- The Washington Times - Monday, December 27, 2004

When President Bush launched the Broader Middle East and North Africa (BMENA) initiative, a common criticism was that America was trying to impose its ideas of reform and priorities on Arab nations. On Dec. 11, an outgrowth of the BMENA initiative took place under the name of the Forum for the Future, bringing together the foreign and finance ministers of the G-8 and Middle East and North African states.

After reading some of the press coverage following the forum, one may conclude that the event — supposedly about Arab reform — became a platform for Arab nations to chide the United States over its policies in Iraq and lack of action in resolving the Palestinian issue.

Although U.S. inaction on the Palestinian question does not excuse Arab inaction on reform, there was indeed criticism of the United States, and that is healthy and needed. However, some critical points were missed in much of the coverage: There was significant and open discussion about economic and social reform at the forum, and the event took place in an Arab country — with nearly all of the Arab world and the nations of the G-8 present. As never before, there are serious domestic debates about reform occurring in many Arab countries. This would not have happened several years ago.

Dialogue among these nations about reform is practical, helpful and necessary. At the forum, economic and social issues such as microfinance and literacy were addressed. The leaders present listened to and learned from each other, candidly assessed the unique details of their comparable situations and analyzed the resources needed to change. The results from the participants are clear: Reform is needed, the G-8 states have their role to play, but each Middle East and North African country needs to bring about its own reforms generated from within.

History demonstrates that real, sustainable change cannot be imposed externally, but that outside influences can help. Take the current reform path that Morocco is pursuing. Morocco agreed to co-chair the Forum for the Future with the United States and to host the event in Morocco. The reform course that King Mohammed VI and the Moroccan government are taking is in conformity with Morocco’s own history, culture and society. It is aggressive and impressive. Moreover, Morocco began these reforms well before President Bush launched the BMENA initiative, clearly showing that its will to seed and nurture reform is homegrown, not imposed by others.

For example, Morocco’s reform-minded King Mohammed VI recently created the Justice and Reconciliation Commission. This commission is taking a hard look at the human rights abuses committed by past Moroccan governments, giving victims of abuse access to government files and providing reparations. In recent weeks, the commission announced that it will conduct public forums for victims and families to air their ordeals; these forums eventually will be broadcast on Moroccan television.

In addition, a year ago, King Mohammed proposed and the Moroccan Parliament passed a significant overhaul of the nation’s Family Law. This reform dramatically increased women’s rights, allowing women to seek divorce, retain child custody and keep property after a divorce. Although challenges exist to ensure proper implementation of the law, the King summed it up well when he said: “How can society achieve progress, while women, who represent half the nation, see their rights violated and suffer as a result of injustice, violence and marginalization?” Morocco is also opening its economy, as part of the challenge contained in the recently signed free trade agreement with its long-standing partner, the United States.

Last year, it conducted competitive multiparty parliamentaryelections deemed free and fair by the U.S. government and the National Democratic Institute (NDI), and revised its labor law to include many elements advocated by the International Labor Organization (ILO) labor code. It is also instituting measures to prevent radical Islam within its national practice of the Muslim religion.

As the debate continues about reform in the Middle East and North Africa, let’s remember that progress is being made and needs encouragement. The road to travel is long, and objections to U.S. policy are not reasons for Arab countries to get distracted from domestic reform. The United States must enable and match local progress by bearing its own responsibilities for constructive engagement in the region, supporting economic and political modernization and actively contributing to the resolution of conflicts that distract from that reform.

But there must be a realization that the responsibility for reform does not lie outside the region. On the U.S. side, promoting dialogue, brokering reconciliation, and providing resources to make change possible are productive and important policies. Ultimately, however, change must occur from within.

William Zartman is Jacob Blaustein Professor of International Organizations and Conflict Resolution and Director of the Conflict Management Program at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at the Johns Hopkins University.

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