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The “greater middle east” in the 21st century

Reinhard Hesse
21 December 2004

In the first years of the 21st century democratic forces in the Arab and Muslim worlds are trapped in a cruel dilemma. They know that that Islam is compatible with democracy, freedom and prosperity - but realise that when the west (rather than these forces themselves) takes the lead in enforcing this understanding, progress towards these goals is often delayed not advanced.

The result is an agonised political paralysis. A series of hammer-blows - United States-led intervention in Iraq, continuing violence and desperation in Israeli-occupied Palestine, and “borderless” (morally as well as geographically) Islamist terrorism - inhibits people in the region from taking risks for political reform. Even well-meaning strategies to support progressive changes are seen, by significant elements of the population as well as the ruling elites, as an external intervention and potential threat.

Reinhard Hesse’s articles for openDemocracy spanned our first three years of existence:

  • “A letter for Europe” (May 2001)
  • “Europhoria” (February 2002)
  • “An alarm–call for Europe” (June 2003 )
  • “Turkish honey under a German moon” (March 2004 )
  • “Crossroads or roundabouts: where now for Europe?” (June 2004 )
After Reinhard Hesse’s death in October 2004, openDemocracy’s editor Anthony Barnett paid tribute

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Amidst this already difficult situation, the images of torture and abuses in Abu Ghraib prison have discredited attempts to nurture political changes in the middle east in the name of universal values like human rights. For many Arab democrats, Abu Ghraib symbolises the end of “American hope”. After it, the peoples of the region no longer look towards the United States and the west with any expectation of a reign of freedom.

It did not have to be this way. After 9/11, anti-American sentiment in the region faded as Arabs and Muslims shared global shock about the indiscriminating jihad waged by al-Qaida and its subsidiaries, and solidarity with the terror victims. Both sentiments nourished hopes of a halt to the spiral of unlawfulness, injustice and violence.

Iraq, and Abu Ghraib, have crushed this hope and replaced a potentially benign dynamic with a regressive one. A political vacuum and social chaos, as in Iraq, allows repressive regimes to present themselves as a “stable” alternative. Strategic blueprints for reform and democracy in the “greater” (or, more geographically and politically neutral, “broader”) middle east, usually written without Arab participation in any case, can play into the hands of power.

The new media freedoms represented by satellite stations like al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya have opened spaces for critical discussion, but their drenching coverage of every Israeli and American transgression, coupled with a populist tone that substitutes for rather than complements public, political debate, does not create a climate favourable to reform.

Thus, Arab and Muslim reform-oriented democrats are squeezed between two powerful blocks - autocratic regimes and Islamist-nationalist populist oppositions. In arguing for rational reform but against blanket opposition and aggression, they can be depicted by both sides as western “agents” who are supportive or even complicit in neo-colonial adventurism or unjust, corrupt governance.

A chasm of misunderstanding

How to break this pattern? The lesson (often won through negative example) of the numerous, detailed and well-intentioned intergovernmental and think-tank reform initiatives for the middle east is that four factors are necessary to progress: rootedness, coherence, empowerment, and freedom.

First, reform must be developed from within the region and its individual societies. Washington, Nato, the European Union and the G8 states may play an important role, but evaluations, measures and programmes must be rooted in the specific conditions of the various countries.

Second, a coherent relationship must be established between the core conflict around Israel and Palestine and other issues and problems in the region; attention to this conflict cannot (as the United States has so often wished) be sidelined or postponed, it is at the heart of regional progress.

Third, progress requires a sustainable definition of modernisation that can focus on practical achievements without undue emphasis on attractive, even magical terms like “democracy”, “civil society” and “women’s rights”. Democracy as mere majority rule without guaranteed rights and freedom is hollow; a civil society without a public space of institutions and discourse is mute; and women’s rights can be a pretext for ignoring vital issues like inheritance, inter-faith marriage or the right to run a business in favour of an orientalist, western-imposed mindset.

Fourth, there must be an emphasis on freedom as an operating principle, not simply an abstract value.

The real, structural mistakes of past transatlantic plans for middle-east reform are revealed not just in the emphasis on military power to implement “regime change”, but in the understanding of human security embodied even in “soft power” projects that target governance rather than social and civic life as the way to achieve peace and progress.

This approach, what might be called the argument for “security through change”, involves a reversal, or at least free variation of the Kantian dictum that democracies do not wage war on one another. It involves a prioritisation of “stability” above notions of freedom and human rights. This is not just problematic in itself but counterproductive. It was exactly the absence of freedom and human rights in the middle east that prevented political stability and led to the heinous terrorism witnessed on 9/11.

Freedom is not merely a goal, but a practice that helps create stability. This is where the United States-led intervention in Iraq, in creating regional instability without advancing security, has not worked even in its own terms. For all the rhetoric of freedom and democracy, it remained trapped within the mindset that valued stability most highly. It belongs to the old world not the new.

