Arab world held back by turmoil

May 02, 2002|By Thomas L. Friedman

AMMAN, Jordan -- In recent months, the explosion of Arab satellite TV stations and Web sites has had a profound impact on Arab public opinion by showing live, nonstop images of the Israeli crackdown on Palestinians in the West Bank.

These TV and e-mail images have fueled massive demonstrations across the Arab world, and in both Egypt and Bahrain protesters have been shot.

Could this roiling Arab street actually topple a regime? No -- none of the Arab regimes is in any danger right now. But Arab regimes' survival is not the right question. The right question is how they will survive.

What many are having to do to survive is to slow down whatever modernization, globalization or democratization initiatives they were either pursuing or contemplating and to focus, at least rhetorically, on the old agenda of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The biggest victims of the West Bank war will not be Arab leaders, but Arab liberals -- as fledgling democratic experiments are postponed, foreign investment reduced, security services given more leeway to crack down and public discussion dominated by the Palestine issue.

Jordan's King Abdullah II, one of the most progressive leaders in the Arab world today, told me: "I have no intention of putting Jordan's modernization program on hold. We are moving ahead, but I cannot do this by myself. I need the public with me."

But keeping the public and politicians focused on modernization today is not as easy as it was a year ago. Jordan, like all other Arab countries, has been bombarded by independent Arab satellite TV stations, which compete for audiences by showing the most gruesome, one-sided images of Israel brutalizing Palestinians.

When I covered the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, it took hours or days for film footage to get out, and Arab regimes could tightly control what was shown. A few weeks ago, by contrast, Arab News Network carried live, from a Palestinian village next to Jenin, a report from a Palestinian family that had been locked into a room by Israeli forces who were sweeping the area. The mother, who had a cell phone, called ANN, pleading for help for her kids. The whole Arab world listened in -- live.

This was not the case a year ago, when Jordanian news was dominated by the king's innovative modernization program, which is supposed to kick off this year with a radical reform of the Jordanian education system, connecting every Jordanian school to the Internet, and new investments in rural development. Once the initiative was running, the king was planning to hold elections in the fall for a new parliament that would endorse this progressive agenda.

As part of this whole push, Microsoft signaled its intent to invest $2 million in a creative Jordanian software firm. Microsoft conditioned its investment, though, on Jordan's first amending its copyright, labor and company laws to bring them up to world standards. The Cabinet amended the laws by fiat, but was hoping a new parliament would ratify them.

But with the Jordanian population so inflamed about events in the West Bank, ministers cannot talk publicly about the domestic reform agenda, the press isn't interested and the palace is rethinking whether to hold elections. It's worried that in the current mood, Islamists could sweep the day instead of progressives.

This is the real Arab street story. Progressive Arab states like Jordan, Morocco and Bahrain, which want to build their legitimacy not on how they confront Israel but on how well they prepare their people for the future, are being impeded. And retrograde Arab regimes like Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iraq can now feed their people more excuses why not to reform.

The Palestinians have been experts at seducing the Arab world into postponing its future until all the emotive issues of Palestine are resolved. Three generations of Arabs have already paid dearly for only being allowed to ask one question: Who rules Palestine? -- not, how are we educating our young, or what kind of democracy or economy should we have? It would be a tragedy if a fourth generation were to suffer the same fate.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.

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