Arab reformists trapped between regimes, US

MANAMA — Arab activists meeting in Bahrain on Tuesday to press for democratic change find themselves caught between battling “dictator” regimes and US-led initiatives for reform, which are suspected of serving US interests.

While some activists at a Manama conference insisted that Arab democratic movements are too weak to implement reforms without external help, others warned that the US-sponsored pushes for reform may be meant to serve Washington’s aims in the region.

“We believe that seeking the help of enemy foreign forces will cause a national catastrophe like what is happening in Iraq,” said the board member of the outlawed Arab Organisation for Human Rights in Syria, Ghaleb Amer.

“We are against domestic oppression and foreign aggression at the same time. This is a difficult equation now… but we believe in gradual peaceful change from within,” Amer told AFP.

But Reda Ali Ebrahim, board member of Bahrain Human Rights Society, said foreign help was needed to implement reforms.

“Over the past 60 years, it was evident that we could not force reforms alone. We need a foreign catalyst to promote reforms,” Ebrahim told AFP.

“I don’t look with scepticism towards the US initiative. Things are transparent so we should take what we want and abandon the rest,” he said.

Dozens of activists representing Arab non-governmental organisations (NGOs) opened the two-day conference on Monday by branding reforms as a “necessity” to modernise the Arab world, rejecting claims they only served Western interests.

Reforms in the Arab world are not aimed at “appeasing the West and serving its goals,” Abdulnabi Al Akri, coordinator of the NGO conference, said at the opening of the “Parallel Conference of Forum for Future.”

The conference comes ahead of the November 11-12 “Forum for Future” during which foreign ministers of 38 countries from the Middle East and the G-8 will discuss the US-sponsored Broader Middle East and North Africa (BMENA) initiative.

“Some think that the initiative is an absolute evil because it came from the G-8 and democracy suffers as a result,” said Ziad Abdul Samad, executive director of the Arab NGO Network for Development.

“I think we must utilise this historical moment to press for change… Democratic change must respond to domestic needs. It cannot be implemented from outside,” Abdul Samad told AFP.

Saad Eddine Ibrahim, head of Egypt’s Ibn Khaldoun Centre, said foreign initiatives must be judged on the basis of their merits.

“Fear of everything foreign is an old Arab syndrome… I don’t share the fear of others from foreign initiatives because we should take what is useful to us,” Ibrahim told AFP.

“Arab regimes are trying to divert the anger of Arab masses to Israel and America… but the main obstacle to reforms are Arab rulers. There is no justification in rejecting American reforms if we don’t have the local substitute,” he said.

US policies in the Middle East came under fire at the opening session and during workshop discussions for Washington’s perceived bias for Israel and its occupation of Iraq.

“We want to create a new Arab world, but not aboard American warships,” Mohammad Safa, Lebanese rights activist, told a discussion panel.

Recommendations of the NGOs conference will be submitted to the foreign ministers of Bahrain and Britain to be discussed by the foreign ministers of G-8 and BMENA, Akri said.

The “Forum for Future” conference is the second of its type within the framework of the BMENA initiative, which US President George W. Bush launched at a G-8 summit meeting in Seal Island, Georgia, last year. The first meeting was held in Morocco in December.

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