The third Arab Human Development Report calls for swift and sweeping political, economic and social reforms throughout the Arab world. “If Arab countries are not rapidly democratized,” the report states, “they will face internal revolts or reform pressures from external powers.”
The authors of the report, about 40 independent Arab scholars and intellectuals, have found that the lack of freedom is one of the key factors that keep the Arab region lagging behind the rest of the world.
“It is their assertion, not ours, that the Arab region is the least free in the world in terms of civil liberties and democratic governance,” says William Orme, a spokesman for the United Nations Development Program, which published the report.
The authors say repressive governments are primarily responsible for stifling freedom. Most countries in the region are governed under a state of emergency, which the report states, enables rulers to curb citizens’ rights under the pretext that they are keeping the country stable.
“The authors urge that these states of emergency be lifted, arguing that they are not emergencies, that this has become the sort of default or status quo for most governments in the region,” says William Orme.
For years, the report says, Arab rulers have used the conflict over Israel and the occupation of some ten percent of Arab territories as an excuse to hold on to power. They have suppressed political and human rights, freedom of speech and free flow of information. Religion has often been used as an instrument of repression.
There are some variations among Arab governments. But even those that have parliaments and constitutions are not functioning democracies, says Richard Parker, former U-S Ambassador to Algeria, Lebanon and Morocco.
“Lebanon was a functioning democracy. But that collapsed under the weight of outside influences, including Israel, the Palestinians Syrians and others – Iraqis, even Americans,” says Ambassador Parker.
The Arab Human Development Report criticizes Israel for occupying the Palestinian territories and the United States for occupying Iraq, which it contends has undermined Arab reform efforts. Both countries have rejected the criticism, but some analysts agree with it. James Zogby, President of the Arab-American Institute, a research and polling organization here in Washington, adds the U.S. has lost much of its credibility in the Arab world.
“I think that other U-S policies in the post 9-11 era on civil and human rights have also helped take the United States out of the game. Certain Arab regimes today justify their human rights policies by saying, we are doing what the US does,” says Mr. Zogby.
The Arab Human Development Report also criticizes the United States for inflicting further suffering on Iraqis after rescuing them from Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. David Newman, a former U-S Ambassador to Iraq and Yemen, says that’s unfair.
“The report criticizes the United States for getting rid of Saddam’s government. But it also criticizes the US for supporting Mubarak’s government. You can’t really have it both ways.”
Ambassador Newman says while democracy in the Arab world must come from the people of the region, the rest of the world can help. He believes Iraq’s current efforts will succeed.
“Having lived in Iraq, I have always been impressed by the fact that Iraq has a large, well educated, moderate, well disciplined middle class, mainly in the large cities. And I think we are seeing that in the very commendable number of Iraqis who are going out and trying to get their country established now," says Ambassador Newman. "And many of them are being killed, assassinated and kidnapped in the process, but they still keep doing it.”
According to the report, most Arabs are fed up with their repressive regimes and are ready to press for the same political, economic and social liberties that people in some other parts of the world take for granted. That’s why, the report says, “partial reforms, no matter how varied, are no longer effective or even possible.”