May 12, 2004 Special Dispatch No. 710

Positive Reactions in the Arab Media to the Greater Middle East Initiative

May 12, 2004
Special Dispatch No. 710

The U.S.'s Greater Middle East Initiative, which calls for comprehensive economic, social, cultural, and political reforms, has placed the issue of reform high on the agenda of the Arab and Muslim world. While the initiative is slated to be officially announced at the G8 Summit, set for June 8-10, 2004 on Sea Island, Georgia, U.S., leaks to the press have already drawn objections from Arab leaders and intellectuals.

Their main point of contention has been that reform cannot be imposed on sovereign countries from without, and that special conditions and specific developments in each individual country cannot be disregarded. Another pivotal argument is that the initiative does not address the Arab-Israeli conflict. The U.S. position that reforms should not wait for peace between Israel and the Palestinians was rejected by Arab leaders and intellectuals – at their forefront Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, according to whom one of the main obstacles to reformhas been the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In an effort to counter reform initiatives from without, particularly the Greater Middle East Initiative, a number of Arab countries have proposed reform plans of their own. In March 2004, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Yemen, and Tunisia submitted their proposals to the Arab League and the Arab Summit meeting slated for Tunisia at the end of that month, where they were to be combined into one plan representing a unified Arab position.

However, Tunisia decided to postpone the summit two days before it was due to take place, and after the preparatory meeting of the Arab foreign ministers, due to what is said was profound disagreement among the Arab foreign ministers on issues of reform, human rights, and democracy. Following intensive intra-Arab discussions, the summit was rescheduled for late May 2004, in an effort to come up with a counterproposal to the American initiative before it is formally announced.

Along with Arab leaders' and intellectuals' nearly automatic rejection of the U.S. initiative, other reactions in the Arabic-language media suggested more positive approaches to the issue. The following are some examples:

The Greatest Lie is that All Arab Nations Reject the Initiative

Former Jordanian Information Minister Salleh Al-Qallab wrote in his column in the London-based Arabic-language daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "It is nice to insist that political, cultural, social and economic reform, which is the content of the Greater Middle East Initiative … should be specific and internal, based on our values and our culture and in accordance with [the assumption] that anything imposed must be rejected, and that the body struggles with all its strength against anything coming from without, even if it is treatment for an incurable disease… [However], 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.

"The truth is that most in the region desire change and want to improve their current situation; they support change, and some have no objection to it being imposed [from without] if it is impossible to [achieve it] from within by peaceful means and mutual persuasion.

"There are elements in the Arab world … who avoid the longed-for changes, claiming that it is the people that must decide on the reform that they desire, and that the decision is in their hands. In some cases, this statement arouses ridicule and contempt, because in the recent 'free and democratic' elections in Iraq, in which the Iraqi people participated in absolute freedom … 100% of the votes went to Saddam Hussein, including [those] of the occupants of the prisons and the mass graves…

"Since World War I, and of course before that, the Arabs have not enjoyed the freedom to express themselves and their political inclinations in any but an extremely limited manner. The military coups, whose perpetrators called them popular uprisings, intensified the Asiatic repression in this region, silencing all with the motto of ' no voice should be higher than the voice of ba ttle.' And in the name of freedom, of Arab unity, and fighting arrogant world imperialism, they opened wide the gates of prisons, and mass graveyards."

'Reform from Without, Arriving on a Tank, will be Fought Against… But the Status Quo Just Cannot Continue'

"We must not panic when they talk of reform and democracy in the framework of the Greater Middle East Initiative, or any other framework… It is true that the longed-for reform desired by the Arab nation is not acceptable arriving from without on a tank, and [in such a case] they will struggle against it. But it is also true that it is impossible to continue with the status quo, which cannot withstand the stormy winds of change that have begun to blow in the entire world, East and West…

"There is nothing wrong with us learning from the West, including the U.S., its achievements, and its experience in the areas of reform, economics, philosophy, social development, human rights, women's rights, and the struggle against corruption and extremism. These matters are not the monopoly of any nation; they are human accomplishments to which all the people of the world have contributed…" [1]

'The Initiative Should Not be Rejected Just Because It was Proposed by the U.S.'

