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Mideast: Arab Report Urges Democratic Reforms, But Faults U.S. Too

Arab countries must step up the pace of democratic reform or face chaotic social upheaval. Those are the conclusions of a new report by Arab intellectuals out Tuesday. The Arab Human Development Report urges more freedom, good governance and political reform across the region. It's the third such report sponsored by the United Nations Development Program.

Prague, 5 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- A "political black hole."

That's how the authors of the report describe the modern Arab state.

Across the region, power is concentrated in the hands of monarchies, dictatorships or presidents elected without competition. This, the report says, creates an environment "in which nothing moves and from which nothing escapes."

But the Arab Human Development Report says all this must end.
Aboulmagd says the changes are slow. But he says they show the region is moving in the right direction:

It's calling for urgent action -- more freedom of opinion, freely elected legislatures, an end to discrimination, and truly independent judiciaries. Otherwise, it says, Arab governments will face internal conflict or reforms imposed by outside powers.

Cairo University professor Ahmed Kamal Aboulmagd, one of the report's authors, says the report is intended to as a wake-up call.

"This is meant to be a serious plan and serious advice towards the promotion of good governance and respect of human rights with the guarantees that are a precondition for their preservation," he says.

The report covers the year after October 2003, so it was written before recent critical events such as elections in Iraq and the Palestinian territories.

But it notes what it calls other, "limited" advances.

There were legislative elections with women voters and candidates in Oman. Algeria held a competitive, multiparty presidential contest. And Morocco adopted a new family law safeguarding women's rights.

Aboulmagd says the changes are slow. But he says they show the region is moving in the right direction:

"It's a wave, it's a positive wave of more awareness of the need to promote human rights in various fields," he says. "We believe this is a key to development. So there is some progress, it is still short of what we hoped would be realized, but we have to register it as a positive sign in many Arab countries. The important thing is the direction in which the state of affairs is moving. The direction is the right direction, more promotion, more respect for human rights."

The report's recommendations -- more freedoms, more democracy -- might sound familiar.

The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush says its policy, too, is to promote democracy in the region.

But the report reserves some of its criticism for Washington.

It says the U.S. hampered progress in the region through its support for Israel, its actions in Iraq and its security measures that affect Arabs.

So the report itself has been controversial and its release was delayed for several months.

But Aboulmagd says the authors had to speak openly about all issues they feel hamper development in the region:

"We are not expressing views on political issues per se.," he says. "We are simply referring to them as impediments to development in areas such as Palestine and Iraq. . We have to speak openly, diplomatically -- yes -- but we could not have ignored these issues, just as we did not ignore some violations of human rights in Arab countries."

The report was written by an independent group of leading Arab scholars and intellectuals and sponsored by the United Nations Development Program.

It's the third in a series of four planned reports.