UN highlights uncomfortable truths for Arab world

Robert Fisk
Wednesday 03 July 2002 00:00 BST

Deprived of political freedom, isolated from the world of ideas, repressing their women, and with science and development stunted, the Arab world will find it difficult to fault the conclusions of a UN report which all too accurately sums up the barren, ossified life of so many Arab countries.

The UN's Arab Development Report was prepared by Arab intellectuals and partly sponsored by the Arab League, so there is no way the Arab dictators and oligarchs can pretend to ignore its findings.

But they will. For although the report does not say so in quite these words, it is the dead, often cruel, rule of their regimes which have long used the pretext of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict to postpone indefinitely any democratic reform. The document, released in Cairo yesterday and covering 22 Arab countries containing 280 million people, says damningly that the Arab world is "richer than it is developed".

With appropriate irony, the report coincided with a Unesco conference in Beirut which drew almost identical conclusions. Speakers condemned the "backward narcissism" of the Arab world, the failure to produce a society which has room for self-doubt, which forbids the teaching of philosophy in universities because – in the words of Mohammed Sbila, a Moroccan academic – "it epitomises awareness and doesn't hold anything sacred".

The UN report talks about a less tolerant social environment, thus avoiding any discussion of Islam and its fundamentalist believers, in which per capita income growth has shrunk over the past two decades to a level little above that of sub-saharan Africa. Productivity is declining.

Science is comatose, along with technology. Research and development is often non- existent. Intellectuals shun the repressive, closed societies of the Arab world. Half of all Arab women are illiterate and the maternal mortality rate is four times that of east Asia.

Rima Hunaidi, a former Jordanian minister, says she asked the authors of the report "to come and look at this problem and decide why is Arab culture, why are Arab countries lagging behind?" Most Arabs, however, will wonder why it took a one-year study to come up with the answers. Indeed, just a look at the past week's developments in the Arab world should be enough. On Sunday, Kuwait, despite repeated pleas for clemency from Amnesty International, hanged three Bangladeshis convicted of murder and then displayed the corpses on the gibbet. In Egypt, policemen beat back Islamist voters trying to cast their ballots in a rigged election.

Syria sent an intellectual to prison for daring to suggest that the country should be more open to democratic debate. In Jordan, trade unionists were warned not to involve themselves in politics after demonstrations calling for a boycott of America. With the exception of only one nation – Syria – all the others are among the "friends" of the West.

Even in France, we have the spectacle of General Khaled Nezzar, perhaps the top man in the Algerian regime, taking to court a second lieutenant in the Algerian army for "slandering" him in a book on Algeria's dirty war. Already Habib Souaida, the former soldier, has given evidence of watching soldiers throwing petrol over a boy aged 15 and burning him alive. Yet General Nezzar, who fled Paris when civil suits were filed against him for torture, is now allowed back. Meanwhile, in Algeria, Spain's Foreign Minister, representing the EU, has welcomed "notable progress in the protection of human rights".

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