Egypt’s message to the Arab world
RUSI Analysis, 11 Feb 2011
With Hosni Mubrak gone, no Arab leader should assume for a moment that they can somehow ride the revolutionary storm and maintain the status quo.
By Alon Ben-Meir for RUSI.org
The uprising of the Egyptian people following Tunisia's 'Jasmine Revolution' has reverberated around the Middle East, signaling a new chapter for the Arab world. For the long-entrenched regimes to avoid following the paths of Tunisia and Egypt, they must take heed of the powerful message being expressed on the streets throughout the region. Arab leaders should learn from Tunisia and especially Egypt's failure by working to address their people's aspirations and enabling a stable and gradual transition to greater economic opportunities and political freedoms, better education and respect of human rights, and bringing to an end decades of rampant corruption.
Reform or Revolution
When university graduate-turned street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of a government building in Sid Bouzid, Tunisia, he unleashed a torrent of long-repressed political expression in the Middle East. The subsequent protests against rampant unemployment and corruption in Tunisia, and the ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, has led to protests throughout the Arab world - from Algeria to Yemen - with a united desire to send their leaders to join Ben Ali in exile in Saudi Arabia. The revolt that has subsequently gripped Egypt - the largest and most influential Arab country - has the potential to echo throughout the Middle East. The uprisings 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 in the region. Also clear is that for the dictators of the Arab world to manage this change, they must introduce genuine social, economic and political reforms immediately - allowing sufficient time for orderly and peaceful transition.
Some will argue that such reforms, once enacted, will usher in an abrupt end to these regimes. I disagree. Regardless of how ruthless some of these Arab leaders may be, their public will always welcome any improvement to their daily lives. And the more consistent and positive these reforms are, the more accepting the people become of an orderly transition while ensuring sustainable growth, developments and social and political reforms. There is such a thing as a 'benevolent dictatorship', one which can rule with mercy, compassion and understanding without necessarily resorting to cruel methods and deprivations while subjugating everyone to an unruly police state. But realizing the inevitability of change, many Arab leaders may now look for an alternative: embracing real reforms but doing so gradually, systematically and transparently to convince the public of their sincerity. To prevent the Tunisian and the Egyptian wave from becoming a tsunami, the Arab governments of the Middle East must listen to their people. Rapid change from repressive authoritarian regimes to open and transparent democracy, however, is unlikely, and, in fact, not ideal. Islamist extremists are likely to exploit any political vacuum or vulnerability on the difficult path toward democracy. 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.
Adapting to Change
However, to provide for their people and take the steam out of the protests, Arab leaders, with the support and encouragement of the West, should begin by taking five essential steps: building up civil society and a culture of political pluralism, institutionalizing human rights, providing for economic opportunity and growth, improving education, and cracking down on corruption. Because of its size, centrality in Arab politics, relations with the United States and Israel and military prowess, what eventually happens in Egypt will reverberate throughout the region, and will have a tremendous impact on regional stability and peace. Before any of these critical measures can take place, a transitional caretaker government composed of respected, trusted and skilled bureaucrats and supported by the military must seize power. The new transitional government should publicly commit itself to laying the grounds for systematic changes in all five categories and prepare the country for general elections in two years' time, once civil society is developed and political parties are organized. Any free but premature elections could have disastrous results: the winners at this stage may well be the extreme Islamic groups who are much better politically organized than any secular political parties, which have been largely marginalized for decades.
Of coure each nation in the region has its own specific characteristics and individual grievances. Tunisia has a strong secular and nationalist foundation that has enabled the revolution to be essentially devoid of Islamist elements. Others in the Arab world may not be so fortunate. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has largely assumed a more cautious approach for fear that their otherwise boisterous stand could lead to quick and violent retribution by the military. But Islamists throughout the region will undoubtedly be looking to take advantage of the unrest gripping the region today, and the subsequent political upheaval. In Jordan, where unemployment officially rests at 14 per cent (but where many believe the actual rate reaches 30 per cent), the Muslim Brotherhood has already vowed to instigate protests 'to demand improved living conditions as well as political and economic reforms.' Unlike Tunisia, Jordan lacks the secular or nationalist foundations that would seemingly guard against such Islamist influence. The same can be said of Yemen, the Arab world's poorest country, which is already gripped by civil war and is home to Al Qa'ida operatives directing attacks against the United States. Any Tunisia-style upheaval in such countries could lead to the kind of destabilizing chaos that would lead the region further away from the political freedoms that are being called for in the streets.
Blueprint for Development
As suggested earlier, not every Arab state could or should follow the same roadmap for change. But each leader should reassess their political reality and decide on a course of action that would allow them to shape the new order and yet be hailed as reformers rather than being forced out of office in disgrace. Every Arab King or Emir can gradually relinquish power to a Constructional Monarchy where the King or the Emir remains the head of the state and the prime minister is the head of the government, with political powers mandated by a popularly elected parliament. The British or the Swedish systems of government offer perfect examples. By following this path, current Arab Kings and Emirs can maintain the trappings of their positions as the heads of state - albeit with diminished powers - while at the same time meeting the people's demands, easing the transition of their countries into the inevitable change that will take place, either through upheaval and terrifying violence or through peaceful transition. Arab states without a monarchy may choose the Egyptian path and allow for gradual reforms, albeit under the watchful eyes of the military to ensure stability and a peaceful transfer of power.
How soon the leaders of the Arab states take heed of what has happened in Tunisia and Egypt will determine not only their future but the future welfare and wellbeing of their peoples. No Arab leader should assume for a moment that they can somehow ride the revolutionary storm and maintain the status quo. The information revolutions may have triggered the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, but at this juncture the wave of awakening is sweeping the Arab world regardless, and leaders must now make their choice.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations and Middle Eastern Studies at The New School and at New York University and is the Middle East Project Director at the World Policy Institute.
The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.
Further Analysis: Egypt, Middle East and North Africa