Protest poster in Cairo: “$ 70 billion is the wealth of Mubarak’s family: Mubarak $ 36 billion, Suzanne $ 5 billion, Alaa $12 billion, Gamal $17 billion“
These days, historical comparisons are made generously. Observers are equating popular movements in the Arab world with the French Revolution and the Fall of the Berlin Wall. Indeed, a political tsunami is engulfing major parts of the Arab world. It started in Tunisia. Where events will lead to remains to be seen. The best-case scenario is the long-term democratisation of North Africa.
The sheer force of the largely un-coordinated revolutions has surprised everyone. It proved an old prejudice, which was often even articulated in anthropological terms, wrong. Arabs are not incompatible with democracy. The masses’ call for democracy, human rights and economic opportunities was identical in all countries concerned even though the social and political reality differs massively from place to place.
This recent Arab awakening has done away with another stereotype, moreover. Let’s hope we will never be told again that dictators guarantee stability. Real stability hinges on the democratic legitimacy of those in power. After Tunis and Cairo, after Sanaa and Tripoli, realistic political leaders must never again bank on cleptocratic autocrats. They must support democrats.
For far too long, western governments have fallen for the propaganda of Arab countries’ despotic leaders. We were told that the likes of Mubarak and Ben Ali were the only alternative to dangerous Muslim fundamentalism. To date, the west’s idea of political Islam is shaped by this distorting and destructive dichotomy. Yes, political Islam is a force to be reckoned with in the Arab world. But we need a more nuanced assessment of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, for instance. It is not a monolithic block. Within the Brotherhood, a young, democratically minded generation is struggling with the old, dogmatic guard.
It does not help to refuse to enter into dialogue with people like this. Those who always warn of fundamentalist dangers wherever the Muslim Brotherhood or another Islamist outfit comes into the picture, have still not told us how to deal with such organisations on a democratic footing. The real challenge, not only in Egypt, but all over the Arab world is to build political orders that guarantee freedom to all faiths – as well as tolerance and pluralism – in deeply religious societies.
Yes, it is a daunting task to foster a culture of democracy after decades of dictatorship. A lot needs to be done, just consider political parties, elections, separate branches of government, an independent judiciary, respect for human rights and related matters. It is relatively easy to draft constitutions fast, but it will take years before the people begin to really feel at home in their new democratic environments.
Let’s not forget the serious socio-economic problems either. The euphoria of revolution is likely to soon give way to a sense of frustration once people realise that their new-won freedom does not provide them with higher standards of living. The donor community will have to step in. Today, Arabs do not want to hear lectures about how to run their countries in the future. They want tangible support in order to become able to rely on themselves.
At the moment, there is a lot of talk about Europe joining in a “transformation partnership” with our southern neighbours. To make that happen, Europe needs to re-think. A more generous policy on visas and work permits for young Arabs is the order of the day. This would be a win-win approach, as young people from overpopulated countries move to Europe’s ageing societies. Another tangible step – one that should have been taken long ago – would be to finally open EU markets to imports from North Africa and to cut the subsidies for the respective goods from Europe. Farmers in Europe may not like this prescription, but Europeans should add some substance to their common pledge of solidarity with Arab revolutionaries.