Arab leaders’ failure to reform threatens to play into the hands of extremist forces, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said today, in a scathing critique of the region’s authoritarian governments.
In unusually frank words, she criticized the corruption, inertia and democratic deficit that characterize the Arab world’s malaise.
“In too many places, in too many ways, the region’s foundations are sinking into the sand,” she told a stone-faced audience of foreign ministers, business figures and civil society groups.
“People have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order,” she told Arab leaders attending the Forum for the Future in Qatar. “They are demanding reform to make their governments more effective, more responsive, and more open.”
The region’s leaders have failed “to build a future that your young people will believe in, stay for and defend,” Clinton said, highlighting official corruption as a source of popular discontent.
While she was delivering her remarks, the dramatic wave of unrest in Tunisia continued unabated, with demonstrators highlighting blatant corruption within President Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali’s regime as a major grievance.
“There needs to be a concerted, constant chorus from the business community to end the corruption,” she said, her voice quavering with frustration.
She warned that “others will fill the vacuum” if “leaders don’t offer a positive vision and give young people meaningful ways to contribute.”
“Extremist elements, terrorist groups, and others who would prey on desperation and poverty are already out there, appealing for allegiance and competing for influence,” she added.
Despite the authorities’ efforts to stifle independent media and dissident voices, “people know now maybe what they did not know 20 or 30 years ago: that much of a government’s wealth is going to a few instead of the many in too many countries,” Clinton said.
The region’s authoritarian rulers should adopt a more inclusive approach to governance and engage non-governmental groups.
“It’s time to see civil society not as a threat but as a partner,” she said.
But some civil society groups are dismissive of the forum, said Tunisian human rights activist Salah al-Din al-Jourshi.
“A great part says that there is no benefit to get out of this forum,” he said, as the “results are very poor” and many NGOs are leaving.
The event “has become more of a debate club” than a forum for genuine dialog, said the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. Since the forum’s launch in 2004, it noted, the Arab world has experienced a marked deterioration in political and economic freedoms.
The new Freedom in the World survey confirms that the region suffered significant political regression over the past year, notably in states that had proclaimed reformist intentions, including Jordan, Bahrain and Yemen.
The focus of reform efforts under former U.S. president George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda, the region “deepened its multiyear decline from an already-low democratic baseline,” writes Arch Puddington, the report’s co-author.