But history does not stop, and it is essential that reform efforts are not abandoned – especially when deeper, long-term processes at work are favourable to the development of the more prosperous “greater middle east” that the Arab Human Development Reports show is so badly needed. These fourfold processes – educational, political, regional, economic - are enough to generate, if not an optimistic, then what the Palestinian writer Emile Habibi calls a “peptimistic” view of the future.

Transformation and reform

The outlook which these processes make possible involves a change in perspective from risk-aversion to success-possibility. It is a switch that makes sense in the light of another lesson of the last century’s history in the region: that, arguably, constant efforts from external powers to pursue “transformation” strategies have created too much rather than too little externally-induced transformation.

The first process is educational, and even from the viewpoint of the state, conservatively-inclined reform in this area can have an undermining effect. At least half of the population in most states between Morocco and Iran is under 25 years old. Only sustained educational investments, from basis to professional levels, can begin to provide the working and living conditions that in the long run can guarantee social stability.

The importance of education is also felt at elite level. A latent leadership or succession crisis in important Arab societies (Egypt after Mubarak, Saudi Arabia, Palestine after Arafat) reveals the failure of “dynastic” solutions and the need for politically-educated candidates for high office. Thus, ruling elites in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, but also countries like Tunisia will have to pursue active graduate training programmes to secure the continuance of their regimes. This will integrate new talent from other strata of society into the political leadership, but also dilute its ability to function in an autocratic manner.

The second process is political. The fight against terrorism cannot succeed via state repression or even secret intelligence and careful surveillance; it requires also civic mobilisation in support of legitimate authority. This will force regimes towards greater accessibility and accountability. In consequence, Islamist forces - like Lebanon’s Hezbollah, at least partly on the path to integration into the country’s parliamentary life – may become more politicised and less identified with violent means.

The third process is regional. The need to establish political legitimacy in opposition to radical challenge makes states more inclined to engage in international cooperation. Resource and infrastructure factors – from the guarantee of water supplies to improved cross-border transport links for tourists – will also entail a more open, neighbourly attitude.

The fourth process is economic. The development of world trade and the globally-networked economy – though impacting very differently on Afghanistan or Yemen compared to Egypt or the Gulf states – will press states to modernise. An awareness of the coming post-oil age in Gulf states like Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates are already inducing a political thaw leading towards a cautious expression of participation and liberal rights.

In combination, these processes have the potential to open a fresh dynamic in the region. As education and science develop on the basis of new technologies, political forces in favour of modernisation may ally with moderate Islamic parties in support of a model that unites economic progress with political justice. A confident middle class throughout the region can help lead political projects, and organisations, that take societies beyond tribal, dynastic, or intra-elite rivalries.

From the rubble of history

The opportunities are matched by dangers – the imposition of external models by post-colonial western powers (the temptation of a federal structure for Iraq, for example) is only one. But progress in the region will be immeasurably aided if western states pursue the politics of democratisation as a politics of freedom, not a politics of destabilisation; offer to assist modernisation by appealing to people as well as their rulers; and create imaginative incentives for states to escape isolation rather than merely sanctions and other pressures that inflict more damage to citizens than to regimes.

Also in openDemocracy on the “greater middle east”, its history, discontents, and possible futures:

  • Fred Halliday, “America and Arabia after Saddam” (May 2004)
  • Anatol Lieven, “Israel and the American antithesis” (October 2004)
  • Stephen Howe, “The death of Arafat and the end of national liberation” (November 2004)
If you share openDemocracy’s commitment to understanding the middle east conflict, please subscribe to openDemocracy for £2/$3/€3 a month and access PDFs of all our debates

The European Union - with its experiences of unification and social development, and negotiating instruments like the “Barcelona process” – is in a strong position to facilitate such a strategy.

But can these energies also be brought to focus on the pivotal conflict of the middle east, Israel-Palestine? The contours of a solution have long been apparent - from Bill Clinton’s “bridging proposals” (2000), the Taba talks (2001), and their subsequent elaboration in the Geneva initiative (2003); the problem lies in establishing both legitimate Palestinian leaders and processes of implementation to carry negotiations forward.

It is time for audacity. What if Europe offered Israelis and Palestinians a strengthened, possibly gradually intensifying partnership involving mutual compliance with the “Copenhagen criteria” of the European Union? These include a free-market economy, guaranteed civic and human rights, accountable government, and defined, peaceful external borders.

There are no guarantees, and ultimately it is the peoples of the “greater middle east” themselves who will decide their own future. But if the new century is to bring them the democracy, freedom, and prosperity they deserve, such acts of daring imagination will be necessary.

This article was translated from German by Julian Kramer

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