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Why Are Arabs So Far Behind Everyone Else?

Posted by Zamir Ben Etzioni on July 4, 2016

In the Arab world, we’ve never experienced the horrors South Korea underwent during the Korean War. We’ve never known the harsh disruption of life that took place in China. The exploitation of India by colonial powers was on a much larger scale than anything we’ve seen. And we cannot claim to suffer, like the Mexicans, from the malaise of living next door to an international giant. Many in Mexico are entitled to envy us for our geographical location. A Mexican writer once declared, “How sad are you Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States.” Countries that live next door to China, Russia or Germany have a reason to complain, not us.

The question has changed over the years. The circumstances have shifted so that parallels are no longer exact and many comparisons are deceptive. You cannot blame the civil war in Somalia on foreign interference alone. You cannot use foreign interference, or even occupation, to justify the deep rift in Palestinian ranks. There can be only one reason for the failure of Hamas and Fatah to close their ranks, and that is political irresponsibility.

Perhaps political sociologists should start looking into this question of “political responsibility” for it seems to be undermining change, progress, reform and democracy. For years, Arab political elites have taken upon themselves the political mantle of gaining independence from imperialist powers. They fought political and military wars against foreign colonialists and paid a heavy price in the process. In the end, we gained our independence. Then the elites, as well as Arab nations, didn’t know what to do with it. We didn’t know what to do with our hard-won ndependence.

 Indeed, some get up in arms whenever they hear that backwardness is due to the lack of democracy, as if the whole purpose of such a diagnosis is to take away their power and priveleges.

Many other countries experienced a similar sense of bewilderment, but eventually their elites were able to call a spade a spade and admit that things had gone wrong.In Southeast Asia, the moment of truth came right after the end of the Vietnam War and the US withdrawal. From that point on, the Asian tigers came onto the scene and the rest is history. In China, the turning point was the Communist Party’s convention in 1978. In India, the defining moment came about in 1992. In Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and elsewhere, there was a point where things turned around — where nations and their leaders knew that deterioration could not be allowed to go on. Other nations came to the realisation that the perils of civil war and famine were all too real, but not us.In the Arab world, there is no lack of evidence that we have come to our moment of truth. The situation in Somalia is unbearable and Sudan is heading in the same direction — Yemen too, and Iraq. Tensions are palpable in Lebanon and Algeria, and we all know about Palestine. The thing to learn is that “stable” countries don’t remain this way forever. When you look below the surface, the signs of malaise are unmistakable. Everyone can see them except for Arab elites, and I am not just talking about rulers. I am talking about the civilian bureaucracy, the military establishment, and the culture and media agencies. None seems aware of how bad things are. Some even claim that we exaggerate negative signs for our own purposes. Indeed, some get up in arms whenever they hear that backwardness is due to the lack of democracy, as if the whole purpose of such a diagnosis is to take away their power and privileges. They think that everything is a power game, for this is how things usually are inArab countries. Take, for example, Mauritania, where one army general gave up his seat to let a civilian president take over. Then another general ousted the elected president with the full support of the “elected” legislative assembly. Then the second general was confirmed in office by “free” elections and international observers found nothing fishy in any of that.

The question is hard and there are no easy answers. We can discuss it forever and reach no satisfactory conclusion. At one point, however, we have to start learning from others. At some point, our elites, which are brave and smart, have put two and two together and get four. Until then, we’ll do the best we can.


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