Forum For The Future: Why Sink It In The Past ?

A meeting attended by more than 20 G-8 and Broader Middle East and North Africa (BMNA) Foreign Ministers and other representatives is scheduled for September 23-24 in New York. The Forum For The Future is considered by the Bush Administration as the centrepiece of the ” Partnership for Progress and a Common Future with the region of the Broader Middle East and North Africa” launched by the President of the United States and the other G-8 leaders at their Sea Island Summit in June 2004. This meeting will be followed on October 1 by a meeting of G-8/BMENA Finance Ministers in Washington.

But even before the initiative was launched, prior to the Sea Island Summit, it has been criticized for some weaknesses and lacunas. Let’s recall first what it is about: For the officials of the Bush administration the initiative aims at bringing together the United States, Europe and the Greater Middle East (a term designating not only the Arab world but also Afghanistan, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, and Turkey) around a far-reaching set of commitments meant to be helping transform the region, politically, economically, and socially. Furthermore, the initiative is intended to be a vital complement to the war on terrorism.

The First critics came from the first concerned: i.e. the Arab governments, who felt that the United States was planning to foist on the region a plan preconceived without previous consultation with them. Egypt and Saudi Arabia have taken the lead in rejecting the plan as an attempt to impose Western views and values on the Arab world. As we recall, the controversy about the initiative was so important that it divided the Arab governments and delayed the Arab Summit (in Tunis). Then, the second critic concerned the Arab-Israeli issue still impossible to tackling, which means that it would be left outside the process. The consequence of such a failure means that the process of building a common future with the region would be still undermined by the security gaps. Thus, it has been noticed, ” the assumption of US officials that it is possible to launch a major political initiative about Middle East transformation without discussing the peace process is fundamentally flawed, a triumph of abstract logic over political reality”[1]. Nothing actually seems more illusory than this will to jump over a major issue for a make-belief process of partnership, especially when this first major conflict is doubled by another no less haemorrhagic and tragic: in Iraq.

But as amazing as it may sound, the Arab governments succeeded in jumping over this kind of objections along with the Bush administration (and probably with its help and encouragement). Thus, after a first negative reaction –” was it meant just to obtain more “support”? –” they issued the Tunis Declaration at the 17th session of the Arab League Summit on May 22-23, which embodied to a certain extent the Bush administration’s initiative. And the latter was able to trumpet gloriously that it has triumphed as well thanks to the “Platform For Democratic Governance in the Islamic World” issued by the Congress of Democrats from the Islamic world in Istanbul on April 14, 2004, and the Alexandria Statement ” Issues of Reform in the Arab World”, and the statement of the Arab business leaders made in Aqaba in December 2003.

The situation was almost inversed: For the Bush administration, the calls for reform came from the BMENA region, and the G-8 countries just responded to these calls at their Sea Island Summit in Georgia.[2] Thus, in announcing the BMENA partnership and a Plan of Support for Reform, President Bush stated, “the G-8 nations and Turkey have united around a common agenda to use the energies and resources of our nations to support the momentum of freedom in the nations of the Middle East and North Africa. This partnership will seek to advance the universal values of human dignity, freedom, democracy, the rule of law, economic opportunity and social justice.” And in effect, leaders of seven countries from the region (Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey and Yemen) attended the Sea Island Summit and reportedly agreed to lead individual initiatives established in the Plan of Support.

Today, the Bush administration is endowed with more than an evasive consent from the power holders in the BMENA region to carry out the initiative. As it appears, the Forum for the Future is aimed at providing “a collaborative vehicle at ministerial level for expanding G-8 engagement in support of the region’s reform efforts”. More to the point, the preparatory meeting will review progress on the various BMENA initiatives announced at Sea Island:

– A Forum for the Future that brings together regional and G-8 foreign, economic and other ministers, as well as civil society and business leaders, for an on-going dialogue on reforms to promote democracy, rule of law, human rights, and open market economy reforms.

– A micro finance initiative with the goal of assisting two million potential entrepreneurs especially women pull themselves out of poverty over five years through micro finance loans. The initiative, to which the World Bank will render assistance, is co-sponsored by Jordan and Yemen.

– A literacy initiative, co-sponsored with Algeria and Afghanistan, to enhance support for the region’s efforts to improve literacy skills to an additional 20 million people by 2015.

– An entrepreneurship initiative co-sponsored by Bahrain and Morocco that supports business, entrepreneurship and vocational training and that provides 250,000 young people, especially women, employment opportunities through hands-on entrepreneurial training.

– A Democracy Assistance Dialogue, led by Turkey, Yemen and Italy that brings together G-8 and regional governments, and civil society groups to share information and lessons learned on democracy programs in the region.

– A new Private Enterprise Development Facility at the International Finance Corporation (IFC) to improve the region’s business and investment climate and increase the financing options for the region’s small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs).

– A regional "Network of Funds" that would bring together representatives from development institutions based in the region and from international financial institutions to coordinate existing programs.

– A Task Force on Investment, comprised of private sector business representatives, from the G-8 and the region, would assist and advise the region on reform measures to improve the investment climate, including those under the OECD Investment Initiative. In this way, the region is assumed to better prioritize reforms in areas that are truly impediments to business and help support economic diversification and job growth.

As we can state, the program is ambitious. Yet, at its very heart, it remains flawed, not only because it ignores two major problems related to security and peace (the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, and what is now labeled “second war” in Iraq), but also because it addresses itself not to those who are the first concerned by the reforms (i.e. the peoples) but to those who –” in the majority, because of corruption and illegitimacy –” would hardly remain in power if the reforms are really carried out.

Not to be unfair, some of the power elite in the BMENA region is perhaps willing to progress on changes and reforms. But who would determine who are those people, and what real power are they detaining, and whether they are able or not to carry out the reforms under strenuous constraints?

What we know is that neither Democracy nor economic growth are the Holy Spirit’s gifts. They cannot be parachuted either. To be successful, any social, political, economical reforms have to be conduced through deep structural changes not by high decrees. Structural changes involve the active and free participation of social forces through an internal dynamism, which necessarily include a democratic struggle. Now, in the BMENA region, such a struggle is still hard even to imagining. The civil society is in many of these countries silenced or reduced to the strict minimum of its activity. Moreover, some power holders did not wait for the Bush administration initiative or the Forum of the Future to claim that they are conducing reforms in their countries: Some of them came to power thanks to this claim, even if they succeeded to gain power with the help of the ” long knives” in a dark night more than with the help of law in plain day. We are not discussing here their legitimacy –” it is just another problem –” but only pointing to the fact that the BMENA region does not need cosmetic changes (i.e. they are already active), but real, structural changes, and the latter are not as easy as it is to talk about them.

So what?

In the present circumstances, there is a fear that the Forum of the Future would succeed only in sinking the region more in its deep past, which is nothing but its very present of backwardness, unless it gives rational answers to the major challenges (about peace and security), while involving the civil society’s institutions more actively in the process, instead of excluding them, as it is today the case.


[1]. Marina Ottaway and Thomas Carothers: The Greater Middle East Initiative: Off To A False Start. Policy Brief. Carnegie Endowment. March 29, 2004.

[2]. We do not mean that the BMENA region has not issued calls for reforms, but we can hardly identify them to calls issued by the governments excluding the demands of the civil society. As a matter of fact, whether the responses given by the governments in this region are positive or negative may be just a governmental concern –” i.e. with an obvious interest in power holding more than in real structural changes- as far as they do not include the institutions of the civil society.