A group of prominent Arab intellectuals is warning of "chaotic upheaval" in the Arab world unless governments yield to demands for democratic reform. The warning is contained in a newly published Arab Human Development Report, sponsored by the United Nations. Tthe report presents a harsh assessment of efforts by many Arab leaders to stifle political freedom.
In blunt language, the authors of the latest Arab Human Development Report describe most Arab states as "black holes" that convert the surrounding social environment into a setting where nothing moves and nothing escapes.
The group of 39 Arab scholars charges that in a majority of cases, Arab leaders - backed by powerful intelligence apparatus - command an indefensible and unsustainable monopoly on power. They note that the modern-day Arab state is frequently referred to as "the intelligence state".
Former Arab League Ambassador Clovis Maksoud, now a professor of International Relations at American University in Washington, acted as an adviser to the authors. He says Arab leaders should be forewarned that they face chaos and uprising if they fail to change.
"When you concentrate power in hands of head of state or regime, naturally he's going to subvert all aspects of the intelligence community to make them tell him what he likes to hear, rather than what he ought to hear because of the absence of checks and balances in the society, that would mean that he has closed all avenues of discourse with the citizenry," he said. "Consequently this is going to lead to one hand perpetuation of authoritarian regime or the explosion of the populace in confronting."
Ambassador Maksoud used his own country, Lebanon, as an example of how the suppression of freedom can explode into a popular uprising; even one, as in Lebanon, that transcends other rivalries.
"As you've seen in recent weeks and months, there has been a contagion of popular uprisings, spontaneous, elegant, clear like in Lebanon after the assassination of the prime minister Hariri, there has been an insistence in Lebanon for example that they want to know the truth; who, why, and for what reason, and I think that this puts the intelligence, nobody's yet accusing anybody, but there's no doubt there is responsibility of the intelligence agencies and security forces, and they have to respond to, why did they not prevent such a thing, and why didn't they investigate it quickly," he said. "This popular uprising has transcended the traditional Lebanese factionalism of being Christian and Muslim. It wiped it away, in a way."
In the few days since its release, the report has received intensive coverage, and sparked sharp debate in the Arab world. U.N. Development Program spokesman William Orme says in terms of its impact, the report is already a huge success.
If you look at the Arab media, all of the leading news organizasions, and most respected print organizations like al-Hayat and satellite news channels like al-Arabiya and al-Jazeera," he said. "All of these organizations have devoted a great deal of attention to the findings of the report, and this is what matters to us. This is ultimately a report by Arabs, intellectuals, scholars, policymakers opinion leaders, speaking to Arabs, the report was written in Arabic, that's the audience it's directed to, and it has achieved its purpose, which is to stimulate a dialogue about democratic reform throughout the region."
The report, though released last week, is dated 2004. Publication was delayed more than six months as the authors hammered out a consensus on its conclusions. The delay prompted a flood of media speculation that the United States was objecting to language critical of U.S. policy toward Israel and the invasion of Iraq.
UNDP spokesman Orme, however, called the stories "inaccurate".
"It's an attractive narrative, the idea that the U.S. intervened, saw an early draft - demanded changes - and that's why we're late," he said. "The problem with this story is that it actually never happened. During the editing process of this book, we had no interference from the United States, and at no point did they have an early draft."
The authors say the interference controversy may have had the unintended effect of adding to the report's legitimacy among Arabs. The lead writer, Nader Fergani told journalists "it was good to have had the fight and to have won it".
A fourth report, on the empowerment of Arab women, is due out later this year.