The reform impulse

Abdel-Moneim Said
Tuesday 24 Oct 2023

Abdel-Moneim Said returns to a favourite topic


The Arab Spring marked a turning point in Arab history. Some even called it the Nahda, likening it to the 19th and early 20th century cultural and political movement that laid the foundations for the rise of the modern Arab state. In the wake of World War II, the Arab states founded the Arab League, establishing what was termed an “Arab order.” From then on, the Arabs experienced some bright moments of unity and other moments of glaring disunity.

The birth of the Arab order coincided with the beginning of the Palestinian cause. This cause is the exception to the Arab national liberation movements which shouldered the main onus of fighting off foreign colonialism and hegemony, although other Arab peoples were unstinting in their material and moral support for the country concerned. Palestine was unique in that the Arab states shouldered the onus. Perhaps this was because of the settler nature of the colonial project there, or because it is located at the juncture between the eastern and western wings of the Arab world, or perhaps because it contains the holy quarters that are home to Jerusalem’s Christian and Muslim Arabs.

Before long, the Palestinian cause began to be instrumentalised. Arab governments and political movements would one-up each other in championing it. Then, came the June 1967 War and Israel’s occupation of four more Arab countries. Afterwards, the Arabs sounded the call to “eliminate the effects of the aggression,” a slogan that effectively drew a line between the occupied territories in Palestine and the “territories occupied in the recent conflict,” as UN Security Council Resolution 242 put it. In this new phase, the Palestinian people, through the PLO as their sole legitimate representative, were to lead the struggle, the resistance, and the intifada. These and subsequent developments led to the Oslo Accords which formulated the basis for the “two-state solution,” i e, Palestinian and an Israeli state living side-by-side in peace.

After the turn of the 21st century, it became clear that the Arab world had reached a dead end. It could no longer shore up the pillars of the modern Arab state able to steer its society to prosperity and catch up with the industrialised world. By that time, Palestine was torn between two political authorities: the Palestinian National Authority (PA) primarily controlled by Fatah in the West Bank and the Hamas-controlled government in Gaza. Hamas is rivalled by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) which also has a presence in the West Bank. Thus, Palestinian arms are disunited, as are decision-making processes concerning war and peace and Palestinian national security.

Palestinian rifts have combined with the effects of the Arab Spring at the beginning of the second decade of this century, giving rise to three main orientations. One compelled towards anarchy and Civil War: it was spearheaded by youth who did not want the demonstrations and sit-ins to stop. The second was led by the forces of radical Islamist fundamentalism which had come to dominate the streets during the uprisings. The third was the reformist trend. Emerging in the middle of that decade, it offered a new outlook for the modern Arab nation state with its sights set on sustainable development, the renovation of religious thought, and becoming a dynamic participant in the global competition towards progress and human advancement. These goals and how to reach them were fleshed out in 2015 in Egypt’s and Saudi Arabia’s “Vision 2030” comprehensive development plans. Other Gulf countries together with Jordan and Morocco followed suit with similar ambitious reform projects, which have yielded many excellent results despite the major challenges from terrorism to the Covid-19 pandemic and then the war in Ukraine.

Unfortunately, non-Arab regional powers seized on the anarchy unleashed during the Arab Spring to intervene politically and militarily in Arab countries. In Palestine they took advantage of the internal rift and organisations opposed to the PA and, in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, they fostered and promoted non-state actors with the aim of destabilising the state and rivalling it for power.

Currently, the reform programmes in the Arab region are at the halfway mark. The record of the first half testifies to the ability to break through barriers and take powerful strides forward, putting paid to views abroad that the Arabs were not ready for modernism and progress. The Arabs also showed that they had the ability to de-escalate and calm civil wars and regional disputes. This included progress in handling the Palestinian cause through out-of-the-box solutions.  New modes and approaches were applied to the promotion of regional cooperation and geo-economic development, forging frameworks that would be open to all countries of the region as long as they were interested in making peace with the Arab world and sharing in the pursuit of mutual prosperity. The new geopolitical realities created by this approach, if allowed to mature, should soon see the realisation of a new region poised to play a constructive role in the modern world.

The fifth Gaza war manifests a transformation in Israel, which has begun to look askance at the renaissance in progress in its Arab neighbours, their development of the sources of power, including nuclear power for peaceful purposes, and their deepening strategic links with the US. Meanwhile, Tehran has apparently decided to cut short the recent de-escalation process and Hamas, which has monopolised Palestinian decision-making on war, went along, forcing the Palestinian people to endure a heavy toll.

In view of the change in the regional climate, it has become the first task of Arab reform countries to safeguard the progress their reform programmes have achieved, inclusive of their geopolitical outputs. This requires approaching the Palestinian question and the current Gaza tragedy through its legitimate channels, namely the PLO and the PA. It also entails compelling Israel to change its political system in a way that frees it from the control of extremists. Naturally, this is an extremely complicated task, but no less so than the major reform processes that are underway in many Arab countries. These countries, many had once believed, were incapable of reform due to the grip of reactionary forces or bureaucratic apparatuses that were inimical to progress. Achieving regional stability is vital to safeguarding reform and achieving regional stability requires resolving the Palestinian question.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 26 October, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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