Spotlight on Geopolitics

The popular uprisings ushering in fundamental change across the Arab world look set to continue until the protesters’ demands are largely met. Libyans fight increasingly bloody battles against the Gaddafi regime, whilst protests are continuing on the streets of Sanaa, Amman, Manama, Cairo or Tunis.

The unprecedented scale and intensity of the protests have caught Western officialdom by surprise. The fall of dictators has affected the careers of politicians or academics who over the years have been supporting or at least accommodating of the authoritarian regimes of North Africa. Hard to believe, but even leading specialists like Francis Fukuyama or Joseph Nye have agreed to be paid by Gaddafi’s PR firm to meet with him, thus chucking their professional integrity out the window.

According to Hussein Agha and leading ex-Clinton administration adviser Robert Malley, currently director of the International Crisis Group, the Arab revolts have undermined the EU and the US’ standing in the region:

“Pour les Etats-Unis et l’Europe, ces révoltes mettent à nu la méprise d’une approche qui aura privilégié ceux des dirigeants arabes qui imitent faits et gestes occidentaux. Ces dirigeants auront été discrédités sans que l’Occident ne puisse en profiter. Plus l’Occident aura aidé Moubarak, plus il aura perdu l’Egypte. Les leaders régionaux sont prévenus: des relations fortes avec Washington ou l’Europe et un accord de paix avec Israel seront d’un piètre secours lorsque aura sonné l’heure de vérité.” (La fin du “monde arabe”, in Le Monde, February 21, 2011)

To be sure, the tasks facing tomorrow’s Arab leaders are daunting. From a political point of view, they have to adopt new constitutions and rebuild their political systems from the ground up, harmoniously combining Islamic traditions with democratic institutions and legal systems. It will not be enough, for example, to restrict presidential terms to two four-year mandates. This would not prevent authoritarian leaders from being elected. If Turkish democracy is any guide, a parliamentary system might work better than a US-inspired presidential one. As I have argued elsewhere, presidential republics have rarely worked well outside of the USA, the only known exceptions being Cyprus and Costa Rica.

While pro-Western political regimes in North Africa and the Middle East are imploding as we speak, the next generation of Arab leaders should, however, be wary of fanning anti-Israel and anti-Western sentiment in order to get elected. It would be much more advisable to build electoral platforms favouring institutional and constitutional renewal whilst avoiding needless Iranian-style Western-bashing rhetoric.

In the economic field, the protests have opened up the possibility of merging Arab nations’ markets into a single one. A potential achievement of such magnitude could lead to the creation of a 400 million-plus single market, if Turkey is included. As the EU’s example proves, a single market is sure to boost growth, trade, foreign investment and competitiveness and to bring Arab countries to the economic performance and income levels previously associated only with NAFTA and the European Economic Community. This process could be initiated from Cairo and include countries from Gibraltar to the Gulf of Aden. By taking the European experience as a guide, only after a generation or two an Arab common market could provide the economic foundation for the political integration Nasser was dreaming of during the ‘fifties.

In economic integration terms, the Arab world currently trails not only the two established trade blocs mentioned above, but even similar trade groupings from Western or Eastern Africa. With a young and reasonably well-educated workforce, huge oil and gas resources and with Arabic as a language of wider communication, an Arab common market could in time become more successful even than the EU. The latter remains divided among different cultures, languages and religions, and faces demographic decline.

As the Western neoliberal economic model has been thoroughly discredited, Arab leaders should look to Brazil, as a successful example of a country that knew how to combine economic growth with poverty reduction.

In other words, Arab protesters should ask from their future leaders to create the right environment for economic growth and provide job opportunities within their own countries. This way, they would defy the expectations of Western specialists who are bracing themselves for a flood of economic immigrants to cross the Mediterranean in search of a better life.

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