The United Nations Arab Human Development Report (AHDR) released yesterday indicates that Arab countries have witnessed slow progress of political reforms and democracy despite their promises for fast democratic reform.
The report, the third of a planned four-part series, says Arab countries have not taken any serious steps to end repression in the region and had are lagging in eliminating their regimes’ “black holes” that could lead to internal upheavals.
The 2004 in-depth study, written by a group of Arab scholars, media personnel, authors and political scientists, was scheduled for release in January but held after attempts by the US and Egyptian governments to alter its contents.
“Egypt in particular was concerned with the part of the report that calls for total freedom of expression and association,” said Nader Fergany who heads the AHDR team.
In 2003, the US cut its funding for UNDP by $12 million (down to $89 million) as a sign of their annoyance with the AHDR that pointed out that Arab extremism and anti-Americanism are often a consequence of American, Israeli and Arab government policies in the region.
The 248-page report said the 22 Arab countries that are members of the Arab League failed to meet people’s aspirations for development, security and liberation by 21st century standards. “There is a serious failing in the Arab world, and that this is located specifically in the political sphere ... and despite variations from country to country, rights and freedoms enjoyed in the Arab world remain poor,” the report said.
In the section entitled “the Black-Hole State”, the report’s authors describe the modern Arab state as a “black hole” which converts its surrounding social environment into a setting in which nothing moves and from which nothing escapes. “The impeding disaster scenario is that in the absence of peaceful and effective mechanisms to address injustice and achieve political alternation, some might be tempted to embrace violent protest,” the researchers warned.
“This could lead to chaotic upheavals that might force a transfer of power in Arab countries, but such a transfer could well involve armed violence and human losses that, however small, would be unacceptable.”
Fergany told Arab News that the report puts the finger on the status of freedoms of opinion and expressions that are under pressure in most Arab countries.
“During the three-year period 2001-2003, journalists were repeatedly targeted for prosecution on the grounds of opinions they had expressed and violations of freedom of opinion and expression have included attacks on outspoken political activists and human rights advocates,” the report said.
“Some Arab states have gone as far as to ban circulation of some of the most treasured works in the Arab literary heritage, such as The Prophet, by Gibran Kahlil Gibran, and A Thousand and One Nights,” it added.
According to the report, the war in Iraq increased the Iraqi sufferings as the number of deaths associated with the invasion and the accompanying violence at around is estimated around 100,000. While, thousands of Iraqis were imprisoned and tortured, women suffered the most as they remain, at risk of abduction and rape by professional gangs. The US-led forces have also failed to protect people and to reconstruct the country.
“The ‘war on terror’ has cut into many Arab freedoms... An unfortunate byproduct in some countries has been that Arabs are increasingly the victims of stereotyping, disproportionately harassed or detained without cause,” it said.
Economic rights in the Arab world fared no better last year. A study of 15 Arab countries found that 32 million people suffer from malnutrition, nearly 12 per cent of the total population of the countries concerned.
The AHDR, however, acknowledged instances in which the Arab countries had taken positive action. Saudi Arabia, for instance, witnessed an unprecedented number of civil initiatives at the beginning of 2004. “A number of petitions and documents were addressed to the Crown Prince, some of which contained the demands of minority groups, such as the Shias, for religious freedom, civil rights, and equality among citizens,” said the report. “Others criticized acts of violence and called for political openness as a means out of the present crisis.”
The authors of the reports recommended that four immediate steps have to be taken for reform including ending the state of emergency state that is no longer needed, total respect for the key freedoms of opinion, expression and guaranteeing the independence of the judiciary and ending reliance on military courts.
They added that “high quality institutions within civil and political societies at the national and regional levels” should be formed to achieve the desired vision of reform.
Meanwhile, students affiliated with Egypt’s banned but tolerated Muslim Brotherhood movement launched a pro-reform campaign yesterday under the banner “Wake up Egyptians, freedom is calling you!”
The campaign “aims to express the views of Egyptian university students on the (need for) constitutional amendments and more political and economic reforms”, said a statement received by AFP. “Free, fair and direct presidential elections ... lifting the (24-year-old) state of emergency and military laws” were also listed among the students’ demands. The demonstrations, involving thousands of students, are the latest in a series of rallies organized in recent weeks by opposition activists to demand tangible political reforms and to oppose a fifth term for veteran President Hosni Mubarak.
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