A Day of Arab Despair and Radical Change

Four very different events on the same day all confirm once again the hard consequences of the unsustainable policies that all Arab governments, without exception, pursued since the 1970s.

During a very fast one-day visit to Washington, D.C. on Monday this week, I participated in a day of lectures and panel discussions organized by a private company on some of the world’s most challenging political and economic issues, including the “Arab youth” panel I joined. On that same day, four striking developments in four different Arab countries reminded us why young Arabs are so worried and in some instances turn to extreme measures, like illegal or legal emigration, joining militant movements, turning to corrupt practices for their survival, or engaging in sectarian civil wars.

Four developments on the same day clarified the price we pay now for many decades of mismanagement by our public authorities and massive foreign support of our decaying order.

They were:

1) Fifteen Tunisian young men tried to commit mass suicide in front of the local municipality building in the southern town of Sened, because of their despair over finding work and also because local officials had refused to meet with them;

2) President Barack Obama agreed to send another 250 American troops to 
Syria to join the 50 already there who are fighting against the “Islamic State” (ISIS);

3) Saudi Arabian Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman unveiled an ambitious long-term plan to radically restructure the Saudi economy and public-private sector responsibilities; and,

4) President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi of Egypt sent thousands of security officers into the streets of Cairo and other cities and arrested several hundred people in a frantic attempt to pre-empt expected demonstrations against the recent decision to cede two small islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia.

These four very different events all confirm once again the hard consequences of the unsustainable policies that all Arab governments, without exception, pursued since the 1970s. These included, most importantly, profligate state spending without requiring citizens to share the burdens of development; the state’s control of what citizens could read, say, hear, watch, or debate in the public sphere; and, neglecting to establish any credible mechanisms of participation or accountability by citizens. These legacies denied the contemporary Arab state the single most important factor it requires for genuine national development: educated, engaged, dynamic, motivated, and productive citizens. The Arab model of half-development built many fine roads and buildings, but did not develop the potential of the human mind, or generate meaningful income from sources other than natural resources and foreign aid. Consequently, the four developments Monday point out the enormous tasks of reform and genuine progress that the Arab states must embark on. Those four developments in a single day are a red light that alerts us to the need to move decisively, rationally, and steadily towards that elusive goal of equitable, productive, balanced, and sustainable citizen-based national development that has eluded the Arab states to date.

The mass suicide attempt by young Tunisians is without doubt the most dramatic of the developments Monday. It captures symbolically the persistence, spread, virulence, and exacerbation of the grievances and despair that caused Mohammad Bouazizi to set himself on fire in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid in December 2010, to spark the Arab uprisings. More than five years later today, we see small numbers of young Arabs embrace death by self-immolation, drowning in the Mediterranean while seeking a new life, or killing themselves and others in suicide attacks against Arab and foreign targets.

The severe and swift reforms to be launched in Saudi Arabia would seem to aim to prevent citizens there from sharing the despair that has driven Tunisians to such extremes. We have to wish the Saudis well and hope that they succeed in redirecting their national development policies to a more sustainable path, which could trigger similar needed changes in other Arab states. We will only know in a few years if the Saudi plan will succeed. The key, as everywhere else in the world, will be the extent to which ordinary Saudis roll up their sleeves, use their minds energetically, and get to work with the government in generating wealth from their human ingenuity and passions, to complement what serendipity and geology put under their topsoil.

The Egyptian and American-Syrian developments are two things at once. They are a major reason why Arab development has remained stunted, and they are also a consequence of that tragic cycle that necessitates military action on a regular basis, while we know better than ever that warfare and domestic autocracy do not bring calm, but rather they aggravate national well-being if they persist as long-term strategies.

This Monday in Egypt, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and the United States and Syria could well be used as a benchmark by future generations who will look back one day and wonder what it was in late April 2016 that finally sparked either the Arab world’s dramatic move towards sustainable, productive growth and national development, or its self-induced ultimate slide into incoherence and catastrophic implosion.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2016 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global