A memo to the Obama administration: Don't miss this opportunity

Salah Al-Nasrawi , Saturday 16 Apr 2011

The US and Europe should do much more than wonder whether the Arab spring will lead to viable democracies. They have a responsibility to help the Arab revolutions ensure that it does

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday posed a question to participants at the U.S.-Islamic World Forum on whether the Arab spring of revolutions will finally produce truly free societies with economic opportunities for their people, or leave corrupt and repressive systems in place?

"Will the people and leaders of the Middle East and North Africa pursue a new, more inclusive approach to solving the region's persistent political, economic and social challenges?," she asked.

It's a straightforward question, but it raises a plenty of doubts by the US top diplomat at a time when people in the Middle East are eager to see how the Obama administration's much-talked-about strategy will respond to the strings of popular uprisings that have triggered a tsunami throughout the Arab world.

Few would argue that the shape of a new order in the Middle East is clearly visible. Pro-democracy Arabs have no illusions that the removal of entrenched authoritarian regimes can bring to power democratic governments in a matter of months or even years.

There are tremendous challenges ahead. The main ones are those caused by the terrible legacy of long periods of authoritarian rule and dealing with counterrevolutionaries who will try to thwart transformation toward democracy.

Yet, no one can ignore the fact that a defining moment in the history of the Arab world has already arrived and has made it impossible for the old order to be brought back. Moreover, the Arab revolts are full of historic opportunities for the peoples of the region to end decades of political and economic stagnation and to modernise their societies.

Indeed, the opportunities that democracy, freedom and equality in the Arab countries bring forth will transcend by far their societies to benefit the entire world by offering a  possibility for a genuine regional security and stability.

That could be a fundamental pillar for a new international order of development, peace and cooperation in the Middle East, North Africa the Arab Gulf and the Horn of Africa, all of which are of strategic value for the world's peace. 

While some of the challenges are home-made, others are foreign-connected. In each Arab country, where a revolution has already blossomed, or promises to do so, there is a need for a national safety network in order to help the newly born system to bypass its teething problems. That is the responsibility of their people to shoulder, first and foremost.  

But there is also a dire need for a strong partnerships to protect the revolution that should include key actors on both local and international levels in order to bring the transformation process to a final success.

While the national strategy is to defend the revolution against domestic pitfalls, the partnership strategy should aim to show international solidarity and responsibility for the common good and cooperation on the world level.

The Arab spring will bring a new era to the Middle East where old ideas and old mechanisms to conduct multilateral relations are no longer viable in dealing with the complex political, economic, socials and cultural issues pertaining to the post-revolutionary era.

Neither will this be good enough for dealing with issues of regional peace and stability, which require a joint and concerted effort to forge anew a collective system based on coexistence, respect and mutual interests. Democracy can bring people closer and help end religious, sectarian and other rivalries.

There is a consensus that the old policies of engineering stability at the expense of democracy has failed to achieve either goals. An agenda of democracy has worked elsewhere in bringing peace and it is worth bearing examination in anew Middle East.

Any strategy to sustain the democratic transformation in the Middle East needs a broad international partnership and should be based on the universal human values, international law, respect of cultural specificities and mutual interests.

A new initiative with long-term commitments and comprehensive programmes is needed. A three M’s — money, market access and mobility - strategy proposed by Catherine Ashton, high representative for foreign affairs and security policy of the European Union, is worth putting into a larger multilateral perspective and should be preceded by a capital D (Democracy), as a benchmark.

A US pledge to offer short-term assistance to Egypt and Tunisia, whose economies, are expected to be most hard hit by the uprisings, is too little to meet the immediate challenges to the longer term opportunities the transition to democracy presents. Again, money is important to help create jobs and help youth to take full advantage of the global economy, but helping democracy blossom requires a larger undertaking.

Clinton's caution, or skepticism, is well understood. It is even shared by many people here, but one thing is clear that a back-lash against the Arab spring of democracy will send an ominous chill through the entire Middle East, and even beyond. This requires bold policies beyond this wait-and-see attitude.

From President Woodrow Wilson's principles to President Barack Obama's address in Cairo, the United States has failed to forge a strategy that helps transform the Middle East into  a region made up of viable democracies, yet they forged alliances with autocrats and spent billions of dollars to keep them in power.

Yet, the Middle East continued to force itself onto each and every US president's agenda. The Obama administration needs to revise the conventional US strategy that focuses on oil, Israel, Iran and terrorism and ignores other challenges.   

Let's hope that the West in general, and the United States in particular, are not going to miss the opportunity to work together with other partners who want to lend a hand to help the Arabs fledging democracies fully flourish. And they should start talking to and even negotiate towards making a new compact with the young generations of Arab democrats to advance this project.  

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