Hind Aboud Kabawat spoke at the Woodrow Center for Scholars on Friday, October 10 on the subject of Middle East Reform. She opened by questioning why, in the Middle East, autocratic governments have remained the norm rather than the exception. Despite the unprecedented transfer of wealth to these governments, they have not matured; they still exercise complete and arbitrary power over their people. There is a direct connection between the immature government and the lack of social development evidenced by an inferior education system, inferior health care, and the lack of economy outside of the oil sector. Despite the accumulating wealth, most people remain stuck in ignorance and poverty.
Ms. Aboud Kabawat then moved on to discuss how to change this problem. The change she would like to see take place is the creation of an environment in which dissent is tolerated, there is political accountability, an independent judiciary, free press, and a government that serves the interest of all the people and is free from systemic corruption. She explained the problem of crediting the lack of current democracy to the absence of historical democracy. There is nothing in Arab societies, she argues, that inhibits democratic maturation. Another argument she discounts is that the presence of Israel in the region is some kind of external hindrance to democratic development. There has been too much time and energy, she stated, devoted to fighting when efforts could have been directed towards creating a fair and just society.
Then, what are the real causes of governmental immaturity? One, there is a lack of secular, Westernized elites who are not members of the ruling elite standing at the vanguard of society, creating a new pillar in the Arab world. Two, everyone is worried that fanatic Islam would be what the masses want. Both of these hindrances to democracy stem from the culture of fear that political elites foster through jailing and exiling advocates for change.
The signs that the government is immature are evidenced by the lack of infrastructure, and a lack of accountability to the people. There is no independent judiciary, free press or other checks on the government. There are no open elections, no transferring of power, no transparency. The shortage of transparency allows corruption to become systemic and further inhibit economic growth. The entire world is willing to pay for oil wealth, she stated, and these countries need to use this money transfer to develop other technologies and future wealth opportunities. This change will not happen effortlessly. The government is reluctant to embrace change because their absolute power gives them security and stability. However, change will happen. The Middle East is plagued by poverty, corruption, discrimination and unemployment.
So, what can be done? We can get a better future if we create a society where all can work together. There are four pillars Ms. Aboud Kabawat stated are important for maturing democracy in the Middle East. First, the rule of law must be established. There must be independent judges. Currently, the government does not want to share power, and results in suppressed civil institutions. However, the government should work with civil society and work on engaging everyone. She also asserts that secular government must be the norm; there must be a separation of state and religion because the state must be for all. The rule of law must stand free from religion.
The second pillar is the empowerment of women. This, she argues, is an essential part of modernization. In the Middle East, women have very few rights and the empowerment of women would lead of liberalization of the entire political system. Women are capable of doing great things, she states, we must let them do it. The third pillar is education. The current education is substandard. There must be quality education for all. This would result in more discussions and more ideas. Poverty, ignorance, and terrorism go well together. Fighting ignorance defeats poverty and the next generation of terrorists.
The fourth pillar is peace. Countries in the Middle East are spending money killing each other, while this money is spent on a fruitless war, it cannot benefit society. The U.S. is also guilty of this; money is being spent on the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, instead of building institutions. The poor are the ones suffering for this misappropriation of resources. There must be peaceful coexistence with Israel and the rest of the world. While fighting increases, there is a decrease in money spent on reform and chances for the country to improve.
She quotes Gandhi who says, “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.” There is a need for an environment of change, a need to get everyone working together. The Middle East intellectuals must play a primary role in change. Even in jail, or oppressed, they can never give up. They must keep trying to improve society. This will help convince leaders that change should happen. These four pillars must become the norm, and there must be engagement with the Middle East in order to see reform.
Date: October 10, 2008
Location: Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars
Attended by: Emily Riff