Guide to reform the Mideast?

April 28, 2011 - 0:0

Four months after the Arab uprisings began, Tunisia and Egypt are struggling to build new institutions acceptable to their impatient citizens, Libya has embroiled Western democracies in conflict, and other nations such as Syria and Yemen are resisting wide-ranging reform.

Following the inconclusive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s important that change in the Middle East and North Africa, MENA, is handled in an effective way. The MENA rebellions offer an opportunity to re-examine what exactly is needed to create strong democracy and good governance.
In 2005, two years after the Iraq invasion, then U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice gave a speech in Cairo that suggested a reversal in a long-held U.S. policy of backing dictatorships. “For 60 years, my country, the USA, pursued stability at the expense of democracy, and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.”
Six years on, as MENA unglues, there’s little evidence of substantive attempts at reform other than the already-established violent regime changes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even now, despite America’s deep strategic interest, no details have been laid out as to how peacefully change should be achieved in MENA. This patchy record is a far cry from the successful emergence of democracy under U.S. protection in East Asia where Japan, Taiwan and South Korea have transformed from war-ruined countries to advanced industrialized democracies. The Philippines, Indonesia and others gradually and assuredly tread in a similar direction.
America’s success in East Asia lay in the need to counter the expansion of communism, following failure in Vietnam. It should now take note of the uncertain outcomes in Afghanistan and Iraq to draw up fresh policy to counter violent Islamic extremism in MENA with the same patience and concentration that it offered to East Asia.
East Asia’s dictatorships were not shifted overnight. They were unpleasant regimes and some remain. The region blends emerging democracy with waning authoritarianism. It shares a prioritized common ground of wealth creation – designing institutions to encourage trade and raise standards of living. Its experience is raw and ongoing, and the lesson it gives us is that building democracy takes decades, not months. But it can succeed.
The East Asian experience would counter, for example, long-held views shared by many in Washington and Cairo that the policies of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood are too polarizing for the democratic process.
Learning much from Indonesia
Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and others could learn much from Indonesia on the need to separate the military from business and politics. The Indonesian military’s automatic right to hold 20 percent of the legislative seats ended in 2004. Its political influence remains, but is weakening.
In Egypt, the military, too, is deeply involved in business, particularly in the water, olive oil, cement, construction and energy industries. Yet for both countries to reform fully and attract investment, these industries must be free of military control and open to independent auditing. Indonesia gradually moves along this path.
The countries of MENA could also learn from trade-obsessed Taiwan and South Korea, for peacefully and painstakingly working out details for creating wealth, raising taxes, writing property law, building roads, schools and hospitals and making citizens stakeholders in their societies so that electoral changes of governments have become a routine part of life.
To achieve stability and reform, emerging political parties in Taiwan and South Korea had to write manifestos to sell policies such as on rule-of-law, corruption and property rights to their citizens and the wider world.
MENA’s opposition groups must do the same – and need to be aware that forcing out a dictator, demanding democracy and calling for air strikes and Western aid are not enough. They must plan beyond taking power to good governance – mapping out the minutiae of school curricula, tax rates and health care. Publishing manifestos would do the vital job of intellectually testing detail.
Like East Asia, MENA must attach itself to regional and global institutions that encourage compromise, curb extremism, dilute violent nationalism and solidify shared goals.
Such integration would allow the region’s new leaders to embrace the exchange of trade and ideas, strengthen national institutions, and override longstanding sectarian and religious issues.
To succeed, however, the U.S. and its allies must think through how aid and advice is delivered and acknowledge that the Iraq and Afghanistan models have not worked well.
And the leaders of MENA uprisings must explain to their citizens the art of compromise.
Like it or not, the United States will remain the leading global power for the foreseeable future. MENA needs to find the same beneficial balance between retaining control and accepting help. In 1951, as Europe smoldered in the ruins of the Second World War, former enemies France and Germany signed the trade-based European Coal and Steel Community Treaty, which led to the founding of the EU.
In 1989, the EU acted as the engine of reform for the collapsed Eastern bloc.
In 1967, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand founded the Association of South East Asian Nations with the focus on economic growth and social progress. ASEAN is now a cohesive institution that creates wealth and prevents conflict and includes former enemies such as Vietnam and Cambodia as members.
The aspirations of the MENA uprising are universal, as were those that drove the American War of Independence and the collapse of the Berlin Wall – the quest for representation within government.
As East Asia endured dreadful wars in the 1970s, many claimed that Asian societies were not suited for democracy. This proved to be nonsense, just as similar claims will prove to be in North Africa and the Middle East.
Humphrey Hawksley is a BBC world affairs correspondent
(Source: World View