Interview with the AHDR's Nader Fergany

Nader Fergany heads the team of scholars and researchers that has worked on the Arab Human Development Report (AHDR) series. The third report in that series, on freedom and governance, will not be published under the aegis of the UNDP after attempts by the US and Egyptian governments to alter its contents. The first two reports -- on "Creating opportunities for future generations" and "Building a knowledge society" -- provided a major impetus for reform in Arab countries and were also frequently referred to by Western commentators as a sign the Arab world needed attention. The third report is meant to be followed by fourth and final report on the empowerment of women.

Fergany wrote an impassioned response to the (mis)use of the AHDR in Colin Powell's 12 December 2002 speech on Arab democracy for the Cairo Times when I was its editor. (The Cairo Times' site no longer exists but that article is cached here, below my article about Powell's speech.) He was also profiled in the Cairo Times in August 2002 after the release of the first AHDR by Mona El-Ghobashy and myself (cached here). More recently, Al Ahram Weekly's Fatemah Farag reported last April on another powerful speech Fergany gave during a conference on reform in Alexandria last April.

Today Al Jazeera had a good story on the report, confirming what Fergany told me in that it is quite unlikely that the report will be published under the UNDP's logo. AFP also has a story in which they talk to several of the authors.

I interviewed Fergany yesterday at his office at the Al Mishkat Center, the NGO and research center he runs in Cairo. This a complete transcript of our conversation.

What is the status of the third AHDR -- is it finished?

It's finished -- we had what we thought was a final draft for four months now. It has been under negotiation for release.

With the previous report, was there a similar period of negotiation?

There is always a period of negotiation before final release because with the report coming out under the logo of the UNDP, certain UN criteria have to be met. So there was a similar process in the first and the second report. With the third report the process of final negotiation became very lengthy and ended up with this roadblock.

Which countries are now opposed to the publication of the report?

At the forefront is the US government, actively supported and helped by the Egyptian government. It seems that the Egyptian government, while it has its own concerns, is doing the bidding of the US government.

Have they made clear to you which areas of the book they are concerned about?

Not to me in person, but it's very clear that the US is concerned about the report's critique of the American occupation of Iraq and American support of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Occupied Territories.

Has the Israeli government voiced any concerns?

No, they haven't. I think they trust the Americans to take care of that. They've never failed to.

Can the UNDP release the report anyway or is it blocked unless they approve it?

Well, the team is keen on publishing the report at any rate. It will probably come out without the UNDP logo on it.

So what possibilities are you looking at for its publication?

Probably a legal entity will be created which will publish the report and perhaps work on the fourth one.

On the side of the Egyptian government, what have been the objections?

Well, as I said the Egyptian government's concerns are twofold: they are working for the Americans so to speak but they have their own concerns as well. They were concerned with the fact that the report calls for total freedom of expression and association -- and association means assembly as well as organization in civil and political society. Now, to the Egyptian government this hits a raw nerve, because freedom of association in civil and political society would imply -- although the report doesn't say that explicitly -- it would imply the right of the Muslim Brotherhood to organize in the form of a political party, which the Egyptian government is adamantly against.

Many other Arab states might have the same objections to this -- have they voiced their concern?

Well, as I said the Egyptian government is the one that has been active in trying to modify the report.

Does the report address the issue of presidential succession in Egypt?

It does, but it does not point fingers at the Arab countries, because the tradition of the report is that it does not assign blame on specific countries. Rather there are a series of issues that are considered from the vantage point of the theme of the report. With regards to the issue of inheritance of power, for example, it is not addressed in the context of specific Arab countries but is addressed as a departure from democratic principles.

Would you be able to summarize the main points of the new report?

No -- strictly speaking the report is embargoed until it is released. The tradition has been that the content of the report is embargoed until the report is launched.

Perhaps you can tell me, within governance, which issues are covered?

It has an integrated concept of governance that is considered to safeguard freedom defined in a comprehensive manner. So it does deals with parliamentaty representation, it does deal with the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary... It takes a comprehensive approach to governance.

But does it give suggestions to specific countries?

It does. Normally the report in its final chapter has a strategic vision that gives general recommendation for reform -- in this case for freedom, leading to a society of freedom and good governance. In the second report, the strategic vision was about building a knowledge society. So the final chapter of this report deals with a strategic vision that would lead to a society of freedom and good governance.

This strategic vision for reform, has it been inspired by other movements for reform, like the alexandria declaration in egypt or the Greater Middle Eastern Initiative in the US?

