Said Ghazali: Arab problems require an Arab solution

We blame only others: at times we seem almost to revel in the role of persecuted victims
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The inability of Arab leaders to draw the right lessons from Saddam's rise and collapse - after all, he was one of the Arab dictators himself - leads me to contemplate the sterility of their regimes.

Although Saddam's intolerance and brutality was well known in the West, it came as news to millions in the Muslim world who had been deluded by the regime's pan-Arab slogans, which described him as the knight of the Arabs. But Iraqis, as well as the citizens of the other 21 Arab countries, have long yearned for freedom, democracy, progress, and modernisation.

The American soldiers, even with their sophisticated weapons, cannot achieve this goal by force. Democracy is the product of social, economic and political change. But the American occupation could help to shed light on the Arab world's own weaknesses.

After more than five decades of living under the Arab regime system, we have reaped only wars, occupations, poverty, corruption and oppression. The 300 million Arabs, from the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean, have no rights, no freedom, and no hope. Their regimes are too often corrupt and defensive. And the ordinary Arab is too often over-sensitive, paranoid and irrational.

In the third millennium, this vast land has become fertile ground for fundamentalism. The unholy coalition of the Arab dictatorships and the growing fundamentalism of the peoples they rule hamper modernisation and progress, while the Arab League, dogged with endless divisions, is an empty shell incapable of solving the deep problems of the region.

Two Arab countries Iraq and Palestine are occupied. Two others, Sudan and Algeria, live in chronic civil war. Somalia is not a country any more. Egypt is hungry. Syria is a big slogan. Lebanon is fragmented by sectarian conflicts. Jordan is a beggar. Saudi Arabia is sterile and reactionary.

The oil of the Arab countries has become a curse. For 35 years, Muammar Gaddafi squandered the oil-derived affluence of Libya on developing weapons of mass destruction, sending armies to neighbouring countries and stupidly getting involved in terrorist activities. His sudden capitulation has had the same damaging effects as the humiliating capture of Saddam Hussein in a spider's hole.

But the correct conclusions should be drawn by rational thinkers in the Arab world: there is no middle class to introduce positive changes; our best educated citizens are serving in the world's best universities and institutions; the Arab world has no independent media and no workable judicial system to enforce the rule of law; our parliaments are rubber stamps.

Since the American soldiers set foot in Iraq, not a day passes without strong condemnation of the occupation. We have been assaulted by tides of analysis from Arab commentators exposing the negative goals of the US. Any talk by Americans about freedom and democracy, as in George Bush's speech in Britain, has been strongly dismissed. But few of the commentators, who are university academics, ex-generals and top former officials, have pointed to our own ailments. We only blame others: it is the fault of the West; it is the fault of the US neo-conservatives; it is the fault of the Jewish lobby. At times we seem almost to revel in the role of persecuted and occupied victims.

There is no serious discussion about the clash between modernisation and fundamentalism. But these are the real problems that perpetuate the Israeli occupation and which paved the way for the new American occupation. Our reaction to the US invasion was tribal, because the Arab regimes have little idea how to react beyond a series of vague sound-bites.

It is true the governing council in Iraq is a puppet in the hand of Americans; but Iraq is not ruled now by a dictator, like the rest of the Arab countries. There is debate among Iraqis. They are discussing a constitution, and the outcome might not be completely negative. Iraqis should work for having a real democracy under the sovereignty of law. They should not let America take their oil, or deprive them of their sovereignty. They should have their own army, to defend the country and not invade its neighbours.

But Arabs must stop dwelling in the past. They should reinvigorate their societies by shaking the rule of dictators, by modernising Islam, by revitalising the forces of enlightenment. America, despite its flaws, has helped the Iraqi people to get rid of a most brutal regime. On the other hand, as the most recent UN development report on the Arab world pointed out, the oppressive internal security laws enacted by the US since 11 September 2001 against resident Muslims - not to mention some of the military operations carried out against Iraqi civilians - give an excuse to Arab regimes to be even more repressive towards their own citizens.

The Arab nations should conclude that, as long as Arab dictators rule unchallenged by the masses, there will be more occupations, more oppression, more poverty, and more slavery - which is worse than occupation. The anti-occupation struggle must not divert us from diagnosing our own chronic weaknesses We have yet to challenge the forces of darkness pushing us backwards when we desperately need to go forwards.

The writer is a Palestinian journalist resident in East Jerusalem