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Will the Arab Spring go the way the West wants?

Leaders of the Group of Eight wealthiest industrialized nations pledged over the last weekend to help Egypt and Tunisia with billions of dollars in aid, fearing that economic stagnation could undermine the transition to democracy. A joint communique produced by the G8 meeting promised $20 billion, but the breakdown on how much each of the eight countries will provide is not yet known. The G8 comprises the United States, Japan, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy and Russia, and international organizations including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the European Investment Bank.

Another unknown is how effective this aid will be in the volatile political transition in these two countries, given that the move towards democracy and democratic institutions is not exactly in place. Indeed, the best technocratic minds in the world cannot come up with a blueprint for post-conflict reconstruction and institution building if the local context is not understood. There is a concern that instability could undermine the process of political reform, or that the move towards democracy could be hijacked by Islamic radicals.

Unlike the shift toward democracy in Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there is no guarantee that the “Arab Spring” will progress in a similar direction.

At their latest meeting, the G-8 leaders argued that democracy could be rooted only in economic reforms that create open markets, equal opportunities and jobs - to lower staggeringly high unemployment rates, especially among restless young people. Easier said than done, of course. Regardless, the $20 billion pledge should not be treated as a blank check but as a sort of installment payment for suitable reform efforts.

Keeping the two countries stable so that the backdrop of democratization is underpinned by economic stability is important. The economies of the Middle East and North Africa have been weak for years, and per capita growth over the past three decades has been only half a per cent, a fraction of the average for emerging economies, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Weak growth and poor job opportunities are among the major factors that prompted the revolt by the young people of Egypt and Tunisia. But there is no guarantee that the outcome will go the way that Western countries would wish. Many in the West have tried over and over to mould developing countries after themselves, but the outcomes have sometimes been disastrous. It is thus important to understand local aspirations and competing ideas.

The G8 communique also made reference to Iranian protesters, more and more of whom are braving the brutality of the security forces to take to the streets to express their anger at their rulers. A previous generation of Iranians came out in force to kick the Shah out, but ended up with radical Islamists as the new rulers of the country. There is concern among the G8 that the outcome for the Arab Spring will be the same ― that the extreme Islamists will hijack the process.

It is important that we don’t lose sight of the fact that the Arab Spring is not driven by people who share the same view of the world as Osama bin Laden. But this doesn’t mean that they will not throw their support behind an Islamist party like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Moreover, it doesn’t mean that the Muslim Brotherhood can’t and won’t work with secular parties.

In the mid-1960s, Arab nationalists and Islamists worked together to overthrow corrupt regimes. They were brutally suppressed by their respective governments and the Islamists responded by taking an even more uncompromising position. Besides rejecting Western values and notions such as communism, socialism and Western-style democracy, the Islamists broke away from the pan-Arab movement. Some chose to carry out terrorist attacks against their governments, and later Western targets. Others remained in the social and political realm and used local systems to get elected to office.

Today, the upheaval on Arab streets is giving Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood an entry point. Deals are being made with the pro-democracy movement, and we shouldn’t be surprised if they are able to come up with win-win solutions for both sides.

In the end the West will have to come to terms with the views and deep-seated mistrust of Islamists towards the West, and ask the question: Are we willing to work with everyone in a new Arab world that may very well have a place for the Islamists? 

Editorial, The Nation (Thailand)

(Asia News Network)