Well, don't try to push me to reveal things that I will not reveal anyway, but I could say that the strategic vision of the report goes beyond many documents and declarations about Arab reform because of the comprehensive nature of its definition of freedom and good governance.

Does it address the issue of religious minorities?

Well, again I am not going to reveal specifics, but definitely. We don't use the word minorities, actually, we much prefer to use sub-groups and sub-cultures and an integrated concept of freedom which lies in adherence to international human rights law would imply respect of the rights of sub-groups and cultural minorities or sub-cultures.

Have you or the UNDP been in touch with the egyptian government directly -- is there a public document of complaints that the Egyptian government has distributed?

No, in these situations you don't end up with documents. There is the exercise of pressure and implicit threats and things like that.

The main threat of the us government has been withdrawal of funding.

Right.

What would that imply for the project?

It has little bearing on the project itself except that UNDP would stop sponsoring the project. If the UNDP does not publish the report under its logo this year, it will be very difficult for to continue working with the UNDP on the fourth report. Strictly speaking it's really the end of the series as far as the UNDP is concerned. The last one would have the end of series as far as the UNDP is concerned if this one comes out without the UNDP logo. This is in my opinion a major loss to the UNDP. Nevertheless I think that one should be fair to the UNDP because they have been quite generous in their sponsorship of the report and I think until the last minute they were willing to publish the report under their logo but then they received threats that they could not avoid. They were threatened with major cuts in funding that would imply a very significant reduction of UNDP programs in support of poor Asian and African nations.

How much money do you need to publish the report and continue to make it available for free?

Not very much, because the report has been ready for month actually -- the draft I mean. What is needed now to complete the process is a marginal amount of money.

Are there any criteria for donor organizations that you would accept funding from?

We would definitely prefer Arab donors if we look for funding. But some funding might be found within the team itself, which will be the first priority.

Can you tell me about the team, how many people it consists of and who they are?

This year the team consists of about 100 persons -- Arab scholars and experts in different fields in almost all Arab countries. Some of them are also outside the Arab world.

Are some of them Europeans or Americans?

In the peer-review process we have at the end, we have two readers' teams -- one reads the original Arabic version and is composed of Arabs. And then we have another readers group that reads an English translation which has some Arabs. So I would say the team is 95% Arabs. Their names will be on the report.

Are you able to say which person wrote on what section?

No we don't do that, because actually the final draft of the report is negotiated throughout the team.

When you were negotiating between yourselves, were there any big debates?

Well, there are always debates within a large group, but ultimately the final draft that emerges is a text that every member concurs on the issues, rather than the details.

For the past few years, you've had the Bush administration and many American and European newspaper columnists rely a lot on the first two reports to advance their beliefs on the need for reform in the Arab world or the idea that the region needs to be shaken up for democracy to grow. Do you think their interpretation is valid?

The only flagrant misuse of the report was by the American administration in basing their Greater Middle East Initiative, [which was based] especially on the first draft on the report, which I think was a form of misuse of the report. It's only because the American administration has no credibility in the region whatsoever that it wanted something that is credible to propose its own version of reform, which is not consistent with the reports' vision anyway.

Now, the current American pressure to change the report has only come after the report was finished, or was there pressure also beforehand?

It seems that American government somehow got hold of an earlier draft of the report as did the Egyptian government.

Has there been pressure on you or the Al Mishkat Center coming directly from the Egyptian government?

So far there hasn't been any pressure on me or the institution. I think the aim of the two governments has been to lift the UNDP cover from the report, rather than penalize the team itself -- which is a form of penalty for the team since some members of the team of course drive some comfort from the fact that the UNDP had its logo on the report.

Do you have a planned date for the release of the report?

Well we want it before the end of January.

If the report comes out without the undp logo do you think that will discredit it?

I'm sure in some circles -- those special circles that will be unhappy with the content of the report -- would find in the withdrawal of UNDP sponsorship a way of attacking the report as being the work of a bunch of extremists, but nevertheless in the Arab world and worldwide the report will still enjoy the credibility it has earned so far and, in a sense, in breadth and strength of the current media interest in the incident of trying to suppress the report and modify its contents is a reflection of the credibility of the report. I might just add that I'm not personally totally unhappy with the UNDP withdrawing its sponsorship because we have always thought of this report -- and even the UNDP recognized that -- as the work of a group of independent Arab scholars and thinkers on the state and development of the region. In that sense, if the report comes back to the region as the work of a group of independent Arab scholars, that's a source of strength.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.