The Arab world: Time for a reset?
We need a far-reaching public conversation about an urgent overhaul of national governance and regional relations.
In the Arab world today, there is a treacherous tendency to pigeonhole people into a one-dimensional identity, whether it is religion, sect, ethnicity or nationality. We often hear voices claiming that there is no such thing as the Arab world and that the Palestinian peoples’ persecution is not our concern or that our Muslim faith is our sole identity.
This troubling uncertainty regarding our identity is a reaction to and a result of decades of botched management of our fortunes by inept authoritarian rulers who often engaged in power struggles, holding the public hostage to their personal aggrandisement.
This degenerative and lethal trend has contributed to the fraying of societal cohesion and the fragmentation of the Arab world. It has also plunged many parts of the region into violence and misery.
Ironically, this trend runs contrary to the reality of our world today, characterised by the constant movement of people, goods and ideas and by a vibrant cross-cultural interface. Today, identity is becoming increasingly more complex and multi-layered and there is also a conscious effort to highlight commonalities and downplay differences to nurture peaceful coexistence among people and nations.
Perceiving our identity through this prism means that what an Egyptian Copt, a Lebanese Shia, an Iraqi Kurd or a Moroccan Amazigh has in common with his compatriots and neighbours in terms of language, roots, culture, history and geography transcends differences that may exist. This way of thinking is critical to the present we share and the future we must build together.
While the world is in a process of soul searching due to the pandemic, it is important, at this low point in our history, to embark on a reset of our present trajectory. The choices we make today will be fundamental to our future. Are we better off in terms of security, economic and social development, cultural advancement, etc when we are divided, easily fall prey to foreign interests and have little political and economic leverage?
Or should we look to models, such as the European Union and other emerging entities around the world, whose members rightly recognise that most of the threats they face know no borders and that most of their challenges and opportunities require collective action?
If, as I hope, we conclude that it is in our best interest to close ranks, we must first shed the habit of papering over our shortcomings or apportioning blame to someone else. We then need to have a thoughtful conversation among our intellectual elite in the Arab world, an elite that has been largely marginalised. For this conversation to be meaningful, it must include the civil society, long suppressed and sidelined, as well as the general public. We should focus on who we are, what constitutes our national security, what we want to achieve and how best to go about it.
In many parts of the Arab world, we have not even agreed on the requisite social contract that prescribes the basic values and principles needed to safeguard our social cohesion. The often ambiguous and sometimes controversial relationship between religion, morality and the law giving rise to many conflicts and disputes is just one glaring example.
This public conversation would make it painfully clear that the Arab League, long considered an embodiment of our common identity, is clinically dead. It would also make it evident that our system of regional security has been upended and outsourced. It would also highlight what the Arab Spring made abundantly clear – that there is an urgent need for reform in governance that guarantees the rule of law, political participation and human rights. It would also make it obvious that we are trailing behind in the basic tools for progress – science, technology, research and education – despite the financial and human resources at our disposal.
We urgently need a democratic system of governance with transparency and accountability undergirded by a vibrant civil society. We definitely need to learn to live together, both within and across borders, as one nation accepting diversity and respecting minorities.
A credible stand-alone system of regional security that protects us and safeguards our interests is of paramount importance – a system that can help address the complex relations with our neighbours. In this context, a dialogue with Iran and Turkey, with whom we have many disagreements, but also much in common, is long overdue. A clear, unified strategy on how to cope with Israel’s blatant violation of Palestinian rights is a high priority.
We need to catch up with the modern world by investing in cutting-edge centres of technology, top tier universities and think tanks. We need to become an active contributor to civilisation and not just a passive bystander.
And above all, we must put an end to the futile wars and horrific bloodshed that continue to devastate our people and seek to resolve our differences through dialogue and mutual accommodation. These wars have been a blot on our collective conscience for far too long.
Undoubtedly, this is a tall order, but I hope that we have the courage and the wisdom to start taking the first steps. A gradual and inclusive reform process is imperative and time-sensitive if we are to avoid further decline and the risk of uncontrolled turmoil.