The Silence of the Rabbits

The economic crisis in Argentina has triggered fears in the Arab states of the Middle East.

"For us, every newborn is a new debt. From where will our governments find the money to see to his medicine, education, job? And we are multiplying like rabbits." Thus wrote Abed al-Rahman al-Rashid this week in Al-Sharq al-Awsat, which is published in London.

This is the core of the fears that the economic crisis in Argentina has triggered in the states of the Middle East. Palestinian commentator Majed Kiali, who lives in Syria, cites a wealth of data explaining why Arab countries are closer to Argentina than to what he calls the developed countries.

"The illiteracy rate among us is around 59 percent (among Arab women it averages 74 percent), we have 1.5 computers for every 1,000 people, we have 15 newspapers per 1,000 (compared to 250 in developed countries), 49 telephone lines per 1,000. We have $110 per head per year invested in research (against $1,211 in advanced countries), and about $32 per capita in developing infrastructure (it's $1,132 in the developed world."

Kiali's figures are based in part on reports from UNICEF and Arab research institutes, some of which are not updated to this year, but this does not change the overall picture. His article, one of many that have been written by Arab critics since the crash in Argentina, reveals the revival of the unpleasant reminder that they belong in the world of poverty and backwardness.

But along with this rediscovery of the familiar state of the Arab nations, the nagging question comes up again that few care to deal with. "Why do we not see our public taking to the streets to demand the replacement of the government, like the Argentine citizens did? After all, the corruption in Argentina is piffling compared to the corruption in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and the Palestinian Authority. Saudi Arabia's official national debt is similar to Argentina's (about $160 billion), and the unofficial debt approaches $300 billion. Unemployment in Argentina is no higher than in Egypt or Jordan, nor is the level of poverty. Why then is the Argentine citizen able to force his government to resign, whereas the Arab just hangs his head in submission?" wondered the editor of Al-Quds Al-Arabi, Abed Al-Bari Atwan.

Kiali offers a partial answer. The proportion of citizens who take an interest in politics in a country like Egypt is around 33 percent, and the rate of voting in elections hovers around 48 percent of those who have the right to vote. The result is "in our countries we have no public opinion," says Atwan - at least no public opinion than can influence a regime. So Arab regimes rule "by harsh methods of oppression by their security forces and they have no interest in changing the political situation, or changing the education system," or nurturing public opinion and consequently democracy. It is impossible to imagine an Argentine response being taking place in Arab streets.

Arab intellectuals are very cautious about calling on the citizens of their home states to come out against the regimes and demand the 21st century quality of life they are entitled to. But it has been quite some time since such concentrated criticism of the internal policies of the rulers has erupted in such a short space of time - mainly because the dilemma of Arab identity, and in particular Arab-Muslim identity, is going through a difficult test.

"Perhaps thanks to the [American] war against terror, there will be some benefits for us, the citizens," said one Egyptian intellectual. "It is not logical that we should join the West's war against terrorism of Arab or Islamic origin, and not also take from the West the good things it can give us. Being a member of the anti-terror club in any case means being a member of the Western club. And therefore, instead of coming out against the West's accusations, we would do better to take from it what we can. To take a bit of Western democracy, a bit more freedom of expression, a bit more human rights."

He said: "We must re-examine the excuses repeatedly made for us by leaders in our region that more democracy would of necessity mean transferring power into the hands of Islamic fundamentalists. After all, it has been proved in any case that without democracy, Islamic forces and especially terrorists are those who in the end determine our strategy."