The rise of the Egyptian people following Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution” has
roused the Arab street, and signaled a new chapter of change for the Arab world.
If the long-entrenched Arab regimes are to avoid the fate of those in Tunisia
and Egypt, they must pay attention to the message being expressed.
leaders across the region should now address their people’s aspirations and
enable a stable transition to greater economic opportunity, better education,
more human rights, and an end to rampant corruption. And they must guarantee
When university graduate-turned-street-vendor Mohamed
Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of a government building in Tunisia, he
unleashed a torrent of long-repressed rage. The subsequent protests against
rampant unemployment and corruption, and the ouster of Tunisian President Zine
El Abidine Ben Ali, have led to protests from Morocco to Yemen, with a united
refrain: the Arabs want their leaders sent to join Ben Ali in his Saudi Arabian
These revolts have been organized via online social networking
sites like Facebook and Twitter – much like the demonstrations against Iran’s
presidential election last year. It is clear that change is afoot. Also clear is
that for the Arab dictators to manage this change will require genuine reform,
To be sure, each nation has its own individual
Tunisia has a strong secular and nationalist foundation that
has kept the revolution there essentially free of Islamist elements. Others in
the Arab world may not be so fortunate.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood
has remained on the sidelines only for fear that its involvement would lead to
quick and violent retribution. But undoubtedly Islamists throughout the region
will be looking to take advantage of the unrest and subsequent political
In Jordan, where unemployment rests officially at 14% – but
where many believe the actual rate is 30% – the Muslim Brotherhood has already
vowed to “demand improved living conditions as well as political and economic
Unlike Tunisia, Jordan lacks the secular or nationalist
foundations that could guard against such Islamist influence.
can be said of Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, already gripped by civil
war and home to Al Qaida operatives. Any Tunisia-style upheaval in such
countries could easily lead to the kind of chaos that would pull the region even
further from the political freedom being called for.
TO PREVENT the
Tunisian and the Egyptian wave from becoming a tsunami, the Arab governments of
the Middle East must listen to the people. Any rapid change from repressive
dictatorship to transparent democracy is unlikely; and perhaps not ideal.
Extremists are likely to exploit any stumbling blocks on the difficult path.
Establishing the culture and infrastructure of democracy – especially where it
is a foreign concept – takes time, as we have seen in Iraq, Afghanistan and the
However, to provide for their people and take
the steam out of the protests, Arab leaders should begin by taking five
essential steps: (1) provide for economic growth, (2) build the civil society
and a culture of political pluralism, (3) institutionalize human rights, (4)
improve education and (5) crack down on corruption.
Before any of these
measures can take place, a transitional government supported by the military
(especially in Egypt, where the military is held in high esteem) should be
formed. Such a transitional government can be led by the former head of the
International Atomic Energy Agency Dr.
Mohamed ElBaradei, around whom
other opposition groups appear ready to coalesce. The transitional government
should commit itself to laying the groundwork for systematic changes in all five
categories, and prepare the country for general elections in two years. Any free
but premature elections, including the already scheduled Egyptian election for
this September, could have disastrous results, because the winners at this stage
may well be the already organized, extreme Islamic groups.
anything else, the immediate focus of the Egyptian caretaker government should
be investments in sustainable development projects, particularly in rural areas.
Sustainable development projects can provide millions of jobs, and are mostly
cost-effective. Arab leaders should note the economic transformation of Asia in
the past 20 years as an example of what investment in education and the economy
Following economic reforms, Tunisia’s economy soared to
5% annual growth, and Egypt’s exceeded 6%, despite the global recession.
However, the youth boom in the Arab world demands an even greater, and more
sustainable economic expansion.
Since civil societies have been
consistently stifled throughout the Arab world, Egypt’s caretaker government
must allow political parties to organize, as long as they remain peaceful.
Without allowing time for such social and political movements to develop, not
only would the better-organized Muslim Brotherhood and other religiously
oriented groups gain the upper hand, but the country would basically move from
secular despotism to religious dictatorship.
With elections in September,
there is actually not enough time to organize or to first alleviate the abject
poverty. Millions of Egyptians need the basic necessities first, before thinking
of exercising their right to vote.
Although political reform and human
rights go handin- hand, the focus of the caretaker government should be on
ensuring that basic rights are fully addressed. To start, the emergency laws
should be rescinded and an end put to arbitrary detentions and torture. The ban
on discrimination and free speech must be lifted. A caretaker government that
immediately announces its intention to grant and guard these basic rights would
provide the clearest sign that real change is at hand.
Arab leaders must
also provide their young people with the education needed to compete in a global
Nearly one in five – or about 100 million people – in the Middle
East and North Africa are between the ages of 15 and 24. In Hosni Mubarak’s 30
years in power, he has seen the population of Egypt double. Ensuring that young
people obtain an education that translates into applicable skills is critical.
While there have been improved literacy rates in the Arab world, and the gap
between the education of boys and girls is narrowing, these issues remain of
The Arab world can now go in one of two directions: invest
in increasing school standards, teacher quality, and research and development,
or continue to maintain outdated school systems which will keep the people out
of work, and their nations lagging behind the rest of the world. Furthermore,
with a more educated and stable region, the Middle East could become a global
FINALLY, THE corruption and opulent lifestyles of
Arab leaders are not new, but their people have finally had enough. Tunisia’s
revolution was exacerbated by recent WikiLeaks revelations by American diplomats
describing the “quasi-mafia” of Ben Ali, in which members of his extended family
headed prominent government institutions.
In one cable, a diplomat
described the lavish home of the president’s son-in-law, writing “there are
ancient artifacts everywhere: Roman columns, frescoes, and even a lion’s head
from which water pours into the pool.”
The son-in-law also owned a pet
tiger. During the protests, the tiger was slaughtered, and the home
Ben Ali was in power for 23 years, Mubarak for 30; it is too
late for them to merely offer reforms that would convince their people that
political accountability would be genuine.
In short, the Egyptian
“revolution” has been sparked by rampant corruption, abysmal education and a
severe lack of economic opportunity. Since Egypt is pivotal to regional
stability, the Egyptian military – the nation’s most respected institution –
must choose between perpetuating the Mubarak regime by force or answering the
yearning of the people. Only the military can maintain stability, allow Mubarak
to depart gracefully, ensure a smooth transition, and make the Egyptian people
feel proud of their country again, while working for a better and brighter
future.The writer is professor of international relations at the Center
for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle