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DOCUMENTARIO DEDICATO DA AL-JAZEERA ALLA LEADER RADICALE EMMA BONINO

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ARAB CIVIL SOCIETY GETS A HEARING IN ALEXANDRIA

Can democracy find a home in the Arab world? While few would predict a major thrust toward democracy in the foreseeable future, the glimmerings of civil society undeniably glow more brightly these days. The region’s many non-governmental organizations, too often overlooked or ignored by those observing the region, have shown a high level of political awareness and have strived, in deliberate and often sophisticated ways, to increase government accountability. Associational life is richer than is commonly assumed, although there are significant variations among states and classes. There is no doubt, however, that an impact of the war in Iraq has been to reinvigorate debate about political reform, and all the available evidence suggests that radical change is in the making. The question is: Will reform be induced internally or externally? Will it come by conviction or infliction? It is in that context that at the end of January it was announced that the Library of Alexandria will organize its first ever Arab conference on March 12-14 under the aegis of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, to call for political, social and economic reform in the region. It will be organized in cooperation with civil societies in the Arab world, with no governmental or foreign participation. According to Ismail Serageddine, the director of the Library of Alexandria, the idea of the conference is a timely call for action and follows up on several conferences and individual initiatives, such as the recent Regional Conference on Human Rights and Democracy, held in Sanaa, Yemen, where Arab citizens’ concerns with the challenge of reform and change was noticeable. It also illustrates a realization that civil society is both willing and able to play a role in shaping the national policies governing citizens’ lives. The decision was made to invite thinkers, researchers academics, women’s organizations and business associations, among others, to offer an overall vision of needed change in Egypt and the Arab world, since the impetus for political reform must come from within these societies and must not be imposed by external factors. Serageddine added that Mubarak’s patronage stemmed from recognition that if open forms of governments were to be made durable, they must be underpinned by viable civil societies. Absent this, experiments in participatory forms of government are unlikely to thrive. A changing world needs changing policies and an effort to look beyond the present; short-term political expediency cannot substitute for fundamental change. Moreover, in a modern world characterized by advanced information technology and intense competition, only economies less centralized than those existing in the Arab world can survive. The conference will be divided into social, political and economic panels. They will focus on the potential for economic and social development provided by information and communications technologies, whether in fighting poverty or bridging the growing “digital divide” between the Arab and industrialized worlds, between regions and between social and economic strata. This requires appropriate technology development and education in the use of technologies, as well as their effective application to education and capacity building. These technologies must apply to a wide range of skills, native languages, traditions and indigenous knowledge. When they do, the transition to a networked society can be a real step toward the alleviation of poverty and, therefore, a substantial contribution toward sustainable world society. In a region where freedom is often circumscribed and hollow, where governments are endemically suspicious of independent forms of association, the March conference should be a watershed in regional politics. First, it will reassert Egypt’s traditional role as a pacesetter and promoter of collective Arab action. The need for real institutional reform was enunciated at the second annual conference of the ruling National Democratic Party some months ago. Second, Arab governments are besieged by myriad problems, each formidable in its own right. Cities are bursting at the seams, economies do not work well, bureaucracies are neither responsive nor efficient, unemployment is rampant and corruption is rife. It is time for civil society to identify the strategic choices available to political leaders. Coping with the challenges surrounding food policy, jobs and investment will require greater integration into the international economy. Such economic changes imply enlarging the role of the private sector, opening up political space, widening the scope of the rule of law and more generally restructuring the state’s relations with its citizens. The task will not be easy: entrenched interest groups will not easily abandon their privileges. Third, there are really only two alternatives for Middle Eastern governments: repression or participation. Repression is likely to be ineffective in the long run and will impede the establishment of institutions affording an opportunity for coping with the economic challenges. Moreover, the case for political reform is strong, and some Arab leaders will have to deduce that only through reform will they be able to preserve their power and privilege. Fourth, the conference will create an opportunity for disparate voices in civil society to be raised throughout the region to express their thoughts about more inclusive political processes. Like people throughout the world, Arabs wish to have a say in how they are governed. As civil society continues to gain its footing, issues of accountability, transparency and performance will grow in importance. Although regular encroachment upon the dignity of individuals linger, the trajectory of Arab civil societies is clearly toward an increased emphasis on individual rights free from the arbitrary abuse of the state. Only time will show whether an empowered civil society in the Arab world will lead to more participatory politics, or whether it will merely further entrench the political and economic elite. Mona Makram-Ebeid, a former member of the Egyptian Parliament, is a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo. She wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR





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