There seem to be a thousand and one versions of what’s happening in our region; a Scheherazade-like outpouring of commentary and analysis has woven tales of revolution with no end in sight. And although few question how the “Arab awakening” began, there is nevertheless much to be learned from the way the story is being narrated.
The tale often begins with the desperate act of Mohammed Bouazizi, a fruit and vegetable seller in Tunisia, dousing himself in petrol and lighting a match. The striking of that match toppled an indifferent leader, and Bouazizi became not just the lightening rod of the Jasmine Revolution, but an inspiration for others in Egypt. Eleven days after Tunisia's President Zein el-Abidine Ben Ali fled to Paris, and 21 days after Bouazizi died from his burns, Egypt would take less than three weeks to shed itself of a 30-year regime.
And so it continues. At the time of writing the ‘allies’ are dropping bombs in Libya; this time with Arab League and UN support, as Colonel Gaddafi clings to power in a manner which though parodied online, has almost become a leitmotif of the “Arab spring” – a macabre fairy tale of Sultanic ambitions and ogrish despots pitted against the magic of digital technology. For many in the West, the path to self-determination and the eventual victory of “universal values” is part of the arc of history: inevitable in the face of harsh brutality, and perhaps even because of it.
But what do we in the Arab world make of all this? It is a curious question, for the ‘popular’ character of the uprisings and the manner in which they have spread – seemingly organically – around the countries I like to define as “West-Asia-North-Africa” (WANA) seems to suggest a collective Arab affinity. Yet the official responses from around the region could hardly have been less united or more underwhelming. We Arabs now allow the West to tell our story not only to the rest of the world, but to ourselves. The “no-fly” zone in Libya is being accompanied by a “no-think zone” almost everywhere else in the region, other perhaps than in the blogosphere.
From nationalism to socialism, from neo-conservatism to communism, the recent political history of the Arab countries has been marked by fragmented experiments with imported and usually hybrid ideologies. But what has been happening recently was not imported – the uprisings have been incubating within the region for over half a century. They have risen largely from the bottom up, by what was for long a silenced majority. No amount of opinion polling was able to predict that change on this scale would come not through charismatic leaders, politicians, intellectuals or the West, but from young Arab men and women. Inspired by universal values and ground down by the price of bread, this change – this new psychological landscape – needs articulating carefully because it is something we cannot afford to misrepresent.
Why did the “Arab awakening” begin when it did? Where may it be going, and how will it end? I believe that current events have been generations in the making: the result of a regional process of transition, the first phase of which began with the Palestinian exodus in 1948. Its second phase began with the Six Day War in 1967, and culminated in the Camp David Accords of 1978.
But I also believe that the outcome of this sort of tectonic realignment is not just unpredictable but unknowable. Instead of constructing easily digestible narratives that create the illusion of predictability and control – a thread or logic to events – we, and especially the West, should acknowledge our own powerlessness and focus on those variables that perhaps we can influence.
There are presently two elephants in the room; one is the instability of oil, as is always the case, and the other is the Israeli-Palestinian question. Historically it is pipelines not people that have been the chief protagonists of this region; the Arab oil embargo of 1972, the Iranian Revolution of 1978 and the 1990 Gulf War are probably most memorable examples. Even before violence erupted in Libya, or unrest spread to Bahrain, Oman and the Gulf, events in Cairo had added $5 a barrel to the price of oil.
The need to maintain oil supplies has served as the justification for emergency powers in some of the oil rich states, with the revenues often spent on weapons. The India-based think tank Strategic Foresight Group estimates that between 2001 and 2003 the region spent over $8,000bn on arms, with this level of spending expected to double over the next decade. The region’s financial and human resources have been consumed by a hypermarket of destruction, yet nowhere else has insecurity been such a fact of life.
The stability that Israel and others believed in was always spurious, never real. Just as the home grown revolutions in what I think of as West-Asia-North-Africa (WANA) have been born from within, so too has extremism been nurtured by an absence of hope. And this instability has been prolonged by fear that democracy would not prove self-regulating, that Arabs are unfit to govern themselves and that the new wave would be one of violence. Sometimes inadvertently, but more often explicitly, the Middle East’s only democracy has been complicit in making these assumptions, and the entire region has been held socially, culturally, economically and politically hostage to the never-ending Arab-Israeli peace process.
Ali Gomaa, the grand mufti of Egypt, observed not long ago that “no one group speaks for Islam.” In Egypt there are the Muslim Brotherhood, the Wasat Party, and the Salafi movements. The various strains of Islam are becoming more discernable as pluralism along with the recognition of diversity and calls for constitutional reform replace the old apparatus of intimidation. No longer will Arabs be able to say ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. But reform can’t progress very far where acute poverty remains. In the 1980s, theocratic and autocratic politics moved in when oil prices fell and economic growth faltered. Today the Arab world plays host to the highest and lowest earners on earth. People are calling not just for self-determination but for the right to ‘pursue happiness’ and opportunity. Of course this has always been the case, but the difference today is that a new generation realises that no one, and certainly not Washington, is ready to achieve this for them.
Poverty is holistic. It is more than market driven, and the “poverty line” should no longer be defined solely by income and set at between a dollar and a dollar fifty a day. Having worked with Madeline Albright on the UNDP’s Commission on the Legal Empowerment of the Poor, I think our definition of poverty should be redefined to take into account what Bangladeshi activist Rehman Sobhan calls “structural injustice” – meaning inequality of access to opportunity.
Well over a third of the population in the WANA region are between the ages of 15-29. According to the World Bank, 100m jobs need to be created in the Middle East by 2020. Egypt’s youth may have helped topple its leader, but they still can’t find jobs. In the United States, virtually all new job creation during the last 30 years has come from companies that were less than five years old. The message is clear, governments in West-Asia-North-Africa should concentrate on providing the tools for young men and women to create their own employment.
Trying to steer a particular policy course when the situation is so fluid would be futile. But taking the initiative and focusing on the underlying conditions is not. The responsibility must be to protect and rebuild, and ultimately it is we in the region who need to take this responsibility. The West needs to learn to let go, and we need to step up. This should be done not through arms, but through alms. A useful mechanism would be a pan-Arab wealth fund, collected regionally and distributed equitably on an institutional and trans-border basis.
West-Asia-North-Africa’s wealth is largely held abroad in foreign portfolios. Our water and energy resources are depleting, and are perforce shared as they take no account of national boundaries. Yet this interdependence, even though it represents a threat to global security, has never been addressed on a supranational basis. When, in the aftermath of two devastating world wars, Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman forged the European Coal and Steel Community, they welded a reluctant Europe together through economic co-operation. Can we in the Arab world not do the same by creating a Community for Water and Energy for the Human Environment? What is stopping us from achieving what the Strategic Foresight Group, in partnership with the West-Asia-North-Africa Forum, have dubbed “Blue Peace”?
West-Asia-North-Africa is changing and the narrative is no longer one of extremism. Subliminal messages that revolved around violence, rage and bigotry are being shattered, and although Islam is not the problem, nor is it the solution.
Our region has won for itself the mixed blessing of once again being unpredictable.