The former editor-in-chief of the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat, Jihad Al-Khazen, said: "The American proposals for reform are not bad unless you take into account the intentions of the Bush administration. They should not be rejected only because they were proposed by the U.S. However, the Alexandria Declaration is better, and if the coming Arab summit endorses it, or part of it, we will set ourselves on the path of reform." [2]

Arab Initiatives Deal with Reforming the Arab League while Foreign Initiatives Deal with Reforming the Arab System Itself

Dr. Abd Al-Hamid Al-Ansari, former dean of the Faculty of Islamic Law at the University of Qatar, discussed the difference between Arab reform initiatives and foreign reform initiatives: "Someone who looks at the Arab reform initiatives finds that they focus on reform and development in the Arab League, such as [the proposals] to eliminate the need for general consensus on fateful decisions, establishing an Arab court of justice, establishing an Arab parliament, and making preparations for the establishment of an Arab common market.

"The foreign reform plans, in contrast, focus on reform in the Arab system itself, reform in the political Arab body … by introducing essential reform in the political, cultural, social, and economic apparatuses…"

At the same time, Al-Ansari maintains that both the internal and foreign reform programs do not go far enough in dealing with "the cornerstone underpinning the Arab political structure," which is "the idea of conflict with the other." He states that "the idea of conflict and the requirements of conflict are manifested in the precedence given [to ideas such as] liberation, national unity, stressing Arab identity and awakening … at the expense of other [ideas] such as democracy, development, citizenship, and Arab human rights and dignity… The deficiencies of the league are the deficiencies of our culture, which blames the other for our situation…" [3]

Making Reform Conditional upon Resolving the Palestinian Problem is 'A Definite Political and Moral Tragedy'

The director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, Dr. Abd Al-Mun'im Sa'id, responded to the claim that reform proposals not addressing the Palestinian problem are unacceptable. In an article in the Egyptian weekly Al-Ahram Al-'Arabi, he wrote: "I was not very surprised by the statement of a senior Arab official in one of the Arab political meetings that it is not logical for the U.S. to demand that we uphold human rights when Israel violates the [human rights] of the Palestinian people every day… Such logic prevails alarmingly in the Arab region… If we examine it, we will find ourselves facing a definite ideological, political, and moral tragedy.

"First of all, it means that we have made Arab civil rights and the Arab reform process hostage to the Palestinian problem. Since 1948, that is, for 56 years, this problem has been on the world Arab agenda, and no one knows whether it will remain with us for as long again, or longer… And for all this time… the rights of the Arab citizen will remain hanging on the Palestinian wall, and no one will care about his fate and his life …

"Second, making reform and human rights contingent upon resolving the Palestinian problem – thus giving the Palestinian citizen his rights first – confirms what the American neo-cons are saying, [i.e.] that the political regimes harming human rights are using the Palestinian problem in order to divert glances from their own behavior and actions. [Setting such conditions] is like implementing an Arab moral double standard, defending human rights everywhere in the world and participating in protecting the integrity of elections in every corner of the world, but unwilling to accept this within the [Arab] borders, and seeing this as foreign intervention and an affront to Arab sovereignty…

"Third, making Arab human rights and the process of political and economic reform in Arab countries conditional upon the Palestinians' obtaining their rights means, on the one hand, that we are not serious about the reform process … and on the other hand that the Arab in all the Arab countries has no value independent of the entire Arab collective… The truth is that every Arab and every Arab country has a separate existence worthy of respect and rights [worthy of] defense in every way. Human rights … are among the rights based in international agreements and conventions. Further, they are an inseparable part of the individual's natural rights that cannot be revoked because another Arab country is bowed under the fire of the occupation…

"Fifth… [Human rights] are the basic source of power in all countries of the world. If we look at the archives of every country, we will find that the most advanced, richest, most knowledgeable, and most powerful countries are the ones that elevate human rights, multiply public freedoms, and secure [public] participation in political decision-making. It is no accident that the Arab countries are not included among these…" [4]

[1] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 10, 2004.

[2] Al-Hayat (London), April 7, 2004. In mid-March, the Alexandria Library in Egypt held a convention of intellectuals in order to discuss necessary reforms in the Muslim world. The participants signed a declaration calling for extensive political, economic, social, and cultural reform, and proposed ways for implementation. See

[3] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 17, 2004.

[4] Al-Ahram Al-'Arabi (Egypt), March 27, 2004.

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