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Slowly But Surely—Looking beyond the winter of Arab Spring

Slowly But Surely—Looking beyond the winter of Arab Spring

The real Arab Spring will arrive but we have to go through at least one bout of winter, economist and author Dr Marwan Iskandar tells Atique Naqvi.

August 23, 2011 3:36 by

Marwan Iskandar is a distinguished economist and author of widely acclaimed books such as “Rafiq Hariri and the Fate of Lebanon,” “The Cloud Over Kuwait” and “The Arab Oil Question,” among others.

What led to the latest developments in the Middle East, which is now termed the Arab Spring?

The reason is pure and simple. Like people in any country of the world, who have been exposed to the same kind of government or governance for the past 30 to 35 years would become tired of such system and this has been the case with the Arab countries where we saw no change in the main political figures and power structure. There were a limited section of people that were the beneficiary of such a system, and this kind of rule is no longer sustainable. As a result, people all of a sudden erupted and said they had enough and wanted change. There were demands from the people for a government, where human rights are preserved and where nobody has a claim on power single handedly.

Summing up the Arab economies, the UNDP, WEF and other global bodies have complained about too much interference from governments, a lack of competitiveness and entrepreneurs. Do you think this will change?

It could improve with the democratic governments, provided the right of private property and protection of entrepreneurship are guaranteed by the law. A democratic system would necessarily have a legal system that is well developed and judicious. The economic change would depend on top government officials and people close to the state officials letting the market and entrepreneurs benefit from the new system of governance. Transforming the government into a more elaborate democratic status would certainly make possible that economy functions better, but it will not happen in the short term. In the near future, we’d see a lot of havoc in the process of delivering justice and there will be a lot of pull and push for power among several groups. So far we have seen some changes through transformation of power, but we don’t see democracy in full bloom in the countries that have witnessed the change, particularly in Egypt and Tunisia.

Do you think the current turmoil would give birth to a new Arab world?

I think a new Arab horizon would depend on the broader education scenario in the rest of the Arab world. The region has not changed significantly in terms of governance. The nourishment and cultivation of democratic values will take some time. However, a greater measure of freedom has come about since the two dictators have been removed. However, we are far away from a situation where freedom and education is encouraged. We are distant from achieving democracy and we won’t see cultural advancement and true values of democracy in the region before 2050, at best.

What lessons should countries in the Arab region draw from this revolution?

Drawing lessons and changes will be a very gradual process. If you take Syria and what is going on in that country, there has been absolutely no change in the brutality with which the demonstrators have been treated, and there have been more deaths every day. Now take the case of Jordan, where there have been some adjustments. When the discontent regarding the regime was expressed, the tribal leaders came together and put forward a scenario of free election saying that the Palestinians would end up ruling the country if free elections were conducted because they are in a majority. The leaders asked Jordanians if this is what they wanted. With this reasoning they were successful in calming the demonstrators.

The one country in the region where the efforts of improvement are badly needed is Saudi Arabia, but the change there has to be by nature and by religion, and it will be very slow. We now know that Saudi women have been admitted to the consultative councils and young men and women are being admitted to high profile universities.

There has been some pressure on the king of Saudi Arabia to bring about change but let’s remember that he is very old. We should not forget that the country, which has been very conservative in nature, could only advance very slowly with the right kind of leadership. Now the country where this experiment and liberalisation and strengthening of the democratic institutions can be tested is Iraq. It has greater oil wealth than Saudi Arabia, has a high number of educated people and it has suffered years and years of degradation of infrastructure and governing system.

This is Iraq’s chance to prove its mettle. In the 1960s, Iraq had the highest number of educated people in the whole Arab world, including Lebanon where they are quite proud about their education levels. Iraq could be the star of the Arab world by 2020 onwards.


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