Learning From Europe

In a time of tremendous scrutiny upon the Arab world, many interpreted the March collapse of the Arab League summit in Tunisia as a sign of Arab impotence. Nader Fergany, the director of Almishkat Centre for Research, and the lead author of the Arab Human Development Report, argues that rather than being discouraged by the failure of the summit, Arabs should push to reform the Arab League itself and work towards a more meaningful integration. Fergany claims the shortcomings of the Arab League mirror the shortcomings of Arab nation-states. The Arab League’s inability to safeguard human rights and strengthen judicial and legislative institutions make it a pointless forum. Instead, Fergany advises, Arab states should bind together around a serious agenda of good governance. By shifting the terms of discussion from those between nation-states to a broader regional cooperation, Arabs can overcome the ineptitudes of corrupt national governments and initiatives and achieve an economic and political integration modeled on the European Union. – YaleGlobal

Learning From Europe

Instead of crying over a lost summit, let’s find a daring approach to Arab reform
Nader Fergany
Friday, April 30, 2004

Many would agree that the postponement of the Arab summit in Tunisia was yet another Arab setback. Think again. Had the summit been held under the present conditions it could have made things worse. The Sharm El- Sheikh summit, held right before the invasion of Iraq, is a case in point, for it only underlined the Arab official helplessness and made it clear that the Americans were dictating Arab policy with little concession to finesse. Don't feel too bad about the postponement of the Tunis summit; perhaps the setback is a chance to make better preparations for the next Arab gathering.

Had the summit been held, it would have most probably taken a middle-of-the-road course between Arab reform initiatives and those suggested by outsiders. Such an approach, in my opinion, would fall short of our needs and perhaps do more harm than good. True, the postponement of the summit does not inspire confidence in the mechanisms of joint Arab action. And one has to admit that the reform initiatives prepared ahead of the summit entailed little more than cosmetic changes. In the rest of this piece, I will present the reader with an outline for profound and extensive Arab reform. The ideas you are going to read are perhaps too ambitious, but this is a time when bold measures are needed.

Let's take a look at the current traits of joint Arab action. We have little more than superstructures that serve as a meeting point for less- than-commendable Arab regimes. It is hardly surprising that Arab cooperation agencies are so ineffectual.

Let me elaborate. Arab common action reflects the fundamental shortcomings of Arab regimes, chief of which are: first, a legislative set-up that safeguards neither human rights internally nor national rights externally. Second, executive authority that is not only corrupt and inept but also dwarfs the institutions needed for good governance, the legislature and judiciary in particular. The Arab League, as a result, is little more than a pointless forum for Arab governments. A good starting point for reform would be to have a league of Arab nations or a league of Arab states committed to good governance.

Following the invasion of Iraq and the collapse of Palestinian-Israeli talks, and the admission of key Arab statesmen that they cannot change the course of events, calls intensified for reforming the Arab League. The Yemeni government tabled a programme for "developing joint Arab joint action". The Egyptian government offered an initiative on "development of the Arab League and reinvigorating joint Arab action". As foreign initiatives multiplied, the governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria came up with a joint initiative that was presented to the Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo in early March 2004.

The Arab League secretary-general, for his part, submitted a proposal for modernising the League and enhancing joint Arab action. The secretary-general urged the creation of an Arab parliament, an Arab security council, an Arab court of justice, a higher council for Arab culture, as well as an agency to follow up on League resolutions. He also proposed measures for enhancing Arab cooperation, modernising the social and economic council, and for creating an Arab investment and development bank. Press reports said that Arab foreign ministers have agreed on a "common pledge document" to be honoured by Arab leaders, one proposed by the Saudi heir apparent. Everyone hoped that the summit scheduled for Tunis in late March 2004 would see unprecedented decisions taken in this regard. No such luck.

The common denominator of all the above initiatives is that they fall short of the aspiration for solid cooperation among the Arabs. Most proposals focus on economic areas, but many efforts have already been made in this regard with modest results, due to the undeveloped nature of Arab production structures. The initiatives also focus on cross-border superstructures and pay little attention to national political reform. To give one example, the proposed Arab court of justice is little more than a mechanism to settle disputes among Arab governments. No one even thought of making such a court amenable to citizens litigating against their own governments, as is the case with the European court. The latter, many observers agree, was a major force in the creation of the EU.

To further good governance to the Arab world, we have to move beyond the current system of inept national governments and towards regional measures espousing integration. The aim would be to create a regional integration that may bring Arab states closer to economic -- perhaps even political -- unity. For this to happen, we need to streamline our social and economic systems and enhance the sense of collaboration among citizens. The leading example in this type of action is the EU, which has recently turned into a monetary and economic union and is still seeking more unity in political and defence domains.

The European experience highlights the efficacy of regional organisation in two ways. One is through granting regional agencies supranational powers with which they can take decisions that are binding on member states. Another is to open the door for citizens and social groups to participate in decision-making and direction. For this to happen, citizens on a state level should have the right to participate in national governments. Parliaments should assume their full legislative power. And a partnership should emerge between the government, civil society organisations and market institutions, with the judiciary safeguarding the rights of all.

The European model is worth emulating. This does not mean that we cannot explore the possibility of creating an Arab model that leads us towards integration. Europe has succeeded in bringing together a myriad of nationalities under one roof. The Arabs, with language, history and future in common, are even more qualified for unification.

The writer is the director of Almishkat Centre for Research, and the lead author of the Arab Human Development Report.

Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. Reprinted from the Al-Ahram Weekly, 29 April - 5 May 2004 (Issue No. 688).