Arab Reforms Are Out of Their League

Arab intellectuals are struck dumb, or worse, run amok, when it becomes clear that the reforms they demand from their leaders are no less than those demanded by the United States.

"An annual festival of political folklore," is how the Lebanese columnist Nur al-Din Sat'e characterized the Arab summit held last week in Algeria. Anyone who listened with bated breath to Muammar Gadhafi's words of nonsense, mockery and vanity, and watched the assembled leaders sometimes nodding and sometimes giggling, could only agree with this definition.

Okay, so Gadhafi is well known for buffoonery that is sometimes leavened with acute foresight. But when Arab leaders smile as he tells them that he tried to talk economics with the Europeans "and they spoke to us about female circumcision," and when Gadhafi ("I speak to you as a philosopher") explains that true democracy is only found in the Middle East because only here "a demonstration in Lebanon toppled a government, and when did something like this occur in the West?" and the distinguished audience nods in agreement - you start to get the feeling that maybe there is something wrong with your oral comprehension.

The cognitive dissonance stems from the gap between the scenes of recent weeks in some parts of the Middle East and what was said at the "gentlemen's club" that convened in Algeria. On one hand there are the demonstrations in the streets of Beirut that indeed toppled a government, strong public criticism in Egypt that forced Mubarak to change the system of presidential elections, advances in the status of women in Qatar and Bahrain, elections in Iraq, employment of women in the Saudi foreign ministry, and other instances of what looks to be an upsurge of liberalism.

On the other hand, there are the empty decisions about "reforms in the Arab house." The leaders essentially postponed these reforms, for a second time, until the next summit scheduled to take place in Sudan, the "liberal" country that is doing nothing to stop the slaughter in Darfur, but won nothing but compliments at the summit in Algeria.

A second source of dissonance is from the wide gap between what Arab intellectuals write in their own countries - the criticism they express about their regimes and, of course, their critique of the Arab summits, and the rigid thinking of these same intellectuals on fundamental issues. Yes, they want democracy. But no, they are opposed to a change in the status of women. They want freedom of expression, but oppose interviewing Israeli representatives. They want to clean up the corruption in their regimes, but most of them are prepared to continue to serve as "intellectuals upon demand," the title of a book written by a former aide to the Egyptian culture minister.

In anything related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, most of these intellectuals are more extreme than the rulers. They, the intellectuals, regard themselves as the "owners" of the conflict - even more than the Palestinians.

This analysis, which is not new, is not intended to strengthen the contention that there is no partner on the Arab side or that the partner is not of "worthy quality." This is too easy a conclusion to reach and is appropriate for someone who already regards "Arabs" or "Islam" as a monolithic block with a uniform character that is not subject to change. These words are written to express amazement over the fact that Arab intellectuals are struck dumb, or worse, run amok, when it becomes clear that the reforms they demand from their leaders are no less than those demanded by the United States.

Then they gather under the wings of the same regimes they criticize, prepared to defend Arab identity from the "cultural invasion" that threatens to shatter it. These are the same intellectuals who want to dismantle the Arab League because it perpetuates the "club of evil regimes" in their words, yet at the same time are ready to lay down their lives for it, because it is the last pan-Arab forum, even if it is nothing more than a hollow stage. "How can one demand a reform of the League when the regimes themselves are not prepared to implement reforms in their countries?" wondered Jamil Mattar, director of Egypt's Arab Center for Development and Futuristic Research in an article published in the Al-Ahram weekly.

This is a good point, but another question needs to be asked: How can one demand reforms in Arab countries when even the intellectuals there see the reforms as a cultural threat, and when the annual meeting to discuss these reforms, held in Alexandria last week, concluded with a very momentous decision to build an Internet site?