High expectations in the wake of the Arab democratic wave

2 August, 2012

Credit: FreedomHouse2

In the wake of the Arab democratic wave expectations are high – young people in particular are calling for employment opportunities in the context of more open and effective societies – politicians must be seen to respond quickly.

At two recent conferences we addressed these issues – the first looked at the Impact and challenges of the Middle East and North Africa one year on from the Arab transitions. The second addressed the potential for the Maghreb economy looking at how further integration would create a far more propitious climate for investment and trade, contributing, in turn, to the development of human resources, good governance and a vibrant civil society.

“People in North Africa want immediate solutions,” said a participant at the Maghreb conference, held just after Libya celebrated its first national elections in four decades, with victory going to the National Forces Alliance led by Dr Mahmoud Jibril, a technocratic moderniser, seen as an encouraging factor in removing blocks to economic development and regional integration.

But, while a number of authoritarian regimes have been toppled in the Arab wakening, it is clear that the various countries involved are following different trajectories, based on local conditions and the political realities of their situations. And while the international community has a role to play in supporting the process of reform it is also clear that these countries are insistent on managing their own processes of change.

Elections held in several countries on the southern Mediterranean shore, and elsewhere, have shown the argument for ‘Arab exceptionalism’ to democratic governance to be wrong. While Islamist groups have come to the fore, helped by their long standing social presence and organisational capacities, there is, nevertheless, considerable diversity among them. Islamist groups in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco are now in power, having to deal with real problems. There is less focus on doctrinal change, and more emphasis on creating democratic space through having robust parliaments as well as civilian oversight of the military: “Democracy is about more than holding elections.”

Egypt’s transition, prompted by waves of protest and political mobilisation, is now becoming more of a negotiated process, through a messy one, including in terms of civilian-military relations. There are a range of views on economic development also. The Muslim Brotherhood favours a liberal approach with foreign direct investment and support for the private sector. But trade unions play a strong role in Egyptian society and look towards more state-led development. Egypt remains one of the most diversified economies in the Middle East, an important trading centre and there is good economic potential if political risk can be mitigated. But shortages of diesel and foodstuff could yet trigger a second uprising, enabling the military to step in.

With Syria descending into civil war, the question arises where the power would lie in the event of the Assad regime’s defeat. There is a real risk of sectarianism taking hold and ‘statelets’ being formed.

The Arab awakening has brought new concerns for Israel. Primary among these are the chaos in Syria, and also the Sinai, the security of Syria’s chemical weapons in the event of a collapse of the regime, and the election of an Egyptian President from the Muslim Brotherhood, given Israel’s geo-political relationship during Hosni Mubarak’s rule. While treaties have not been renounced, can Israel’s co-operation with Arab neighbours like Jordan and Egypt remain sustainable?

Turkey’s experience of political and economic reform was seen as a good role model for countries in transition and a valuable partner also for Europe and the West.

The Arab democratic wave has changed perceptions of the Maghreb; young people and the emerging middle class have found their voice creating a sense of vitality and drive for progress and reform – this is a real opportunity to build a successful ‘brand Maghreb’.

But the region has to compete with other emerging markets. Senior politicians from the Maghreb agreed that moving swiftly to implement a framework already agreed under the auspices of the Arab Maghreb Union would leave it much better placed to do so.

There were useful lessons to be learnt from the European Union process and the EU remained an essential partner for the Maghreb, and MENA region as a whole, with an opportunity to re-launch relationships under a reworked vision of its neighbourhood policy.

The situation in the Gulf was difficult to assess – with Saudi Arabia and Qatar jostling for pre-eminence and tension with Iran over its nuclear programme and perceived interference in neighbouring countries’ politics. Bahrain was the country most dramatically affected by protest. Some Gulf Cooperation Council member states had sent troops to help overcome the demonstrations.

Civil resistance
Credit: Khaled Desouki

Both conferences concluded that the initial wave of euphoria created both inside and outside the region had given way to a more realistic assessment of the difficulties in meeting expectations. Governments needed to focus on concrete issues, with “road map action plans” to build effective institutions. Economic development geared at developing the middle class was a key priority to bridge the gap between divergent ideologies in society – and an area in which the international community could be particularly helpful: “If we don’t create jobs, we will not be able to meet the political challenge.”

There was some frustration that the G-8 had agreed a package of support to Arab Spring countries at its Deauville meeting in 2011 but much of this had not reached transition states.

The impression had been created that there were pots of money that could be sent to the region immediately which was not the case. The impact of the Eurozone crisis, affecting southern countries in particular, was a factor. Instead, it was important to concentrate on what the Deauville partnership could do, which was to help leverage money, and to concentrate on the trade and economic aspects of the communication which advocated promoting the single market and more open markets in general, the beneficial power of trade and investment and strong support for deep and comprehensive free trade agreements.

The forthcoming UK Presidency of the G-8 provided an opportunity to implement the plan more effectively than had been possible to date.

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