Above the Fray: Down with the regime, up with the country

Arab 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.

Egypt protest soldiers 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Egypt protest soldiers 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
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.
Arab 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 political freedom.
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 refuge.
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, immediately.
To be sure, each nation has its own individual grievances.
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 upheaval.
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 reforms.”
Unlike Tunisia, Jordan lacks the secular or nationalist foundations that could guard against such Islamist influence.
The same 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 Palestinian territories.
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.
More than 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 can accomplish.
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 economy.
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 high concern.
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 manufacturing center.
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 ransacked.
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 Eastern studies.