Political stagnation presents a pressing challenge for the Arab world. In a new Q&A, Marwan Muasher identifies the major obstacles to reform in the region and talks about the path forward and role the international community can play in encouraging reform. 

Muasher argues that the Arab world is trapped between two major forces—an entrenched political establishment that lacks checks and balances on the one hand, and Islamist movements who are often militant and whose commitment to political diversity is often suspect on the other. “There does not exist in the Arab world today a mobilized and effective third force which is both peaceful and reformist,” he says. 


Is reform in the Arab world stagnating? 

If you compare the Arab world to the rest of the world in terms of governance indicators, it is at the bottom—or near the bottom—of the list. There is no question that political reform is stagnating in the Arab world. There is not a single Arab country today that can be seen as adopting a serious and sustained political reform process. And this is really leaving the Arab world behind almost everybody else.

There have been different reasons given for why the Arab world is in such a state of stagnation and likely all of them are true. Some cite the Arab world’s history of colonialism. The Arab–Israeli conflict is an impediment and an excuse for not moving forward. All post-party, post-independence, secular parties in the Arab world have really not given the issue of reform any attention and focused almost all their attention on the Arab–Israeli conflict. Since 1967 and the victory of Israel over Arab states, the secular discourse lost credibility and Islam started to rise because of this. Oil has often been cited as a reason. With oil revenues, many Arabs states do not have any taxation to speak of, which raises the famous question of “No taxation, no representation.” 

So there are a variety of reasons why the Arab world is where it is today. But when looking at all these reasons there is no excuse for not moving forward when almost every other region in the world has been able to deal with and overcome its own challenges. 


What are the obstacles to reform in the Arab world?  

Between 2002 and 2005, The United Nations Development Programme published a number of important reports written by Arabs that identified the major challenges facing the Arab world today. And they listed three: governments and political diversity is the first, empowerment of women is the second, and the knowledge gap that exists between the Arab world and the rest of the world is the third. These capture most—if not all—of the challenges facing the Arab world today. 

The question then is how to move forward? Progress cannot be done through an evolutionary approach. To achieve democracy you need a sustained process that may take decades. But, an evolutionary process needs to start at least and there needs to be a sustained, gradual, but serious reform process that would ensure all the needed pillars of democracy—not just free elections, but also an independent judiciary, freedom of the press, and human rights. 

It is sad to say that no Arab country today has embarked on such a process in a serious manner. There have been ad hoc programs here and there to advance certain causes, but no holistic program that looks at all these elements and attempts to advance them in a serious manner. 


What are the forces for change in the region? 

The Arab world today has two major forces and two major forces only—either an entrenched political establishment that rules without a system of checks and balances, or the Islamist opposition, which is calling for reform, but which is often armed or militant and whose commitment to political diversity at all times is suspect at best. 

There does not exist in the Arab world today a mobilized and effective third force which is both peaceful and reformist, which is as passionate about peace—both domestic and regional peace—as it is on reform and the need to have a serious political reform process. 

The political establishment has been resistant to change (citing different reasons) but in my view, the main reason is because they will lose their privileges. 

The forces of change in the Arab world have now largely come from the Islamists, who provide their own set of challenges because people are also concerned about losing political diversity if they come to power as they could then deny others the right to organize. 

Forces for change calling for political diversity at all times and for peaceful means in the Arab world are very isolated, not mobilized, and tend to be elitist. Therefore they have not—yet—mobilized the large constituencies that could create effective change. 


What is needed for change? 

You need a middle class that is active, freedom for civil society to work in the Arab world, and the establishment of political parties that can start working on the ground and offering alternatives to either the political establishments or the Islamists. Of course, in most cases, governments stand against the development of such an environment, so political party laws are restrictive in the Arab world and civil society cannot operate without the consent of the government. 

But the development of a middle class and civil society can only take place over time and it has to be both a bottom-up process as well as a top-down process. If we do not have these two processes, then the gap between the government and the public in the Arab world is really widening. 


Are there countries in the region that can serve as leaders in Arab reform? 

Certain countries have put forward models and initiatives that were important for the rest of the region. You’ve had, for example, Morocco that came up in 2003 with a new civil status law that did a lot to bridge the gender discrimination gap. You’ve had countries—Lebanon, Tunisia, Jordan—that worked on the education aspect of the problem and the need for better quality education in the Arab world. You have countries like Yemen who worked on human rights and the need to push forward the idea of civil society organizations working in a more free environment. But it is difficult to point out to a country that has looked at all these aspects and made serious advances on all these fronts in a sustained manner. 


Does economic development impact a country’s political system? 

Economic development has had a positive effect as well as a negative one. We have seen the effect of oil, which has not only been positive. Yes, on one hand it has resulted in high growth rates and high rates of development in many parts of the Arab world. But it has also slowed the pace of reform in the region because of what we have talked about before. 

But economic development without political reform has its limits. In the end you cannot bring in foreign investments without an independent judiciary, for example, that ensures when disputes happen that people are given a fair trial. You cannot fight corruption without a free press, or an independent judiciary, or a strong parliament. So when we talk about economic development in isolation of political reform, then that by itself will not result in an overall better quality in the Arab world.


How does the Israeli–Palestinian divide impact the process of reform? 

Certainly the Arab–Israeli conflict has played a major role in slowing down the pace of reform in the Arab world. One, a lot of resources have been channeled to the Arab–Israeli conflict and away from development and domestic issues. But it has not resulted, of course, in a resolution of the conflict or in addressing these other issues. And it has also been used as an excuse. Many Arab governments found this a convenient excuse for not moving forward on reform. In the 1950s, we had a very famous slogan that “no voice should rise up above that of liberation.” In the end, we did not achieve liberation and did not achieve reform as well. 

No political reform process can be sustained in a serious manner without the resolution of the Arab–Israeli conflict. The other side is also is true—that the Arab world cannot wait for the resolution of the Arab–Israeli conflict before it embarks on a gradual and serious political reform process. These have to go in tandem, and this is something that is not happening now. 


Can the West help the Arab world reform and change? 

Any serious and widely accepted political reform process has, by definition, to be homegrown. You cannot talk about any process that is imposed from the outside. At the same time though, the international community can certainly help by supporting the moderate discourse, but doing that in a partnership model rather than by any imposition from the outside. The Bush administration’s attempt, for example, to push reform in the region largely failed precisely because they were seen as an imposition from the outside without the consent of the region. 

Having said that, I think many countries in the region have used this homegrown argument as an excuse to do nothing on reform. So, there needs to be a happy medium between a homegrown process and dialogue and collaboration with the international community to support such a process.

There have been different models employed—some that have worked better than others. I do not like to use even the word “push” in regards to democracy because it does not work, and it has been tried before through such initiatives as the Greater Middle East Initiative and others that have not worked. 

There are other models that may have worked better. The Europeans tried the Barcelona Process, partnership agreements in the Arab world where you have jointly agreed-on programs that have pushed political reform forward. The trick is to ensure that when such programs are devised, that you’re not just doing things in an ad hoc manner or in a way that does not result collectively in a serious political reform process. So one should not just look at individual programs, but at how these individual programs then come together to put the region on a track that will lead to democratization, which would then lead to democracy in a few decades.