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Rami G. Khouri is editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper, published throughout the Middle East with the International Herald Tribune.
The big question that challenges us all in the Middle East is this: how, in practical terms, does the Arab world make the transition from mild autocracies, benign monarchies and a few police state dictatorships to more democratic rule? How do we "drain the swamp"?
George Bush and Tony Blair have offered their way, via war in Iraq and an aggressive reform agenda throughout the region. Arab citizens and political actors have other suggestions, and have been constantly meeting and working to find the keys that unlock the current rigid systems and open the door to democratic transformations. I attended one such meeting in Beirut last week that provides valuable insights into both the sentiments and the transformational mechanics of the Arab quest for democracy, accountability and just plain decency in how power is exercised in our societies. Here was a group of concerned, thoughtful, and realistic Arab citizens from different countries bringing down the lofty rhetoric of freedom and democracy to the practical level of how to change society.
The private brainstorming session brought together 15 Arab political activists, journalists, academics, former cabinet ministers, students, university professors, and representatives from several U.N. organizations, international non-governmental organizations, and development and aid institutions. The charge was to identify sectoral, country and program priorities for action to promote human rights and good governance. Where does one start changing our mediocre governments and widespread abuses of human rights and citizen rights, and instead move to more democratic, accountable and humane societies?
The half-day gathering was impressive because it quickly cut through the usual fog of issues that make discussions of Arab democracy such a complicated and contentious exercise, such as cultural and religious values, foreign pressures for reform, occupation and resistance priorities, income disparities, war-torn societies, and other such relevant issues that tend to divert us away from the core challenge. The discussions quickly zeroed in on three basic priorities to change this region for the better: freedom of association and participation; freedom of expression and access to information; and guarantees of fair justice and the rule of law.
So if you've wondered recently about how to "drain the swamp" of the Middle East, here is one group of sensible Arabs that provide a very practical answer. The principles of their consensus, if applied, would allow ordinary Arabs everywhere to engage in a more spirited and productive discussion on political change in their societies, which in turn would allow them to determine their own preferred form of government, national ideology, foreign policy and other key issues of identity, policy and national configuration.
From my own experience in meeting regularly with politicians, journalists, academics and civil society activists throughout the Arab World, I sense that these three basic principles accurately capture the views of concerned citizens and would-be democrats across the region, in every corner of the swamp. In other words, Arabs everywhere know why they suffer lousy government systems and frequent oppression, and we also know very well what needs to be done to change this situation.
Basically, people need to be able to meet and organize, in order to express themselves politically. Freedom of association and participation would allow civil society to flourish, and would also generate more serious political parties and parliaments than the existing legislatures, most of which (with a very few exceptions) are designed to suppress rather than express the views of the majority. Political association and participation are critical for promoting accountability in society, through formal parliamentary means as well as informal civil society dynamics.
Freedom of expression and the right to information are vital for citizens who want to participate politically, because knowing what the government does is the first step to holding it accountable. More transparent government would allow less corruption and abuse of power, and would lead to, for example, real instead of doctored national budgets, truthful instead of camouflaged military and security spending declarations, access to information on thousands of detainees, and better awareness of how government contracts are granted.
The overall framework for good governance requires guarantees of fair justice and the rule of law. A single, written, clear legal framework that specifies the rights and obligations of all is needed for a society to operate in a healthy manner; this in turn demands a judicial system of efficient courts and qualified, independent judges to apply the law equally to all and to resolve disputes among individuals and institutions.
The Arab world today is plagued by strong individuals and families whose control of military power allows them to do anything they want, disregarding all laws and institutions, and trampling on citizen rights. The antidote to the existing abuse of power is the rule of law, within which citizens organize, debate issues, and ultimately determine the form of government they want and the policies they wish their country to pursue in their name.
We don't need fancy new organizations, complex international mechanisms or slightly forced speeches by leaders of large Western democracies to drain the swamp and promote democracy and freedom in the Arab world. Anybody who wishes to move in this direction should simply listen more carefully to the thoughts of those who live in the swamp. Ordinary Arabs must enjoy the right to meet and discuss, to organize and act, and to have access to a fair system of laws and judicial courts. These three practical steps are the focus of activists throughout this region, and they should stimulate more serious strategies for political change in the Arab world by friends abroad.
Copyright ©2005 Rami G. Khouri