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July 31, 2005



Your comments at the end remind me of a panel on Saudi Arabia I was on a few months ago. I was speaking of the financial stability the ruling family has gained from high oil prices and is likely to maintain for some time to come now and said that in the process "sure they'll allow bits and pieces of pretend democracy". A member of the Saudi Majlis al-Shura was there and objected to my calling some of the devolution of power that was occurring mere meaningless "pretend democracy". The funny thing was, I think we were both right, just depending on which angle you're looking at the issues from. Such devolution of power is meaningful in the long run and are important steps on the road just as we always refer to the democratization of western Europe as having been a centuries long process wherein elites gradually gave up pieces of power and eventually found themselves facing new levels of expectations from their populaces that they could no longer control in the old ways. On the other hand, frequently in the shorter term these steps don't immediately amount to much as far as shifting the real current centers of power and even give the ruling elites more breathing room.

Anyhow, I bring that up simply because I think it goes hand in hand as a nice parallel to the points you've made here about there being a very real new opening of public dialogue and willingness to disagree, but at the same time this is on one level still only "imaginary politics". What I would say is, value what has happened for what it is, recognize what it is not, and push steadily for further openings. In and of itself this opening of dialogue may not yet directly threaten some of the ruling entrenched elites, but it is changing their terms of reference, and with time will prove itself an ever more important current for the forces of political, economic, and social evolution in the region. And let's not forget either that this is a mostly homegrown phenomenon, with even the heavy dose of western imports being chosen or rejected by the people themselves and not pushed on them. Hence Haifa, Kalam Nawaim, al-Ittijah al-Muakis, but not a whole lot of al-Hurrah or Radio Sawa changing the landscape. Not unlike how the Ottoman military and constitutional reforms were the real first stirrings of modernization rather than British and French foisting of changes upon the region post-WW1.

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