Savir's Corner: The end of dictatorship

It’s time to work with and for the people who are at the basis of the Middle East revolutions, not those who want to abuse them.

Egyptians 311 R (photo credit: REUTERS)
Egyptians 311 R
(photo credit: REUTERS)
There is not a single commentator or expert on the Arab world in Israel, the Middle East or anywhere else who at the beginning of 2011 would have predicted that within 10 months, Hosni Mubarak, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Muammar Gaddafi would have been toppled out of power by popular uprisings.
And yet everyone knew that these regimes were oppressive, corrupt and did not tackle the domestic challenges of their countries with any effectiveness or fairness.
Why was everybody wrong in predicting an ongoing status quo in the political system in the Arab world? The underlying concept was, and to a large degree still is, that the Arab world, if not the Muslim world, is stagnant and prevented from progressing by the powerful role of religion. The common wisdom also today is that after the revolution will come the counter-revolution mostly dominated by the local Muslim Brotherhood.
The analysis of the Arab world did not and does not take into consideration one dramatic and formidable force. A new, young generation, bitter and frustrated about lack of freedom and employment, disgusted with corruption, more secular than their parents, and most important, with a new sense of empowerment, derived from a desire to belong to the world, through the traditional media and the new media, especially the social networks.
This force took a dramatic form in Tunisia, and above all at the Tahrir Square revolution in Egypt. To bring down a modern- day pharaoh in a matter of weeks and to bring the largest Arab army onto their side, by peaceful means, represented a most powerful political phenomenon that, latently at least, is still in existence.
The youth of Tahrir are not those who will have the remedies to Egypt’s main ailments.
But no future ruler of Egypt will be able to run the country without “Tahrir” deep in his mind. The system may not have moved to democracy yet, but it is a kind of “peopletocracy” that will shape Egypt and most Arab countries in different, and most probably freer, directions.
And now, after the initial euphoria in the West and in Israel, the question is: What next? Most experts predict an almost doomsday scenario – a takeover by Islamic fundamentalist forces. They may be wrong again. I believe that, in the long run, other forces will shape the future of the Arab world.
• Sixty percent of the Arabs are under 30, and most of them believe in the value of globalization, to which they want to belong, without compromising their patriotism and culture.
• There is a significant trend of the empowerment of women in society, especially evident in Tunisia and the Palestinian territories, that is part of a more modern future.
• Media, traditional and new, are becoming a growing educational and communication tool.
• The army is still very dominant in most countries in the region, and it is fundamentally pro-Western, as it is armed by the West.
• There is extremely significant dependency on strong economic ties with the United States and Europe.
• Islamic parties are the most organized and as in the elections in Tunisia, will take about one-third of the vote in other countries as well. But there is only one Iran, which is a theocratic dictatorship that the Arab countries actually dread.
While every combination of religion and politics (not just in the Arab world) is a negative alliance, not all Islamic parties are “Iranian” in nature.
They too must accommodate the new, young constituency, when it comes to their daily lives or even their clothing. This is a jeans and T-shirt generation – not one of burkas. In today’s Arab world the blogger may be not less significant to many than the imam and the officer.
Turkey is one country that to some degree serves as a model of a combination of an Islamic ruling party, a strong army, a democracy, a pro-Western position (part of NATO and yearning to be a member of the EU). The army is the second-largest standing army in NATO. We may not like the policies of Turkey on the Palestinian issue – but better Turkey than Iran. That seems to also be the opinion of most Arab constituencies.
While every analysis of the situation in the aftermath of the Arab spring is legitimate, we have to divorce ourselves from an almost historical-deterministic prediction of the future of the Arab world. The important question for the West and Israel is how can the existing Arab trends towards greater freedoms, economic development and pro-Western policies be affected? We in Israel behave like fatalistic bystanders always fearing the worst, rather than affecting the better.
I believe that the Western powers, mainly the US and Europe, should have a proactive policy towards the Arab countries and the region, made of several components:
• A dialogue with the young generation in the Arab world, of the kind of the Cairo Speech of Barack Obama in 2009, or on social networks, as I know from my experience with the virtual peace movement YaLa-Young Leaders on Facebook, where hundreds of dialogues a day are taking place between Arabs, Israelis, Europeans and Americans.
• The countries that are going through political reform, such as Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, need to go through economic reform, towards freer markets and trade, assisted by the OECD countries led by the US and the EU.
• Political and economic reform cannot happen without peace; therefore, the region needs to embark on a viable peace process, facilitated by the Quartet and focusing on the Palestinian issue. It is the only “foreign policy” issue on the minds and hearts of young Arabs, identifying with their Palestinian brethren.
Here is also where Israel has to be proactive.
If we want to contribute to the strengthening of the moderate forces in the Arab countries, such as Egypt and Jordan – and not risk the peace treaties with them – our government needs to show the courage it did in the Schalit deal, and take difficult decisions that will make the peace process with the Palestinians possible.
All of us have to internalize that there is a different Middle East, one in which the people, mainly the young, have a louder voice, one in which dictatorships won’t survive.
It’s time to work with and for the people who are at the basis of these revolutions, not those who want to abuse them. It is also a window of opportunity for peace, which in turn can strengthen the moderate forces.
The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.