Cultural values, not dictators like Libya's Qaddafi, are chief obstacle to Arab progress
If Arabs want significantly greater freedom and economic development, they and their leaders must be fully committed to making it so.
Palo Alto, Calif.
Relentless revolt against repression has been upending much of the Arab world. Tunisia is already into its second new leader in two months. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak has fled, Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi is killing for his life, and often bloody protests have hit Yemen, Bahrain, Algeria, Jordan, and other countries. The speed, intensity, and effectiveness of the demonstrations have authoritarian leaders scrambling as far away as China.Skip to next paragraph
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The demands for freedom, democracy, and better lives for poor and often repressed peoples are compelling, but these outcomes are unlikely unless basic challenges are clearly recognized before inevitable frustration settles in. Real progressive change requires time and patient commitment.
To be sure, a rapid transition to some form of democracy would be a source of pride and accomplishment. But would it aid Arabs in confronting the deeper obstacles that have for so long prevented their political and economic development? The fever of revolution has not encouraged enough sober thought about the morning (and the decades) after.
However bad an individual dictator or self-serving elite may be in Africa, the Middle East, or elsewhere, rulers there are much more symptoms than primary causes of national woes. It was not decades of Mubarak, Qaddafi, or others that created so many systems that historically failed to serve the basic needs of the majority of their people.
Some dismiss these criticisms as cultural condescension or even bigotry. But look again at the 2002 Arab Human Development Report. Its sobering assessments of life in Arab countries weren’t the result of Western observers but distinguished Arab intellectuals. They argued clearly and correctly that “culture and values” are the “soul” and “wellspring” of development and went on to warn that “traditional culture and values, including traditional Arab culture and values, can be at odds with those of the globalizing world.”
In a foreword to the report, the Jordanian director of the Regional Bureau for Arab States at the United Nations Development Program concluded that “the predominant characteristic of the current Arab reality seems to be the existence of deeply rooted shortcomings [that] ... pose serious obstacles to human development.“
The first question is what the varied Arab peoples really want. Freedom, equality before the law, jobs, food, housing and human dignity? Or perhaps, as frustrations set in, some form of Islamic extremism? If the former, do they want these changes enough to work together patiently over many years – and make significant adjustments in culture, values and institutions when necessary – to achieve them?