latest MEPI grants were announced on May 7, and involved $5 million to be spent on: strengthening democratic processes in Moroccan communities; establishing a TV network for girls and young women that will be broadcast in Qatar, the UAE, Egypt, and Jordan; building business aptitude for Yemeni youth; assisting women and civil society in Jordan; and bringing young Arab leaders for business training in the U.S.

Recent articles in the Arab press have reported on successful MEPI projects such as e-learning classrooms, health clinics for women, conferences focusing on transparency and accountability in business, and workshops devoted to women’s rights. As Arab countries are underdeveloped, the impact of these projects on society has been tremendous.

An increasing number of Arab figures are recognizing the importance of President Bush’s reform initiatives, and have come out in support of them. Former Jordanian Information Minister Salleh Al-Qallab wrote in the London Arabic daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat on March 10, “The greatest lie that the opponents to reform in the framework of the Greater Middle East Initiative are trying to propagate is that all the Arab nations reject the initiative–which is untrue and inaccurate.” Even the anti-American columnist Jihad Al-Khazen wrote in Al-Hayat on April 7, “The American suggestions for reform are not bad, despite the intentions of the Bush administration, and they must not be rejected simply because they stemmed out of the U.S.”

The United Nations has also embraced the Bush administration’s call for reform in the Arab world under the auspices of the United Nations Development Program, with the release of two reports on Arab Human Development. The main author of these reports, Nader Fergany, was accused by many in the Arab world of exposing the dirty laundry of the region: examining the lack of freedom, high illiteracy rate, and low per-capita GDP within the Arab world. Writing in Al-Hayat on March 17, Fergany claimed, “The American project for the Middle East is based on the AHDR [Arab Human Development Programs]. This might add credibility to an Arab serious step toward reforms….”

While Arab leaders have publicly declared their apprehension regarding U.S. reform initiatives, they have not refused U.S. funds or the implementation of programs in their countries devoted to reform–a promising sign.

Steven Stalinsky is executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute.

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