The ongoing socio-economic and political ills that mar potential progress in Middle Eastern countries can largely be attributed to the ill-defined foreign policy of the United States. Utterly desperate situations have arisen whereby US clients rule with an iron fist, making prospects for a meaningful democracy sit at an all-time low. However it would be nothing less than self-deception to elucidate Arab social, economic and political ailments exclusively on US-Israeli military and political belligerency; there needs to be an element of self-reflection and responsibility to make viable any pragmatic steps towards improvement and justice.
The Arab Human Development Reports list political and economic regressions, rampant corruption, utter inequality, oppression of women, and indeed men, lack of cohesion, planning, and forward thinking as significant problems in Arab countries. The 2005 report laboured to put a positive spin on negative situations, choosing to focus on the empowerment of Arab women, who, in some Arab societies are denied access to schools, economic independence and political representation.
The oil boom of the 1970s, and the wave of neo-liberalism in the 1990’s has turned most Arab countries into class societies, either creating new disparities or deepening already existing ones. But there is little class ‘conflict’ to speak of today; the poor are, in many cases, literally struggling to survive on day-to-day basis, while the rich have surpassed, in arrogance and attitude, the positions assumed by the elites of Central America. Their access to political power, economic wealth, and total control over most media channels has significantly deepened the divide. Many of Morocco’s poor are braving the tumultuous Mediterranean waters to make it to Europe, to secure meagre jobs with meagre pay, and an uncountable number of Egyptians are in constant hunt for opportunities elsewhere. The situation everywhere is getting more dire, opening the doors for even greater corruption and nepotism to permeate.
The media cannot be counted on to represent the reality on the ground. Al Jazeera and Al-Arabiya remain the exception, but they too are receptive to political and economic pulls. And even without these, it takes more than couple of TV stations to cater to the local and national needs of hundreds of millions of people whose cultures, immediate realities and economic and political challenges are too varied to be encapsulated in a few news bulletins, erratic TV debates and passing slogans.
Saddest of all is the fact that Arab masses lack the ability to even vent their frustrations, having lived under a tight grip for decades and crushed mercilessly whenever they dared to march for their rights.
While the ruling elites lavishly spend to set themselves apart from those at the bottom, the latter are forced to learn the language of power, to cater to the elites’ every whim. No wonder many turn to the most immediate ways of escaping such reality. The Internet is thriving in major Arab cities, not so much as a tool of meaningful communication, but mostly for purposes of chatting and pornography. Both of these create alternate realities. Chatting could also represent the start of new opportunities, that of premeditated ‘love’, or, just maybe, a green card or its equivalent in some European country.
The situation is particularly dismal for Palestinians caught between a brutal Israeli occupation and their own corrupt elites. While many live under various regimes with an almost impossible legal status as stateless people, rich Palestinians in the Gulf (and elsewhere) seem blissfully far-removed; the immense Palestinian wealth abroad is yet to benefit the 1.4 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, 80% of whom are dependent on international aid for their survival.
The US and various European countries are contributing to the chaos, compounding neoliberalism with neo-imperialism, controlling the former colonial outposts via economic dependency in the form of aid, political and military posturing, and NGOs. The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and USAID are two prominent examples. NED, funded mostly by a Congressional annual allocation, was founded in 1983 to serve US foreign policy. It claims to be “guided by the belief that freedom is a universal human aspiration that can be realized through the development of democratic institutions, procedures, and values.” Considering NED’s role in the coup against Venezuelan democracy in April 2002 and other instances of soft intervention, one cannot help but question the organization’s democratic values.
The Arab peoples are in a situation that warrants little envy. In countries like Iraq, a functioning socioeconomic and political structure–despite its shortcomings–was simply written off in May 2003, with the signature of L. Paul Bremer, the first US ruler of Iraq. The disbanding of the army was followed by the country’s de-Baathification (undermining Sunnis for merely being the favored sect of Saddam), showing utter disregard for the welfare of the Iraqi people.
The Iraq scenario has set a dreadful precedent. Those not content by their current rulers were forced to rethink their priorities when they saw the US-induced chaos in Iraq in action. Those who giddily capitalized on the democracy window were mercilessly crushed. Palestinians were subdued and democracy was snatched away from its proper owners, the majority of the people, and was handed back to the corrupt few. In Egypt, coercion and corruption during elections has managed to maintain the status quo.
There are no easy answers here, no snappy recommendations or fire-proof solutions. The task is truly overwhelming. But it is clear that the true interests of the Arab peoples can only be served by Arabs themselves; reforms can not be imposed, true, but that is impossible to achieve under the current power relations –rulers setting themselves up as unquestionably superior to their people, TV channels promoting rampant consumerism and providing endless distraction, and uncountable multitudes seeking deliverance, escapism and, often, falling prey to self-defeating extremism. For Arab countries to have some hope of a meaningful future (and indeed present), grassroots work must replace intellectual detachment, wealth must be invested in building self-sustained societies, and, most importantly, the dignity of Arab women and men must be preserved above all else.
RAMZY BAROUD teaches mass communication at Curtin University of Technology and is the author of The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People’s Struggle. He is also the editor-in-chief of PalestineChronicle.com. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org