CAIRO – The Middle East, and especially the Arab world, is experiencing a period of fundamental change and even more fundamental challenges. But the region’s ability to meet the many challenges that it faces has been complicated by national, regional, and international disagreements about what form change – both across the region and in individual societies – should take.
The international community undoubtedly has a central role to play in supporting social and economic reform in the region, and in assisting governments to find both the will and the way to undertake the necessary changes. But it is far more important that Arabs themselves adopt a forward-looking perspective in reckoning with the challenges that they face, and that they take charge of their own destiny.
That much became clear with the Arab Spring revolts in 2011. Even though the region was already being transformed by demographic changes, including rapid population growth, urbanization, and a spike in unemployed, university-educated young adults, the eruption of protests took many Middle Eastern and North African countries by surprise. Arab youths were a major force behind demands for change. So, too, were new digital technologies that freed up information and facilitated communication among ordinary citizens, essentially dismantling the monopolies that many governments held on knowledge and connectivity.
But the greatest reasons for disruption have been rooted in the inability of Arab governments and societies to manage effectively the changes sweeping the region, and their excessive dependence on foreign countries to ensure their security. Many governments, having grown sclerotic and rigid, were quickly outpaced by social and geopolitical forces beyond their control, and have proved unable or unwilling to adapt to any trend challenging the status quo. This also reflects the fact that central features in many governments’ domestic and regional agendas are not even of their own making, but were imposed from outside the region.
To move to a more effective, proactive form of governance, Middle Eastern countries need to create a space for genuine politics and civil-society initiatives that redistribute power and foster cooperation. The region is facing problems that are simply too complex and deep-rooted to be addressed with isolated, top-down solutions. The creativity within Arab societies must be tapped. Some countries will need economic and social support to create the necessary domestic conditions, while others will need to address outstanding geopolitical issues.
Consider Tunisia, which many people outside the Middle East see as one of the region’s greatest recent success stories. To be sure, political factions in Tunisia have set a good example by often compromising with one another in order to create a viable governance structure; but domestic social and sectarian grievances are still very much a part of Tunisian politics. The Tunisian government must tread carefully, and it cannot assume that all of its citizens are satisfied with the new arrangements.
Creating the space for national, municipal, and even tribal leaders to engage politically is especially important for the region’s more unstable countries, which must, as a first step, limit the availability of weapons that can be used to challenge the authority of legitimate governments. For example, establishing a functioning government in Libya will require international assistance, including a joint force comprising the United Nations, the Arab League, and the African Union, as well as an arrangement among Algeria, Egypt, and Tunisia to monitor and control borders and maritime access.
Egypt is undergoing its own fundamental sociopolitical transformation. Lacking a culture of political compromise, the breakdown of central authority in 2011 was not surprising. Egypt now must restore a broad, constitution-based consensus on the fundamental economic and social rules of the game, which will require all stakeholders in government and civil society to demonstrate a real willingness to reach agreements that account for the legitimate needs of everyone. To help things along, Egyptians should seek ways to use new technologies to include all constituencies in the debates that must shape this process.
Syria – which has become a true humanitarian disaster, with no end in sight – poses the most severe test of the region’s ability to compromise and reconcile. Because the conflict is so complex, it will allow no clear military victor. Not even the great powers that are now involved there, the United States and Russia, can manage the transition to peace alone.
Of course, the US and Russia will be indispensable to guide the reshaping of the political and military landscape, through sanctions, military force, or the power of political persuasion. But any viable and lasting peace in Syria will require the cooperation of a large number of actors. Specifically, it will require a multidimensional bargain: between the US and Russia; among Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia and Iran; and between the Syrian opposition and supporters of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The need for broad cooperation is apparent across the region, where problems are deep-seated and, therefore, cannot be resolved with simple, quick fixes. Dynamic, peaceful societies will never emerge across the Middle East unless all of their citizens embrace the lost art of compromise and embark on a consensual process of nation building. This will undoubtedly take time and patience, and it will require governments to determine their own destiny and deter regional adventurism by some Arab states.
To help the region meet the myriad challenges it faces, the international community should pursue a three-pronged approach: first by strengthening Middle Eastern countries’ governing institutions and putting them on a path toward self-sufficiency; second, by committing unconditionally to preserve and respect the region’s nation-state system; and third, by launching a concerted effort to end the violence in the region and create the conditions for new political processes to get off the ground.
Bloodshed, division, and hopelessness sow the seeds for terrorism and extremism. Consensus building, compromise, and cooperation within and among Middle Eastern and Arab societies must be the watchwords for banishing those destructive forces from our lives.
Nabil Fahmy, a former foreign minister of Egypt and former Egyptian ambassador to the US and Japan, is Professor at the American University in Cairo (AUC).
By Nabil Fahmy