Reformist trends in the Arab world, in general, are caught in a vice between two kinds of radicals.
The first hails from the political right, from its ultraconservative to religious fascist stripes, and is opposed to any change whatsoever unless it propels society backwards. It cares nothing for progress and has little interest in the world at large and the major currents of change that generate the transitions from one era to the next.
The second hails from the left, which pushes for profound and radical change, even if that leads to setbacks and divisions in the country they long to change beneath the banner of “revolution”, which quickly descends into endless anarchy.
Ironically, both sides — the right and left — joined forces in the great assault against the Arab state at the beginning of this decade under the heading, “the Arab Spring”.
The liberals and socialists on the left were the ones that started the “revolution” process in the squares, but they soon handed the mantle to the Muslim Brotherhood or to one of its offshoots, such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group.
Both sides had their reasons to fight the existing Arab state, either out loyalty to the ideas of “universal human rights” or out of allegiance to the idea of the “Caliphate”.
Both sets of ideas set their sights beyond the borders of the nation state to unbounded shores. Arab reformers, meanwhile, were searching for a path to end the stagnation and to promote change, but while simultaneously preserving the state without which there can be no constructive change.
Numerous attempts to promote reform emerged in the first decade of the 21st century. One was the Arab Reform Initiative which, in 2004, formed a kind of league between Arab political research centres.
Another initiative, launched by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, bought together a large collection of intellectuals from around the Arab world.
In such assemblies, of which there were many others in Arab capitals, one found two general outlooks on reform. One saw reform as a comprehensive socio-historical process, with economic, social and cultural dimensions, that aimed to equip the country for progress without taking shortcuts and cutting corners.
The second had a “political agenda” which basically was to stimulate “democratic” change from within Arab countries.
At the time of the invasion of Iraq and the remodelling of its system of government, in first half of the first decade of this century, virtually all Arab states came under pressure, the purpose of which was to precipitate “creative chaos”.
That was the rubric, at the time, for fostering general rebellion against all existing circumstances so as to generate a condition that might be characterised by a degree of anarchy but that would ultimately give rise to change and progress.
In fact, what happened was totally different. The fascist conservative trend took over the process of change and Arab countries were steeped in civil war.
One of these kinds of initiatives is run out of Paris. Its leadership has not changed since 2005. After it took part in the Syrian Revolution, Syria descended into what we see there today.
Currently, the comprehensive reform trend is moving forward in a number of Arab countries, not in the same way or in accordance with a single approach or ideology, but rather in the framework of the historical context particular to each place.
Whether in Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf countries, or in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia, we have seen, in recent years, extensive reform processes, differing in their specifics from one country to the next.
Nevertheless, they were united by the fact that they all took as their starting point radical economic changes intended to render the Arab state similar to the models of emergent nations that have made such rapid progress during the past four decades.
Essentially, there were two tracks of reform. One sought to stimulate the economy through extensive investment in infrastructure and urban development, and in modernising the industrial and technological sectors in the country.
In the case of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, in particular, the thrust of these changes was seaward which was encouraged by the maritime border agreement between them.
The second track involved the major upgrading of the economic superstructure, from laws to encourage investment to the floating of the national currency, as occurred in Egypt.
The reform processes in these countries also share two more starting points. The second is based on the principle that development is not just about stone and matter, but about helping people matter, which is why education, healthcare and culture have received high priority.
Saudi Arabia has begun to take great strikes towards the building of the nation state as it lifts the veil from the history and civilisational antiquity of that country.
The third starting point entailed a shift from the “poverty management” approach to the management of the state and society to the “wealth management” approach that seeks to optimise material resources and human skills and talents.
This has been coupled by a return to the values of moderation, tolerance and resistance to fanaticism and extremism.
The reform process was far from easy during the past few years. It took place in a region awash with anarchy and civil war and prey to Iranian interventionism and Turkish and Israeli designs.
It was not an inexpensive process. Nor was it smooth riding: reform processes encountered many of the difficulties that they had in most other countries that had bent their resolve on strengthening the nation state. Someone who steered reforms in Eastern Europe described the process as surgery without anaesthesia.
The Muslim Brotherhood and its backers were clearly ready to exploit the difficulties and hardships of the period towards their own ends.
Nevertheless, the general public awareness of the nature of this phase helped make reform possible, whether the prices of fuel went up or dropped, as was the case in Saudi Arabia, and whether inflation rose, as was the case in Egypt.
What this meant, in the end, is that the Arab states that opted for comprehensive reform have set their feet on the beginning of the road of the 21st century and the technologies, industries and sciences of this century.
The “comprehensiveness” of this approach to reform did not bring on board certain notions advocated by Western institutions, such as that which calls for embracing the Muslim Brotherhood as a prerequisite for the wellbeing of the political and economic system whereas, in fact, this would ultimately culminate in the disintegration of the state.
On the other hand, the comprehensiveness does embrace all social and religious groups and all geographic regions and their inhabitants.
Saudi Arabia is moving increasingly towards the Red Sea, not just through its ambitious Neom City project, but also through economic expansions that extend along the entire western coast of the kingdom.
In Egypt, there is a similar shift “from the river to the sea”. Here, the development processes have been extended to the Red Sea coast, Sinai, and the entire north coast from Taba to Sallum. In both the Saudi and Egyptian cases, the development opens the path to increased geographical penetration and, consequently, the discovery of untold amounts of previously untapped resources.
Unfortunately, it is also clear that many parties are uncomfortable with such developments. Among them are parties that had tried, but failed, to establish a foothold in the reformist Arab state.
Also, among them are parties that had constantly counselled reform in the past but today refuse to see anything impressive as long as it does not include those groups who were bent, above all, on dismantling the state.
Still, it is important to bear in mind that reform never moves in a linear fashion because international and regional circumstances change.
Therefore, the process must be constantly reviewed and reassessed in order to ensure follow-through on everything that requires attention.
* The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 27 September 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Reform in Egypt and Saudi Arabia