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Glimmers Of Hope in The Arab World

By Fareed Zakaria
Tuesday, December 21, 2004; Page A25

Since Sept. 11, 2001, I've written a column once a year pointing out the good news, which is that Islamic extremism is losing. The movement, in all of its variations, has been unable to garner mass support in any Muslim country. While people in many countries still despise their governments -- and that of the United States -- this has not translated into support for Osama bin Laden's ideas. It doesn't mean the end of terrorism by a long shot. Small groups of people can do great harm in today's world. But it does mean that the political engine producing this religious radicalism is not gaining steam.

In those places in the Muslim world where political life is open, the evidence is overwhelming. In the elections in Malaysia and Indonesia this year, secular parties trounced Islamic ones. Malaysia's case is particularly instructive. Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi ran on a platform of reform and good government, reckoning that voters cared more about ending corruption than enacting Islamic law. The result was a devastating defeat for the Islamist party, its worst showing in 30 years.

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In 2004, however, one can point to more than simply the absence of support for fundamentalism. There are glimmers of reform, even in the Arab world, the place that remains the locus of the problem. Governments are talking about changing their economic and even political systems. Some are doing more than talking. Jordan has begun serious economic reforms. Egypt, which remains the most tragic case of lost potential in the Arab world, could be rousing from its slumber. An energetic new prime minister has appointed a team with strong reformist credentials, including businessmen in the cabinet (a first in Egypt). The reforms they have proposed are bold and far-reaching. Markets are taking note: Egyptian stocks are up 100 percent this year.

This early enthusiasm could easily dissipate. Arab elites remain enormously resistant to reform and will try to scuttle plans for change. But I sense that the dinosaurs are on the defensive. For the first time, other views are being aired. Consider the contrast between two conferences on reform held in the past 10 days. The first, the official "Forum for the Future," held in Morocco, ended with the foreign ministers of the region endorsing reform but adding that it couldn't happen until a Palestinian state was established. Some also insisted that Iraq be free of foreign troops. These are the usual strange excuses for repression and oligarchy in the Arab world. "Until foreign policy problems are solved," the governments seem to be saying, "we have no choice but to keep punishing our people."

But now there are Arab voices saying "Enough." At Dubai's Arab Strategy Forum a few days later, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Maktum, Dubai's ruler, said pointedly in his opening address, "I cannot see why a crisis, no matter how severe, should delay economic reform or plans to eradicate illiteracy. . . .What is the relation between foreign affairs and corruption?"

Interestingly, these voices are mainly being heard from the Persian Gulf, which has become the center of reform in the Arab world. Dubai is far ahead of all others in terms of economic openness and efficiency. But Qatar and Bahrain are moving in the same direction with radical plans. It is a strange reversal. In the 1950s and 1960s, the large Arab states, led by Egypt, were seen as the modernizing forces in the region. The gulf monarchies were backward Bedouin societies. Now progress, at least economic progress, is coming from the gulf, while countries such as Syria appear to be stuck in the Stone Age.

Indeed, despite the stirrings in Egypt, what is most likely is an increasing divide in the Arab world between the small, nimble states on the periphery -- the Persian Gulf states, Jordan, Morocco -- and the slumbering giants.

Although many in the region would be dismayed by this division, it is a healthy development. Pan-Arabism, which was never more than hot air anyway, has been one of the ideologies that has kept Arabs from modernizing. Competition will force each state to focus on its own future. And as some succeed, others will follow, and regional trade and tourism -- currently abysmally low -- will expand. Perhaps this will forge a new Arab community, one created by the practical realities of contact, culture and commerce rather than war, rhetoric and politics.

We're a long way away from all this. But in the spirit of the season, let's give thanks for glimmers of hope.

comments@fareedzakaria.com


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