Winds of change must reach
all levels of the Arab world
By Farouk El-Baz
Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and Defense Minister of the U.A.E., recently said Arab governments should change or they will be changed. Since he said that, the government of Lebanon was ousted by popular pressure, Syria announced that it will pull out its troops from Lebanon, and Egypt changed its constitution to end the one candidate plebiscite system that stifled its politics for half a century. All such changes bode well for the future of the Arab region, which for too long has greatly suffered from muted leaders, tyrannical regimes or regressive, inept leadership.
Change, however, should happen at all levels to make the great leap into the world stage that the Arabs need to make after a long, dilapidating absence. The people must begin to take charge of their own affairs. Gone are the days of allowing governments free range over the citizenry. But, with freedom comes a whole range of responsibilities.
The granting of personal freedom is usually accompanied by upholding the individual's responsibilities toward society. The people can no longer wait for those in positions of power to decide for them. They must educate themselves in what needs to be done, collectively decide on how to do it, and share the responsibility of the outcome - good or bad.
Change must include the work ethic. People can no longer behave as if they are entitled to an income, or a handout from the government, no matter how little they work for it, or think: "I work enough for their pay!" Work, and particularly excellence at it, should be considered an honorable goal that assures good citizenship.
Whenever Arabs are polled, they indicate dismay by the state of their science and technology. The people see in their markets products of every conceivable nation except theirs. They bemoan the glory days of the Arab civilization where the region held the banner of knowledge, particularly through research in science and medicine as well as in technological innovation. This cannot be accomplished by dreams or through buildings with glorious titles that are named after the head of state. This is achieved by sustained hard work continued updating and training as well as innovation through experimentation over the long term.
Reform of education can play a central role in economic development. Education is critical to a nation's growth because it develops the minds of the young to be useful citizens. It must include teaching the young how to think for themselves and to have confidence in their knowledge. This requires highly respected and motivated teachers who are well versed in communicating with their students. Teachers must be kept abreast of new teaching methodologies, scientific breakthroughs and literary masterpieces. They must also be motivated by awards and recognized for excellence. Thus, teacher preparation and continued training become integral parts of the necessary reforms.
Nothing stands against the progress of Arab individuals to achieve a befitting status among others, except the deficiency in personal motivation. To me that has grown to untenable proportions due to excessive government controls over the affairs of the people and their minds.
The reform of education in the Arab region will assure its political stability, economic growth and cultural elevation. There are two pre-requisites for this: First, the intellectual courage to admit that the present systems do not develop the young minds that are capable of performing the necessary tasks. Second, the political will to institute the required changes. For these reasons there must be a sustained partnership between the governments, private sector and civil society. Educators, intellectuals and the media can work together to assure such a partnership.
A sociological aspect that plays an important role in this endeavor is the way that the society as a whole views the importance of learning and knowledge. Human civilizations were all built on knowledge and facilitating its use. In the Arab region today, the accumulation of wealth is given a higher priority and degree of respect than the accumulation of knowledge. This situation has to be reversed and more status and recognition should be given to those whose knowledge benefits the local society and humanity at large.
Another sociologically important aspect is the need to involve the people of Arab countries in the affairs of their nations. Reforms cannot take root unless the people feel that they have a stake in their success. Thus, the people have to be convinced by dialogue and the presentation of proper arguments.
There is now a new dawn in the Arab world and there is no turning back. The new generation is determined to take matters into its own hands and prove its ability to function in the present world and compete with all others in a fair and open way. The future of the Arabs depends on how fast and how thoughtfully we pave the road for the Arab youth of today. Nothing should stand in the way of this generation of hope.
Farouk El-Baz is Director of the Boston University Center for Remote Sensing. A veteran of the Apollo Program, he served as Science Advisor to Anwar Sadat, late President of Egypt.(c) 2005 The Daily Star