Arab reformists

Abdel-Moneim Said
Sunday 6 Aug 2023

In this column and elsewhere, I have spoken frequently about reform in the Arab region and how it was a response to the violence, anarchy and terrorist fundamentalism ushered in by the so-called Arab Spring.


 Theoretically, reform falls somewhere between revolution and preserving the status quo. All three – reform, revolution and the conservative stance – have to do with changing society. Revolutionaries want the change to occur all at once. They want to skip phases or to take the “big leap forward,” as Mao Zedong put it.

Conservatives call that a “leap into the unknown” which would unleash unpredictable energies that could tear apart society and, perhaps, destroy the state or invite foreign military interventions. Reformists, by contrast, are very pro-change because that is what history and nature is about. But they believe that change should be undertaken gradually and in calibrated steps so as to absorb the concomitant shocks and mitigate the inevitable pains. 

I have also spoken of what I have termed “the laws of Arab reform” which are based on a set of central tenets: the centrality of the nation state, megaprojects that take progress to all corners of a given country, catching up with the times and advanced technologies, material and human sustainable development and renovation of religious thought – in short, comprehensive modernisation.

Externally, the process entails what some have called “nullifying” the problems surrounding the state and the Arab region in general. I believe this necessitates a “new regionalism” that fosters various forms of cooperation to promote self-dependence and stability in a region where stability has long remained out of reach. In other words, domestic reform should extend to foreign policy which should also undergo various types of reform to promote an end to violence, terrorism, and civil warfare, and to bring others who have lived under such conditions into the same embrace. 

It might be useful to bear in mind former US president Barack Obama’s caution that nations sometimes do stupid things. The latest crisis in our region is in Sudan. To give them credit, Arab reform countries have spared no effort to rescue that country from its current plight. They offered material aid and took in refugees. They also tried to broker a lasting ceasefire through various formats. Riyadh worked towards this end with Washington, Egypt worked with Sudan’s neighbours, and all tried to communicate with the warring parties and with Sudanese civilian forces. Unfortunately, none of these efforts have paid off so far. 

Meanwhile, Sudan is deteriorating more and more with every passing day while the rest of the world has lost interest in the issue and turned its attention to other priorities. As occurred decades ago in the aftermath of the Palestinian nakba, people are crying out, “why isn’t the international community doing anything?” The question is rhetorical. Everyone knows that there is no such thing as the “international community.” There are the composite wills of states, and these states are preoccupied with other concerns they believe are more important. However, reformists in the Arab region can not afford the luxury to look away.

This is not just because the fire is nearby and coming from persons who care little where the sparks fly, but also because, as mentioned above, reforming the region is a prerequisite for securing internal reform in each of the region’s constituent states. Besides, to put it bluntly, adding another Arab state to the list of Arab failed states would be a tragedy for the region and for the individual states. If the deterioration is not stopped soon, US President Biden’s notion of “forever wars” will translate into “forever crises” in this region. 

This is all the more reason for the Arab reform countries to translate reform into a foreign policy that takes as its premise, first, the sovereign nation state founded on equality between all its citizens is the key to solving Arab crises. The sovereign state, by definition, must hold a monopoly on the right to legitimate recourse to arms. The state must, thirdly, have a national project for progress and the optimum utilisation of the country’s national resources. These three conditions are axiomatic for the Arab reform states. They are the key to these countries’ resilience and ability to progress.

However, they are also the reason why they need to meet regularly to deal with the Sudanese crisis and other crises in the region. In fact, together with cooperation on joint projects and investments, and the need to adopt similar positions on global problems, this seems to call for a kind of reform alliance with a collective strategy for handling Arab crises of every sort, wherever they emerge.

It is important to keep strategy and history apart. History tells us that the Arab world has always experienced rival political axes, the tensions between which can sometimes flare into conflict. The historian Malcom Kerr described the outbreak of an Arab cold war in tandem with the global Cold War in the second half of the last century. It pitted the Arab republics against the Arab monarchies, the progressives against the reactionaries, believers against sceptics and Arab nationalists against their ideological adversaries. It was fought mainly through the media of the antagonistic camps, which sharpened their tongues and pens, and let fly. Strategy, on the other hand, is not ideology. It is not a conjuring up of history with its various complexities.

It is a way to respond practically and systematically to a given reality and to remedy pains and ailments that no one should have to endure or pay the price for. It involves systems and mechanisms planned, devised, and carried out by experts and other dedicated professionals who divide up roles and duties in order to attain concrete goals and targets in the framework of a greater end as defined by a principle or noble cause. In this case, the end is to rescue the region from crisis and achieve regional stability to the benefit of all concerned.  

Acknowledging this need and how reform fits into it will avert the descent into propaganda duals. Perhaps we should borrow from the philosophy of Camelot and the gathering of the noble knights around a circular table so there would be no identifiable head or leader. How about an Arab reformers’ roundtable? That might be our salvation.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 3 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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