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Home > Special Topics > Europe Report Last Updated: 15:16 03/09/2007
Europe Report #90: June 4, 2004

Challenges Facing the Arab World

Kamal Abu Jabar (former Jordanian Foreign Minister)
J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)
Samir Nassif (Journalist, Arab Press)

Kamal Abu Jabar, former Jordanian Foreign MinisterNew Models for Governing the Arab World

Sean Curtin: It seems that the Arab world is in search of a new way forward. A new developmental concept and a new democratic framework are needed. There are a number of alternatives on offer. There is the American model, the British model and of course the Japanese model, which is more developmental, but still with the apparatus of democracy. What is the Arab world's opinion of these three approaches?

Kamal Abu Jabar: The Arabs do not feel that there is any real sincerity on the part of the West to really democratize them or to stabilize the region. If we look at the history of the Arab world or just the Middle East since say the end of the First World War, which is almost 100 years ago. It has been completely under the control of the West for nearly all that time. That is what I like to think is the myth of Arab independence.

Now, if in 100 years the West could not stabilize the region, then something is wrong. We have to ask the question is the West really sincere about stabilizing the region? Or democratizing the region? We have to say that after 100 years something is wrong. Myself, I think what the West wanted over the last 100 years is control and stability. Control and stability is not conducive to democratization.

The Arabs experimented after the First World War with liberalism, they had liberal constitutions in Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Jordan and elsewhere. Of course, in the heat of what took place in the twenties and thirties, Jewish immigration into Palestine, the Palestinian question and, of course, our independence too within Syria and Iraq and within Jordan and within Palestine, etcetera. With all this pressure, any sense of liberalism burned out.

So, the Arabs started experimenting with nationalism, then socialism, and then a combination of nationalism and socialism. All of this burnt out and now we have the British and the Americas de-Baathing Iraq. [What is meant by] the de-Baathification of Iraq? De-Baathification means the de-nationalization that means there will be a conscious effort to eradicate Arab nationalism, which is tied in with the very idea of democracy. How can you have democracy if you don't have some sort of an identity?

I think that it is a shortsighted policy, not that I like the Baath [Party] or dislike the Baath [Party]. I don't care. The fact is that this is the only alternative the Arab individual has. If you take this away, what do we have? Extremism. Whether the West is playing with this consciously or unconsciously, I don't know. I am not passing judgment. I am just saying to you that what they are doing is highly significant and horribly dangerous. Just think of the Arab masses that are looking for some kind of a fallback. What have they got? Socialism is dead. Arab nationalism is dead. A combination of the two is dead. All you have left is extremism.

Sean Curtin: What about the Japanese model as an alternative?

Kamal Abu Jabar: OK. You apply a model in a stable situation, in a situation where you have a certain standard of living. Look, democracy, when did it become established in the West or in America? What 200 years ago. This is just a fleeting moment in historical terms. The same is true for Britain in this respect.

Sean Curtin: That is why I suggested Japan, because after the Second World War they had to start from scratch.

Kamal Abu Jabar: Japan, it's a fantastic model. But you see the question is that before you have begun to make progress you can't really democratize. This is what I am saying to you right now. The latest effort which the American press talk about is the democratization of the Arab world. I can't take this seriously. In the first place, it was [at the start] an article in a newspaper. No government to my mind in the Western world has espoused it yet or has any intention of doing so.

Furthermore, I think any model for democracy should come from the Arab world itself. And we have models. If we are just given the time to breathe. For just six minutes without being challenged or looked down on for our misfortunes.

Changing the Arab Mindset and Approach to Education

Kamal Abu Jabar: About a mechanism for changing the Arab mindset? I don't know. This is the whole point, to search for the answer of how to get out of the peril we are in. Let me just tell you that I was once the dean of a faculty. I was at the University of Jordan for about eleven or twelve years. You take ten Jordanians or ten Egyptians or ten Palestinians, you send them to Britain or France or America and out of the ten after twenty years, five of them have produced something. One of will probably have become a very important intellectual. You put the same ten in any Arab country and out of the ten you will be lucky if you have one [who has achieved something].

Something is wrong. What is it? Is it the social order? Is it the intellectual climate? Is it the terror of the street? Because the terror of the street in the Arab world is much worse than the terror of the government. Because the governments I know are King Abdullah [of Jordan] and President Mubarak [of Egypt]. But the terror on the streets, you can't put your finger on it.

So, how do you get out of this conformist attitude? The only way to my mind is to release the mind. To adopt the logical, experimental approach in the education system. Our students are taught by the rote system and memorization. Even at the university level. I was a university professor for forty years and my students they sometimes got angry. They would say, "Professor, please set out exactly what we should learn."

Sean Curtin: Sounds like Japan.

Kamal Abu Jabar: Some of the teachers would even underline certain sections in the book. I would say, "You know this is not education, this is regimentation." How do you get out of this? Unless we release the mind from this rote/regimentation system we are doomed. Of course, we have had impressive improvements in the Arab world.

Yes, I can tell you in my life time. I am now 71 years old, sometimes I feel I am 700 years old. The amount of changes I have seen in my life time has been amazing. To be honest there are much larger and more impressive countries than Jordan with longer and richer traditions. But I have seen Jordan come out of the dark ages. Literally, from almost the stone age within my life time….

Ahmed Chalabi and Jordan

Samir Nassif: From your experience as a former Jordanian foreign minister, how do you assess the relationship between the Jordanian government and Ahmed Chalabi?

Kamal Abu Jabar: Are you quoting me on this?

Samir Nassif: You don't want to be quoted?

Kamal Abu Jabar: No, it's OK.

Sean Curtin: I would like to quote you too.

Kamal Abu Jabar: I know Ahmed Chalabi personally from when he was in Jordan. He visited me several times. He is a terribly intelligent man, he has I think a Ph.D. in computer science. He is a very smart guy.

There are varying opinions about him. Some people say that this man was innocent and that he was framed by other bankers. There are others who swear that the man is what he is. That he has been tried by a proper court of law with lawyers and he had the best lawyers in Jordan. He was convicted and then absconded outside of the country. Until now if he stepped into Jordan, he would be grabbed by the police and put in jail.

Of course, this is an important matter for Jordan, the problem was the Americans got serious about this man and were thinking about making him [Iraqi] President. I mean, how on earth would we have dealt with him then? I mean, it would be a real problem because the Jordanian regime maintains rightly that there is a court decision against him and that we respect our courts. Because we do have justice in Jordan, believe it or not.

The above discussion took place at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London on 21 May 2004


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