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A triangle of hope

If our long-cherished national revolutions have failed in fulfilling their promise, it is perhaps time for gradual reform. We simply deserve a better place on the world map of intellectual and technological progress.
A triangle of hope
Mustafa El-Feki, Al-Ahram Weekly, Egypt

The Arabs have been distracted, but they should not lose heart. Mustafa El-Feki* proposes action on three fronts

The horrors of the past few weeks have tested the patience and endurance of people living in this part of the world. Despite that -- or perhaps precisely because of it -- we must start thinking ahead. More than ever, three issues need our urgent attention: enlightenment, liberation, and reform. The Arab people have paid a heavy price in the course of recent events, and more challenges lie ahead. What is happening on Arab soil has thrown the region back decades to the years of foreign domination. Perhaps it's time to turn our attention to the future and see what we might do to improve matters.

The Arab world had its first brush with modernity in the early 19th century. The Napoleonic conquest of Egypt and the Levant was a wake-up call to a region that had gone into slumber during the long and dark Ottoman era. Education underwent a revival and culture assumed national dimensions. Men such as Rifa'a El- Tahtawi returned from France and other European countries to lead the quest for enlightenment. The Levant was awakened to a new spirit of patriotic sentiment and progressive zeal. This was true in the Arab world as well as in mahjar, the communities of Arab emigrants living in the Americas and elsewhere.

Christian Arabs played a pivotal role in this awakening. The Copts were instrumental in setting up Egypt's modern education system, a system that offered equal opportunities to both sexes. The Maronites and other Levantine Christians initiated a cultural revival, with poetry and literature undergoing a renaissance. Egypt's Al-Azhar was highly influential as Imam Mohamed Abdou (the eminent scholar who never, by the way, served as Grand Imam) hoisted the banner of religious reform. Abdou went to France, where -- in collaboration with the mysterious Jamaluddin Al-Afghani -- he published works on reformist ideas.

The notion of Enlightenment was not new to the Arabs, rather it was part of their modern history, in the East as well as West. And enlightenment ideas were embraced by secular nationalists as well as religious reformers. Consequently, those ideas became the bridge that linked Arab and Islamic tradition with European culture -- particularly English and French. An enlightenment was in full swing in this region two centuries ago. As we look ahead, we have to ask: where and why have things gone wrong?

The liberation of the Arab world from foreign domination is no easy matter -- not when a single superpower is calling the shots, and not when regional restructuring is on the cards. Arab revival in the 20th century was inextricably intertwined with the national liberation movement. Nasserism in Egypt, the Ba'ath Party in Syria and later in Iraq, and a whole spectrum of movements (the Pan-Arab Nationalists, Socialist Unionists, and various Palestinian groups) kept the spirit of liberation alive.

For the most part, the quest for liberation and the traditions of 19th century enlightenment went hand in hand. Both defined the spirit of Arab identity. At one point, however, a rupture occurred and liberation and enlightenment parted ways. This happened when terror began targeting the enlightenment movement, and also when Arab regimes began quashing the spirit of liberation. As a result, the lights of enlightenment dimmed and liberation lost its way.

The Arabs have fought ferocious battles against foreign presence on their land. They fought to control their resources while attempting, with relative success, to exert influence on the regional and international scene. It is true, however, that Israel's presence stemmed the tide of Arab liberation. The 1967 defeat dealt a deadly blow to Nasser's liberation quest. Since then, several setbacks have taken place, culminating in Iraq's occupation of Kuwait. The suppression of the spirit of Arab liberation had a negative impact on the Palestinian issue, as did 11 September 2001. The attacks on Washington and New York were used as a pretext to justify foreign intervention, the use of force, and the imposition of hegemony on the Arabs.

Reform is trickier than enlightenment and liberation. While the Arab world has a proven record in the latter two areas, it is yet to embark on a viable path of reform. The US's insistence that the region should undergo reform -- which became more vocal after 11 September -- was not particularly helpful. The Arabs were particularly sceptical about statements made by Secretary of State Colin Powell in mid-December 2002. Although the US may have been patronising, this should not stop us from doing the right thing. Arab institutions -- political, economic, and cultural -- have a tradition of succumbing to the power of the individual, as have most of our regimes.

The world is changing so fast around us, and we cannot afford to stand still. We must review various aspects of our lives and reform the frameworks in which our societies operate. If our long-cherished national revolutions have failed in fulfilling their promise, it is perhaps time for gradual reform. We simply deserve a better place on the world map of intellectual and technological progress.

Reform is a profound experience. It requires a comprehensive outlook and a systematic vision. It has to take place in a unified framework that brings together education, culture, and technology. This is the technical and professional aspect of reform. The essence of reform, however, is political and constitutional. Once again, one has to stress the importance of democracy and the need for broader political participation. All the forces represented on the national scene, in public life including legislatures, should have their say, and power should change hands.

Reform should proceed both from the bottom up and from the top down. If either of these two directions is obstructed, progress could be compromised. We need development and democracy to accumulate wealth and ensure that it is fairly and legitimately distributed. We also need clear programmes and trained management to implement them. Enlightenment, liberation, and reform constitute our triangle of hope.

*The writer is chairman of the foreign affairs committee at the People's Assembly.

homepage: homepage: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2003/634/op11.htm