Plus ‡a change…

The U.S. government has announced in recent weeks that it would pledge $29M to promote democracy in the Middle East. While it remains unclear what “promoting democracy” really means in precise terms, such an announcement, even if the money pales in comparison to official US aid to the region, would have usually been vigorously applauded by USAID enthusiasts, local human rights organizations, and other reformists. At any other time, perhaps, but not now. My first reaction was to wonder whether this is part of the ongoing charm offensive that has been launched by Bush’s PR gurus as of late (which has included the creation of Charlotte Beers’ Office of Global Communication and the launch of Radio Sawa, a somewhat ill-defined mix of news and beats aimed at an Arab audience). Or, perhaps this is a separate initiative by the State Department? My second reaction was: does it really matter?

Either way, I am afraid that the target audience, whether it’s the “Arab street,” the “Arab basement” (as NY Times columnist Friedman has coined it) or the “Arab couch,” will remain unimpressed by this effort.

The Cairo Times noted recently “the Arab Street, as I think we know by now, belongs to the Arab governments. The enraged citizens that Arab leaders are continually claiming to be just barely keeping under wraps are, almost to a man, sitting at home on the Arab couch – grumpily convinced that … there’s nothing they could do about it anyway.”

While everyone agrees that 9/11 has not only shocked the Arab world but could also serve as a powerful catalyst for change everywhere from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, few are convinced that the current U.S. initiative is the way to go. You see, less and less of the so-called Arab intellectual elite (let alone the Arab street, whatever that means) is convinced that the U.S. is genuine about its stated mission to promote real, democratic changes in the region let alone the means by which it hopes to achieve such goals. John Munro of the Cairo Times captures the feelings of many Arabs both inside and outside of the region when he described his reaction to the current US media blitz campaign: “slick videos of young girls wearing hegab (traditional headscarf), pouring milk over cornflakes while listening to Ice T: ‘Hey look, I’m a Muslim and an American too.’ Sorry, I’m unimpressed.”

Many U.S. enthusiasts might argue that the media campaign and financial pledges that the Bush administration has offered are better than nothing and that it’s a step in the right direction. Others would state that only a frank dialogue of “East meets West” would promote change and create a better understanding on both sides. Well, it depends: change, in my opinion, may be already on its way but it is gradual and, more importantly, inward-looking. Indeed, the current changes may be too slow for U.S. administration officials and American think tank folk to observe or appreciate, but they nonetheless exist.

After the docudrama “Horseman without a Horse”–based on the fraudulent anti-Semitic text “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”–was broadcast on Egyptian TV during the holy month of Ramadan amidst a great deal of criticism in media circles worldwide, the Egyptian government decided to react. A three-part series that was published most recently in Egypt’s most widely distributed newspaper, Al Ahram, and written by Mubarak’s closest advisor, Harvard-educated Osama El Baz, is a clear signal that the Egyptian government is fully aware of the damage that such myths propagate both internally and externally and of the government’s eagerness to distance itself from such claims.

Moreover, there are other signals (elections in Bahrain, political reform in Saudi, etc.) that some of the Arab governments are in fact entering a phase of change, albeit slowly. El Baz asserts in his article that “we must uphold the correct perspective on our relationship with the Jews, as embodied in the legacy of Arab civilization and in our holy scriptures.

This legacy holds that ours is not a tradition of racism and intolerance, that the Jews are our cousins through common descent from Abraham.”

The problem is that until Arab governments themselves become convinced that respect for democracy and citizens’ rights is a good thing, outside initiatives are unlikely to achieve much success. In the meantime, the U.S.’s role in promoting change should focus on grass-root activities instead of what is perceived as a PR exercises designed to distract Arab public opinion from the ongoing political conflicts in the region. Such activities would include prodding Arab governments to revitalize key areas such as education, human rights, and other building blocks of a democratic system. Finding discrete, non-intrusive channels by which the US introduces such changes is much more likely to be effective as it is less likely to embarrass the local governments (who are afraid of looking like they are caving in to U.S. demands) yet benefit the so-called Arab street/basement/couch.

A similar line of logic can be applied here at HBS: while promoting a dialogue on campus on such issues such as the U.S.’s involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be of great benefit to both an informed as well as an uninformed audience, the choice of an appropriate forum by which such topics are introduced is crucial to the success of any discussion. I have to wonder, for example, whether the most recent debate on December 3rd entitled “America, Israel, and the Arab World” featuring four speakers (two from each side) was truly effective and succeeded in promoting cultural differences as it was intended. Instead of calmly laying out the facts and then having a genuine debate on the real issues at hand, the conversation immediately turned into a frenzy of Perot-like sound bites and fact-twisting before resorting to obnoxiously loud emotional appeals and accusations on both sides that were, quite frankly, more embarrassing than informative. While the organizing parties could not have foreseen such a turn of events (and should not be held responsible for their guests’ content in any event), more thought should be invested in choosing guest speakers at such heavily publicized debates in the future.

Having previously witnessed many effective debates on related issues on campus, ranging from private discussions organized by groups of friends or section-mates on both sides of the issue to an informal discussion of the (highly debated) Saudi Arabia BGIE case last year moderated by an HBS Professor, I would have to believe that a healthy and informative debate on almost any topic is possible at HBS. However, such discussions should not fall prey to mythologies and stereotypes lest they be rendered ineffective.