By Wadah Khanfar
CAIRO: Last year’s events in Egypt and Tunisia drew the curtain on a tottering old order and delivered much of the Arab world into a long-awaited new era. But what that new era will look like remains very much an open question, given the many challenges that the region’s countries still face.
The old order that has begun to vanish extends beyond the former regimes. The region’s entire value system — a political culture forged by autocracy — is being transformed. Arab men and women have shed the sense of humiliation and inferiority that despotism imposed on them — and that fostered desperation, anger, violence, and insularity.
This transformation, though far from complete — indeed, it may well last years — has nonetheless started to bear fruit. If the 2011 uprisings had not occurred, we would now be witnessing another year of autocracy, with more talk of dynastic successions. That would mean further humiliation for ordinary people, who bear the brunt of corruption, as government officials and their crony capitalists continued to siphon off public funds.
The Arab media would still be heaping uncritical praise on the region’s presidents and their families, while development programs would be looted by them. Education would continue to stagnate, and Arab societies, which are divided across sectarian, tribal, and regional lines, would experience rising levels of retribution and violence. The infamous “death boats,” on which hundreds of young North African men risked their lives every year in search of employment and a better life abroad, would continue to deliver those who survived the journey onto Europe’s unwelcoming shores. And Arabs’ rage would reach unprecedented levels, causing utter mayhem and destruction.
Arab youth have rescued the Arab world from this fate. Their conscientiousness and integrity have restored people’s self-confidence. The old regimes’ opponents have demonstrated bravery without recklessness, and differences of opinion without bigotry.
Indeed, we have seen Islamists, liberals, and leftists standing together in defiance. We have seen Muslims and Copts protect each other in Cairo. In Yemen, we have seen local tribesmen follow a woman, Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakel Karman, in the fight for freedom. And we have seen the Arab media foster a mature debate about democracy, constitutionalism, and the role of Islam in the modern state, rather than dispensing disinformation and crass propaganda.
But the transformation must not stop here. The new and old political forces should initiate a dialogue to create a consensus on the rules of political engagement. As the people become their own masters, those who fail to engage in this process will eventually find themselves without political power.
Other countries in the region, and beyond, should embrace the Arab Spring. In particular, the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) should abandon their hesitance to support the post-revolution governments. Ultimately, the changes occurring in the Arab world will contribute to the entire region’s economic prosperity and political stability.
Today, Tunisia and Egypt are experiencing severe economic crises.
Before Tunisia’s revolution, for example, 500,000 of its labor force of 3.6 million were unemployed, and that number has since risen to 700,000. Egypt has lost roughly $9 billion in capital flight in recent months. But, according to Egypt’s prime minister, Kamal Al-Ganzoury, the country’s Arab “brethren” have delivered only $1 billion of the $10.5 billion in aid and loans that they promised.
Moreover, Tunisia and Egypt have so far received none of the $35 billion promised by the G-8 countries. And, given the current global economic crisis, the funds are not likely to be forthcoming in the near future.
The region’s emerging democracies urgently need an Arab initiative that resembles the Marshall Plan — a program to attract large-scale investment in infrastructure, industry, and agriculture (and in the region’s wealth of untapped technical skills), thereby boosting employment. The initiative should also encourage free movement of goods and people within the region, by lifting the customs restrictions and complicated procedures that hinder bilateral and multilateral trade. Creating regional development banks and building a Mediterranean express railway from Alexandria to Rabat would serve this goal.
But long-term investments will not solve the immediate crisis. Egypt and Tunisia need immediate cash deposits and grants, and their newly elected leaderships should not be forced to resort to begging. In the past, the Gulf countries have supported Egypt and Tunisia. It is now in the GCC’s best interests to support them again as they make the transition to freedom.
Meanwhile, the United States and the European Union should recognize the nature and depth of the unfolding changes. The Arab public is fully aware of the close alliances that existed between the West and the now-defunct despotic regimes, yet they have exhibited no desire for vengeance or retribution towards the West.
It is past time for the West to accept the Arab people’s will and to stop exaggerating the repercussions of change. The West must support genuine democracy in the Arab world. If the Arab Spring is aborted, the result will be not dictatorships that are loyal to the West, but rather, a tsunami of rage that will spare no one. There is nothing more dangerous than aborted dreams, especially when those dreams may be the last chance for change.
Wadah Khanfar is former Director-General of Al Jazeera, and is currently Chairman of The Sharq Forum, an NGO promoting reform across the Arab world. This commentary is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with Project Syndicate, www.project-syndicate.org.