Egyptian diplomat says world is at a turning point
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Egyptian diplomat says world is at a turning point

We are at a very important historical juncture,” and this turning point requires new thinking as nations work together for the greater good.

That message was delivered by Hamdi A.W. Saleh, Egyptian diplomat and scholar, at a talk last Thursday with students and faculty at the Teaneck campus of Fairleigh Dickinson University.

“America has sent a powerful message to the world, that equality, justice, and freedom for all are for real,” Saleh said, referring to the election of Barack Obama to the presidency, “America has validated its own democracy,” he said.

“It’s not only the election of Barack Obama, but it is the mood that has engulfed the entire world both before and after this election,” he continued. Now, there is a rising tide of optimism in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, he said.

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Hamdi Saleh, an Egyptian diplomat, speaks at Fairleigh Dickinson University on “The Arab World and the Process of Globalization.” Charles Zusman

Saleh’s talk was titled “The Arab World and the Process of Globalization,” and its scope stretched beyond the Mideast. His worldview is shaped by his studies at Harvard, where he earned his doctorate, and his status as a Fulbright Scholar at the Center for Middle East Studies at Florida State University.

Since 2000, Saleh has served as Egypt’s undersecretary of state for information and policy planning and as ambassador to Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Mozambique, and Swaziland. As a human rights activist he has supported women’s organizations and was an observer of elections procedures in Egypt, South Africa, the Dominican Republic, and Mozambique.

In response to a question from the audience, Saleh said that while conflict in the Middle East is not just about the Israel-Palestinian face-off, that is certainly a major focus of tension. “It’s a very stubborn problem…. Every time we push for a compromise or solution, one way or another it fails,” he said.

He noted that the United States has been preoccupied with other matters in the past eight years, but he said the “U.S. must put more capital into bringing the two sides together…. Now is an opportune time to move towards a solution.”

He pointed to three flashpoints challenging the world – Iraq, Iran, and Somalia – and said that these must be dealt with by a partnership of Europe, the United States, and the Arab world. “America should not carry this burden alone,” he said. He said that his foremost recommendation to President-elect Obama is to foster that partnership.

“Globalization” was the current running through Saleh’s talk, and he underlined five points:

“¢ There is a worldwide political system, with the United Nations, for example, running programs all over the globe.

“¢ Markets are global, as witness U.S. fiscal woes triggering a crisis around the world;

“¢ media cross borders: Publish something anywhere and the message is quickly carried afar;

“¢ education has a long reach, as technology makes distance-learning possible; and

“¢ global threats, including those of nuclear arms, terrorism, and environmental perils, cross national boundaries.

And while there are divisive forces at work – religious leaders pushing different views of the world and powerful local cultures fearing the effects of outside forces – there are strong unifying values.

“It’s not Islamic, it’s not Christian, it’s not Jewish, it’s not Buddhist,” he said. “We all define freedom the same, we all define equality the same, we all define justice the same.”

Saleh pointed to a Mediterranean community of interest, transcending the borders of the Arab countries. We must remember that Africa is a complex, multi-ethnic continent, he said.

Saleh outlined his concept of the contemporary situation, which he labeled a “condition,” and the notion of modernity, which he said is a “vision” for the future toward which we must strive. “Make globalization a vision, not a condition,” he said.

He cautioned against categorizing the Islamic world by religion alone, saying that faith is just part of the mix, along with popular culture and political practice. The concepts of equality, justice, and freedom are not new, he said, but have been the cornerstone of Islamic belief.

The Arab world can pride itself on being the early “globalizers,” fostering trade between China, India, and the Mideast. Along with that went a flowering of culture and learning. The Arabs built a synthesis with their culture and the cultures around them, he said. “Equality, freedom, and justice for all” are part of a continuum from the early Islamic world, which was a melting pot of peoples, he said.

A new impetus for the Arab world’s integration with the modern world began in the 1800s, and again in the 1930s, with the rise of a middle class, Saleh said. A conflict simmered between the traditionalists and the modernists. But “the balance was tipped” in the 1950s, when U.S. foreign policy sought a counter-balance to the colonialist power of Britain and France and favored military leaders, and the modernizing middle class lost ground.

“You can’t change what happened over four or five decades overnight,” Saleh said, but if we do the right thing we are on the brink of a turning point for progress.

He said that the United States seems “blinded by the need for oil,” but that’s just a short-term stragegy. Even the Persian Gulf states know that oil is a limited quantity, and it will run out. We need to work together on alternative energy, he said.

Even discounting oil, the Arab world is a very strategic area because of its location and scope. “It is a very big stretch from Morocco all the way to Iraq,” he said.

Water supply is a critical issue facing the region, because of its scarcity and its vital requirement for agriculture. This is another area to be solved in partnership, he said.

In closing, Saleh referred to the Somalia pirate situation, and said the recent seizure of an oil tanker has an impact across borders, involving Saudi Arabia, where the tanker is owned, and the West, relying on the transport of fuel. He said the situation calls for a partnership of nations, in which “we work together for what is in the best interests of all.”

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