UN highlights uncomfortable truths for Arab world


By Robert Fisk in Beirut

03 July 2002



http://news.independent.co.uk/world/middle_east/story.jsp?story=311396



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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