A Middle East union of young progressives

Savir's Corner: It is high time to let the young of this region, and of our country, lead the way out of the Middle Eastern ghetto.

Morsi supporters outside Constitutional Court in Egypt 370 R (photo credit: Amr Dalsh / Reuters)
Morsi supporters outside Constitutional Court in Egypt 370 R
(photo credit: Amr Dalsh / Reuters)
I have a young Egyptian friend, Ahmed Meligy, who also happens to be a Jerusalem Post blogger.
At the moment that this article is being written, he is taking part in pro-democratic demonstrations in Cairo, as he did continually during the Tahrir revolution. The courage and outspokenness of Meligy and his peers is the hope for the Middle East to steer toward greater democratization and peace.
The Arab Spring, like many similar processes throughout history, has turned into a roller coaster.
Despots and dictators deposed, liberals demand democracy, Islamists of different shades struggle for Islamization of the state, the Muslim Brotherhood takes over with relative pragmatism and in return is checked by demonstrations by the young middle class, as in Egypt, or trade unions, as in Tunisia.
As more than 60 percent of the population in the Arab World is under 30, the young, especially urban students, hold the key for a gradual democratization and liberalization of Arab societies. One should not underestimate the organized political clout of Islam and the role of Islamic tradition among the young.
Yet as Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi is witnessing, rulers in most of the Arab world will not have a free hand in curtailing freedoms through Islamic law.
In Syria, the rule of a ruthless brutal dictatorship is coming to an end, as Bashar Assad wavers between desperation and escape. Most probably a shaky Sunni coalition will take over, challenged by Islamist and extremist forces. An element that seems to have been weakened in the new power equation in the Arab world is the army, as the young demonstrators and rebels don’t fear the generals, as in Tahrir, or even armed attacks on civilians, as in Syria.
In the foreseeable future, this process will not lead to Jeffersonian democracies or even Arab democracies in the region, but it is empowering progressive young forces who look for respect for human rights, basic freedoms, economic development and peaceful coexistence. The young progressives can and will play a role in the creation of a new Middle Eastern mosaic.
In the Palestinian society, there is clearly a difference between the West Bank and Gaza. In Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, Abu Dis, etc. there are large and good universities. Universities before there was a state was also the Israeli experience and make for a good, well-educated, intelligent and mostly progressive young generation. Despite the frustration with the occupation and economic distress, the young of Palestine have proven moderate and are expressing their desire not only for statehood, but also for greater democratization, human rights as well as economic equity and transparency.
They would prefer a younger leadership, after the “elders of the Tunis PLO,” a patriotic one that respects their national and socioeconomic aspirations and values.
As to Israel, the age of the founding fathers’ leadership ended with the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 and the end of the Peres government in 1996; a leadership that reflected mostly the values of our Declaration of Independence and our willingness to give up territory for peace: Begin- Rabin-Peres. In came an archaic middle-aged generation of Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, both ex-commandos, who thought and think more about how to outmaneuver their political foes, Israel’s neighbors and friends in the world, than to make the difficult decisions necessary for the good of the country.
This leadership, as exemplified by the outgoing Netanyahu-Barak government, has an old mindset.
It does not understand the dramatically changing world, with globalization and the information revolution; a world in which warfare has become, to a large degree, outdated and superfluous, as they experienced recently in Gaza; a world which depends on collective diplomacy and good relations, as the United States, under Barack Obama, is successfully attempting in its foreign and security policy.
In this world, Israel has become a ghetto, isolated and criticized, because of policies that represent old values of colonial power relations. Only nine countries supported our government’s position on the Palestinian UN bid two weeks ago, and no country in the world supports our irresponsible and morally despicable settlement policy. Israel and modern Zionism was to be a way out of the Jewish ghetto, into a strong, independent state, part of the family of nations. The current leadership has resurrected the walls around us.
We are in need of an Israeli Spring. It is hard to see how this winter, with the elections, will turn into one. While there are some positive signs of younger people entering the Knesset, the leadership of the country will most probably remain archaic. The fact that the Center-Left is led by three relatively young women – Shelly Yacimovich, Tzipi Livni and Zehava Gal-On – is a first for us. Moreover, the candidate lists of most parties have seen the entry of younger people, mostly notably in the Labor Party, with the courageous young leaders of the Rothschild protest movement running for the Knesset.
On January 22, when Israelis vote, the old mindset will most probably have the upper hand; one that prefers territory over scientific development, settlements over education, nationalism over globalization.
And yet we should hope that younger people, with a more modern mindset, will be involved in the national decision-making process, and that our vibrant civil society will be heeded.
This is important if we want to avoid completely losing our place among the nations at a time when the world, across all continents, is more interconnected as a result of the information and technology revolution.
People today, the world over, and especially the younger generations, are more knowledgeable, better educated, more cosmopolitan, respect more freedoms and feel more empowered vis-à-vis government.
In a world where hundreds of millions gather their information from the Internet, communicate on Facebook and express themselves on YouTube, the citizen matters more and the government matters less. Democracy is spreading more than ever before in history, trade and tourism are on the rise globally, civil society is becoming a potent player and borders are becoming less important.
In such a world, the Middle East, including Israel, faces a major challenge: Do we belong or do we remain on the sidelines of a dramatic historical process, encircled by walls of nationalism and religious predominance?
While each country in the region entered this predicament on its own, the way out will have to be together in a conflict as fierce as that of the Middle East, with strong nationalistic and religious characteristics, which have created walls that can only be broken together. For the Middle East and Israel to break free from these walls of nationalism and isolation into a world of interconnectivity and globalization, we must see powerful social and political change in the following domains:
• First and foremost, we in the region and in Israel have to act according to the values that are prevalent in the world, which means “yes” to democracy, “yes” to the respect of human rights, “yes” to equality between people, nations, and genders, and “no” to colonialism, “no” to occupation, “no” to national rejection, “no” to terrorism, “no” to violence and to racism. “Yes” to peace.
• We have, therefore, to engage in an active and viable peace process between Israel and Palestine, leading to a two-state solution, with security and economic prosperity, paving the way to regional peace, development and cooperation.
• A strategic, value-based alliance with the leader of the free world, the United States, ensuring Israeli security, Palestinian statehood and regional cooperation.
• An economic alliance with the European Union, ensuring democratic institution-building in Palestine, scientific and technological cooperation with Israel, and regional development including regional institution-building, learning from the European model of post-war cooperation.
• As governments in the region are far from ready to engage regionally and internationally in such processes, agreements and cooperation, it is time to strengthen, both from within and from without, the progressive civil society forces in the Arab world and in Israel.
• For that to happen, the young progressive forces in the Arab world and in Israel should cooperate in attracting the regional public opinion and leadership to their agenda and values. A civil society union is in our days of great significance on the necessary route to democratization and peace.
This is not utopian, but is indeed happening on regional social media, as exemplified by the Ya La-Young Leaders movement on Facebook, with a quarter of a million members from all over the region (Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon, Kuwait, etc.) who are uniting at their regional online Facebook-based peace conference on December 18, 2012, along common values of democracy, human rights, social justice and peace.
It is high time to let the young of this region, and of our country, lead the way out of the Middle Eastern ghetto.
The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.