A question of citizenship

It’s almost two weeks since the latest Arab Human Development Report was published and, after the initial burst of news items which basically summarised its content, considered views are beginning to emerge.

The theme of the 2009 report, as I noted last week, is “human security” – a people-centred approach that goes beyond the usual focus on war, terrorism, etc. Although the authors have been accused (probably unfairly) of underplaying the deleterious effects of foreign occupation, adopting a broader definition of security has allowed them to look in some detail at the way Arab regimes treat their citizens. This is very welcome. In the new post-Bush era it opens the door to more constructive ways of looking at ”the Arab problem”.

In a lengthy analysis for The National, Marc Lynch writes:

Few readers could fail to note that the report exposes the inconsistencies of American “democracy promotion”, which combined bold talk about freedom with the continued toleration – even promotion – of human rights abuses in the name of counter-terrorism. It is a pity that the debate about the report has thus far revolved around whether the chapter on foreign occupations is at the beginning or the end.

He continues:

The report refers infrequently to democracy, focusing instead on the need for a fundamental transformation in the conception of citizenship and the obligations of states to their citizens. Given the limited results of nearly a decade of western efforts to promote democracy in the Arab world, this is a useful paradigm shift.

Writing in the Independent, Robert Fisk makes a similar point:

I suspect that a real problem exists in the mind of Arabs; they do not feel that they own their countries. Constantly coaxed into effusions of enthusiasm for Arab or national "unity", I think they do not feel that sense of belonging which westerners feel. 

Unable, for the most part, to elect real representatives – even in Lebanon, outside the tribal or sectarian context – they feel "ruled over". The street, the country as a physical entity, belongs to someone else. And of course, the moment a movement comes along and – even worse – becomes popular, emergency laws are introduced to make these movements illegal or "terrorist". Thus it is always someone else's responsibility to look after the gardens and the hills and the streets.

As it happens, this “disengagement” or lack of a sense of citizenship among the Arab public is one of the main themes of my forthcoming book, What’s Really Wrong With the Middle East (to be published in September). Disengagement is reflected in many areas of Arab society but is perhaps most apparent in politics. In one chapter, entitled “States without citizens”, I make the point that most Arab regimes behave more like colonial rulers than a government which has genuine roots in the country.

For further discussion of the AHDR see:

  • Rami Khouri: The seven pillars of Arab fragility (Daily Star)

  • Khaled Diab: Who's responsible for the Arab world? (Comment is free)

  • Peter David: Waking from its sleep (The Economist) – not strictly about the AHDR, but relevant

  • Riz Khan: video report on al-Jazeera’s English channel

  • The Long Slumber blog: an ironic look at the report