The time to talk is over. It's time to draft a blueprint and act, say reformists.

The Arab world is on the threshold of change. And Arab intellectuals are busy debating the nature and depth of reforms needed in their respective countries to clear the obstacle - as one activist put it - that is slowing their march towards modernity.

A sociologist described the Arab world as a house caught in the fire of terrorism due to lack of democracy. "Activists and writers need to extinguish the fire without delay and rescue the house," according to Dr Nasir Jasem Al Sane, member of the erstwhile Kuwaiti Parliament and chairman of the Arab Region Parliamentarians Against Corruption.

"The governments in Arab countries seem to have little concern for the implementation of the long-awaited reforms. Unless the transformation towards democracy is achieved swiftly, the chaos that engulfs our societies will destroy everything - including the governments and societies - and engulf the rest of the world," Dr Al Sane warned.

"We have serious problems in Egypt, Syria and Lebanon that could develop into crises and spread to other Arab countries. There are clear indications of a serious build-up of pressure among Arab masses that might explode at any moment. Intellectuals have to work with other social forces to extinguish the fire that has erupted in the Arab house before it destroys the entire house," Dr Nadir Farjani, Editor-in-Chief of Arab Development Report, told Gulf News.

So far, dozens of conferences, symposia and round-table gatherings have been held in different Arab countries to ponder over reforms, but none of them could come up with a workable recipe.

A participant at the summit on Reforms and Transformation to Democracy in the Arab Countries, held in Sharjah last month, told Gulf News: "You see the same faces taking part in these events, almost saying the same words and presenting similar studies about democratic movements in their respective countries. We spend hours talking and very little time is left to formulate action plans," he said.

He said such meetings offer reformists a platform to demonstrate their rhetoric capabilities in front of others. "Such meetings are akin to flexing of muscles in a body-building contest. I feel such events allow participants to give vent to pressures and [the participants] assume they are free to go on talking," he said. "Isn't it great to be free to talk in the Arab world?" he asked.

The two-day conference in Sharjah, organised by the Arabic Al Khaleej daily in commemoration of the late founder of Dar Al Khaleej publishing house, Taryam Omran Taryam, is the fourth such in the UAE this year. The other events touched upon reforms, democratic changes, freedom of expression and freedom of press in Arab countries.

Another participant, who preferred not to be identified, said he took part in four events this year that discussed democracy in the Arab world.

"It is like a fashion that everyone is trying to follow and the UAE is no exception. I arrived in Sharjah after attending a conference in Morocco in which we discussed democratic changes in the Arab world. I believe such gatherings are useful. They are like candles in the Arab tunnel towards democracy. It will definitely help Arabs to see their way and achieve their goals," he said.

Some questions must be asked before the impact of these gatherings can be assessed. Are we taking things for granted? Do Arabs want to move towards democracy?

Poor state of freedom

"Is there, in the first place, an Arab march towards democracy?" one participant wondered.

What are the obstacles facing Arabs? How and when will the march towards democracy reach its destination? In other words, what is the plan of action to achieve democracy?

Arab intellectuals are unanimous on the poor state of freedom in their countries. The disagreements arise when it comes to discussing the details and the plan required to adopt the changes.

Beyond the unanimity of the surface, there are sharp differences that reflect the ideologies motivating Arab intellectuals, and which, in some instances, mirror their links and proximity or distance from the ruling elites in their respective countries.

In the debates on democracy, it is easy to make out the two main streams of thought. The first, which can be described as the "passive stream", consists of Arab thinkers and political activists who do not favour radical changes. The subscribers to this stream of thought agree on the need for political reforms, but say such reforms have to be implemented gradually and must cover all walks of life.

They argue that sudden implementation of a western-style democratic system will be dangerous because it will bring Islamists to the forefront.

"This happened in Palestine, where Hamas came to power, and in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood became the second largest political force in spite of fraudulent elections that influenced the results in favour of the ruling National Democratic Party," according to Kuwaiti scholar Dr Khaldoun Al Naqeeb.

The "passive stream" followers call for reforms within the current political system. They believe that introducing reforms in education, empowering women in society and fighting corruption should be the top priorities of the Arab governments at this stage. They do not mind delaying elections and the formation of parties, which, they believe, can come later. This stream consists of traditional liberals and those close to the governments.

The other stream - the "proactive stream" - believes the reformists should not act as the custodian of people's right to choose. "We should not worry about the outcome of democratic transformation," they say, and add ballot boxes should decide the popular forces that will lead the nations in a democratic system.

The "proactive stream" comprises Islamists and communists who fought each other in the 1960s and the 1970s. It is not surprising to see the rivals of yesterday becoming allies of today because they suffered the most due to lack of democracy. Under totalitarian regimes, the two lost their political and civil powers, and were marginalised.

Saudi writer Dr Turki Al Hamad felt reforms must be introduced from within the current political and social structures in a peaceful manner. However, he said, opposition to reforms in the Arab world comes from political systems, traditional social structures and economic forces. These forces have opposed the opening up of the society, contending that the Arab culture is unique and cannot be changed according to western systems.

Doubtful minds

Al Hamad said corruption, lack of transparency and the militarisation of political life created doubtful minds in the Arab world who were suspicious of ideas and projects that came from the West. This prevented modernisation of the Arab world. The anti-reform sentiments were reinforced by the strong protection from an international superpower for the current political systems in the Arab countries.

Michele Kilo, Syrian activist and a member of the Damascus Declaration steering committee who was arrested by the Syrian intelligence agencies days after he returned home from the conference, said Arabs were talking about a deadlock in the implementation of reforms, but had no plan of action to overcome the impasse. "The ruling system in the Arab world, which holds the keys to reforms, should either bow to pressure and endorse genuine changes or face a catastrophe," he warned.

"The reforms we see in the Arab world are not encouraging because regimes seem to be busy implementing cosmetic changes without losing [their] grip on power," Kilo said.

Arab reformists, he said, did not like to see the transformation to democracy being enforced as a result of western intervention. On the other hand, reformists in the Arab world are aware that they are powerless to usher in democracy and rescue their nations from a chaotic fate.

Zafir Al Ani, member of the newly-elected Iraqi Parliament, said the US could not enforce democracy in the Arab world and if it tried, the situation will be similar to the chaos in Iraq. "It's a hundred times better to put up with a totalitarian regime than to open the doors to the democracy of death, like in Iraq," he said.

Resolving the democracy deadlock or extinguishing the fire in the "Arab house" is a difficult proposition, and beyond the means of the handful of reformists. It requires an international conference empowered and supported by the international community. Otherwise, everyone will have to pay for the lack of basic freedom in the Arab world - even those geographically far removed from this region. And September 11 will seem to be just a preview of what may actually happen.