Scott MacLeod
Time (Blog)
May 29, 2008 - 9:35pm

Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian deputy prime minister and foreign minister, has just published The Arab Center: The Promise of Moderation (Yale University Press). It's one of the most important books on the Middle East, and is required reading for everyone interested in finding solutions to the many problems the region faces today.


Muasher, now a vice president of the World Bank, has many interesting things to say about his experiences, which included serving as Jordan's ambassador to the U.S. and to Israel. But for the moment I would focus on his important account of the domestic reform process in Jordan, which he rightly suggests provides lessons for reform throughout the Arab world.

Muasher's former boss, King Abdullah II, is a modernizer by nature. In 2005 he gave Muasher the unenviable task of heading a royal commission aimed at developing a National Agenda for fundamental change in the Kingdom. It speaks volumes about the character and capabilities of both the King and Muasher that Abdullah II would have handed Muasher, a Christian, who had served in the controversial post as envoy to the Jewish state, such a huge responsibility for the future of the predominantly Muslim country. Muasher's committee indeed produced a very progressive report, calling for a fairer election process, a free press, a complete end to discrimination against women and the protection of civil society organizations against state interference. It's the most comprehensive national reform document ever produced in the Arab world.

What is most important about The Arab Center is not so much Muasher's work to produce the reform agenda but his description of the formidable obstacles that have prevented its implementation to this day. Muasher writes at length about the opposition of the Old Guard--"government officials, ex-officials, and long-serving bureaucrats who understood too well that reform ultimately would entail a complete revision of Jordanian political culture, one that would become merit-based, rather than one that often gave privileges such as jobs and education to an elite few." The Old Guard was joined, he notes, "by a handful of businessmen who have accrued both wealth and power thanks to their close alliance with the state."

Muasher describes how the Old Guard sought to discredit the committee's work by attacking its members for pushing an American agenda on the Middle East. It stooped to using part of the Jordanian press to wage a vicious, personal campaign, virtually accusing some committee members of being traitors. The campaign, Muasher laments, was successful: "the public cast doubt on an effort meant to improve the quality of life across the board even before the ink on the National Agenda was dry."

Muasher points out other obstacles to domestic reform in the Arab world. He takes Arab governments, conservative and progressive alike, to task for ignoring or resisting the need for political reform. He says that this has increased corruption among ruling elites, suppressed the development of political parties and intimidated and depoliticized the ordinary Arab citizen.

Without absolving Arabs of responsibility, Muasher convincingly argues how the external environment has also worked against Arab domestic reform. The failure to resolve the 60-year-old Arab-Israeli conflict, which he lays at the door of Israel as well as the Arab states, "has undeniably been a major impediment to overall development, including political development," he says. Muasher says that besides diverting resources into military expenditures, political leaders have been able to use the conflict as an excuse to postpone internal reform. Oil wealth enabled Arab states to dilute the need and demand for reform, and the dependency on oil encouraged the West to prefer stability to the uncertainties of political reform.

Even after 9/11 when the U.S. did side with political reformers, Muasher says, American support proved to be counterproductive because of Washington's lack of credibility in the Middle East due to its contentious role in the peace process and the invasion of Iraq. Muasher describes his role in a successful effort to convince the Bush administration to abandon its initial Greater Middle East Iniiative proposal which "not only would have backfired but also would have hurt the cause of reformers in the region." Muasher notes how the eventual American plan emphasized that "change should not and cannot be imposed from outside" and highlighted the need for "resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an element of progress in the region."

What I regard as Muasher's most salient comment is how all the above factors essentially conspired to prevent the formation of real national, democratic, non-relgious--I would add liberal as another adjective-- political parties that could play a meaningful role in democratizing the Middle East. Despite his clear preference for non-religious parties, Muasher courageously takes issue with those lumping all Islamist groups together and using the threat of Islamist victories as an excuse for postponing democracy. Islamists come to power, he argues, not because of democracy but because Arab governments have failed their people. The failure to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, Muasher adds, has further enhanced the popular appeal of Islamist parties. "Those who are sincerely concerned about checking the influence of the Islamists would advocate widening the political sphere so that a credible alternative to both the Islamists and the ruling elite would emerge," he says.

Arab leaders, and America's next president, would do well to heed the experiences and advice of an Arab statesman.


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