When I wrote an article recently wondering why the Arabs didn’t land on the moon, I wasn’t aware that Robert Fisk wrote something very similar in a U.K. newspaper, which appeared in The Independent on 28 August and was only one of many that dealt with the same topic of why the Arabs remain so far behind other nations.
We almost missed the opportunity to benefit from the report because of the row that broke out between the publishers of the report and its chief editor, Professor Mustafa Kamal El-Sayed of Cairo University. El-Sayed disassociated himself from the report’s final version just as the UNDP was holding a news conference in Beirut to discuss the new and unpleasant facts the report points to. Without getting into too much detail, the row was about whether the main cause for trouble in our Arab world, and the main threat to its population, was external or internal. Is it that foreign aggression and occupation are holding back the region? Or are we hostage to the backwardness of our own political, social and economic structures?
Views may differ, but no one is denying that both threats, the external and the internal, are taking their toll on the region. The point is highly political. Those on the Arab leftwing want to see a resounding condemnation of the Israeli and American occupation. And the U.N., which speaks on behalf of many nations, maintains that no occupation could prevent people from having clean streets or teaching their children modern technology. This is also the view held by Robert Fisk, a man widely celebrated by Arab nationalists and leftists. According to Fisk, conditions of backwardness in the Arab world, and the mediaeval circumstances that we can see all around us, cannot be solely explained by the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The question keeps coming back, just as it has done since the 19th century when the Arabs first realised how far they lagged behind the rest of the world, and when they realised that their own backwardness made them easy prey for avaricious outsiders. The question now comes in a different context, partly because two centuries have passed since the first time it came up, and partly because we’ve shaken off colonial rule for quite some time. Also, other countries that used to lag behind have managed to catch up with the rest of the world with remarkable virtuosity.
In the Arab world, we’ve never experienced the horrors South Korea underwent during the Korean War. We’ve never known the harsh disruption of life that took place in China. The exploitation of India by colonial powers was on a much larger scale than anything we’ve seen. And we cannot claim to suffer, like the Mexicans, from the malaise of living next door to an international giant. Many in Mexico are entitled to envy us for our geographical location. …
The question has changed over the years. The circumstances have shifted so that parallels are no longer exact and many comparisons are deceptive. You cannot blame the civil war in Somalia on foreign interference alone. You cannot use foreign interference, or even occupation, to justify the deep rift in Palestinian ranks. There can be only one reason for the failure of Hamas and Fatah to close their ranks, and that is political irresponsibility.
… For years, Arab political elites have taken upon themselves the political mantle of gaining independence from imperialist powers. They fought political and military wars against foreign colonialists and paid a heavy price in the process. In the end, we gained our independence. Then the elites, as well as Arab nations, didn’t know what to do with it. We didn’t know what to do with our hard-won independence.
In the Arab world, there is no lack of evidence that we have come to our moment of truth. The situation in Somalia is unbearable and Sudan is heading in the same direction — Yemen too, and Iraq. Tensions are palpable in Lebanon and Algeria, and we all know about Palestine. The thing to learn is that “stable” countries don’t remain this way forever. When you look below the surface, the signs of malaise are unmistakable. Everyone can see them except for Arab elites, and I am not just talking about rulers. I am talking about the civilian bureaucracy, the military establishment, and the culture and media agencies. None seems aware of how bad things are. Some even claim that we exaggerate negative signs for our own purposes.
Indeed, some get up in arms whenever they hear that backwardness is due to the lack of democracy, as if the whole purpose of such a diagnosis is to take away their power and privileges. They think that everything is a power game, for this is how things usually are in Arab countries. Take, for example, Mauritania, where one army general gave up his seat to let a civilian president take over. Then another general ousted the elected president with the full support of the “elected” legislative assembly. Then the second general was confirmed in office by “free” elections and international observers found nothing fishy in any of that.
The question is hard and there are no easy answers. We can discuss it forever and reach no satisfactory conclusion. At one point, however, we have to start learning from others. At some point, our elites, which are brave and smart, have put two and two together and get four. Until then, we’ll do the best we can.
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