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POLITICS: Mideast Reformers Warn of Backsliding

William Fisher

NEW YORK, Oct 19 2004 (IPS) - A landmark reform plan prepared by 40 civil society groups from 15 Middle East and North African (MENA) countries for a recent G8 meeting in New York is at risk of “a false start,” according to one of its signatories.

The meeting to discuss the seven-point plan, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, “was quickly hijacked by ‘officialdom’, in the shape of a duo between the U.S. secretary of state and the minister of foreign affairs of Morocco,” according to Chibli Mallat, Jean Monnet Professor in Law and director of the Centre for the Study of the European Union in Beirut.

“The more challenging avenues forced open by the report were not responded to,” he told IPS, adding, “Follow up is key. It must happen both in the Arab-Middle East movement, and there are efforts now, also being discussed with World Bank leaders, for a more cohesive structure of free Arab voices.”

“It must also happen internationally, where the false start in New York develops into an assertive banging on the table in Morocco by Arab democrats. Otherwise the New York meeting will remain a simple, soon forgotten blip while the Middle East continues descending in self-destructive immobility where violence is the only force,” Mallat added in an email interview.

Another spokesman for one of the participating groups, Moataz El Fegiery, programme officer at the Cairo Institute For Human Rights Studies, told IPS his organisation “is in consultation now with Arab and international human rights organisations tohold parallel meetings” for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) at the G8 Forum for the Future in Morocco.

“Our target is to enable civil society to have an effective impact on the forum,” added El Fegiery.

The MENA NGOs called on the G8 (group of eight most industrialised) nations to make “a more solid commitment” to “three imperatives – freedom, democracy and justice.” The group said it wants “ballot-based, non-violent change at all levels of our societies and states, starting from the top.”

Its document urged MENA governments not to delay reforms until all major regional problems have been solved, declaring: “We shall not simply demand a peaceful, fair and comprehensive solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, nor simply demand peace, democracy and territorial integrity in Iraq or a peaceful and fair solution to the Kashmir conflict and the establishment of democracy in Afghanistan.”

“Governments in the region have often used these regional security issues to delay political, economic and social reform, as if solving these issues can only come at the cost of suppression and oppression,” added the reformers. Instead, they asserted, “internal reform is urgent, with no buts or ifs related to regional security and peace.”

“While the participation of concerned governments in the region would be welcome, we cannot wait,” the organisations told the G8. “Most governments turn a deaf ear to internal calls for reforms.”

The plan grew out of a meeting in Beirut in early September attended by 40 leading MENA civil society groups. It was presented to foreign ministers from the G8 and Arab countries in New York and is intended to feed into the Forum for the Future set up at the G8 summit in the United States in June.

The group’s seven-point plan includes:

1. Protecting citizenship equality and participation, especially gender equality, with special attention to the victimisation of women;

2. Strengthening the rule of law by enhancing the independence and role of the judiciary, and monitoring and removing laws that violate human rights and international standards. Emergency laws, special and military courts, undue police detentions and regular reliance on torture must be abolished;

3. Protecting and enlarging freedom of expression, freedom of the press and freedom of organisation;

4. Encouraging critical inquisitive thinking in education generally, and in religious education, where intolerance is actively advocated in its name;

5. Creating jobs for the five-seven million entrants into the region’s job market, especially the poor and those left behind, by promoting investment in quality services and value-added products, small and micro enterprises, competitiveness and quality, innovation, environmental sustainability and social services.

6. Combating corruption at all levels to ensure the accountability of bureaucracies and the transparency of organisations, both private and public, and financial institutions.

7. Promoting creative arts and culture, and the qualitative enlargement of public space.

The Beirut event was organised by the Lebanese Transparency Association, the U.N. Development Programme, the Programme on Governance in the Arab Region, the Economic Research Forum and the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies.

It included representatives of universities, human rights organisations, think tanks, newspapers and women’s groups, from Lebanon, Morocco, Bahrain, the Palestinian Territories, Yemen, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Qatar, the UAE, Iraq, Egypt, Algeria, Jordan and Oman.

The reform plan urged industrialised nations to create a “multilateral organisation or a special G8 agency and an emergency fund” committed to “releasing prisoners of conscience, supporting their families and rehabilitating them once freed.” It called this action “the freedom imperative.”

Governments in the region, it added, “have failed to achieve development and to absorb pressures from their local public opinion for reform.”

It called for help in what it termed “the democratic imperative,” noting, “While most of our countries have parliaments, and occasionally courageous and outspoken members within them, their power is curtailed by executive power, as indeed is the power of our judges, which is constantly undermined by executive interference.”

Groups participating in the plan included the Arab NGO Network for Development, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights, the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research, the University of Bahrain, Yemen’s Human Rights Information and Training Centre, Saudi Arabia’s King Saud University, the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, the Iraqi Foundation for Development and Democracy, the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights, the Centre for Arab Women Research and Training and the University of Algiers.

When Washington first proposed its “greater Middle East initiative” last year, the idea was greeted with hostility by many Arab governments who felt that the West, particularly the United States, was trying to “impose democratic reforms from outside.”

But, as reported by IPS in June, the revised U.S. plan emphasises increased trade and investment as well as political, legal and social reforms.

It has become an economic blueprint for the region, with the World Bank and other financial institutions slated to play a central role. The U.S. initiative also proposes an alliance between business leaders from the G8 and their counterparts in the Arab Business Council.

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