The Arab world has been engulfed by mass outrage and popular unrest spurred by long-term economic and political frustration. Demonstrations that brought down the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt have sparked mass protests that have spread to Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and beyond. These protests continue to grow and are unlike anything seen in decades.

At an event hosted by Carnegie Europe, Carnegie’s Marwan Muasher, former foreign minister and deputy prime minister of Jordan, discussed the latest developments and their implications for the Arab world. He was joined by Steven Erlanger, Paris bureau chief for the New York Times. Carnegie’s Sinan Ülgen moderated.

Arab Youth Frustration

  • Youth Bulge: Erlanger stressed that one must consider the Arab world’s demographic bulge to truly understand the difficult environment Arab youths face. Sixty-five percent of the population of the Arab world is under thirty.
  • Unemployment: The unemployment rate in Egypt is almost ten times as high for college graduates as for those with only an elementary education, Erlanger said. In addition, youth unemployment in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region is 25 percent—the highest in the world. Erlanger added that today’s Arab youth is better-educated and more aware of international events than in the past. They see wealth and freedom among elites around the world and feel angry and betrayed that they do not enjoy the same access.

Lessons from the Regional Revolution

  • Public desire for better governance: While the uprisings may have been triggered by hard economic conditions in the Arab world, the need for government reform is at the heart of the region’s problems, explained Muasher. There is a widespread desire for serious, sustained, and gradual political reform.
  • Failed “bread before freedom” philosophy: Muasher stressed that the policy of economic reform before political reform, or “bread before freedom,” has failed in the Arab world. As the region does not have a strong system of checks and balances, this policy resulted in economic liberalization that only benefitted the ruling elite. The Arab public is now weary of talk of economic liberalization, Muasher said; it sees such economic reforms as tied to past corruption. 
  • Use of Islamic scare tactic: Western and Arab governments alike have used the threat of Islamic parties coming to power as scare tactics, Muasher said. This scenario of Islamists taking over at a sign of weakness from authoritarian regimes has been seriously undermined, Muasher said, given that the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were neither led nor hijacked by Islamists. Islamists in Egypt acted very wisely, he concluded, when they announced they would not run a candidate in the presidential election or run for more than 20 percent of the open parliamentary seats in the next election.
  • Political elite’s outdated theory: According to Muasher, the ruling elite traditionally argued against implementing political reform, claiming it would result in instability. A more relaxed philosophy was applied to governance. Now the Arab political community no longer has the luxury of waiting; they must either choose to take a leading role to achieve stability and reform, or leave it to the street.

Peace Process

Muasher argued that lessons from the Arab world’s uprising can also be applied to the peace process. Israel’s democratic credentials in the Arab world have been severely undermined by the support it showed for the Mubarak regime and for the suppression of emerging democracies. Since the international community has shown sympathy for the Arab public’s yearning for freedom, Muasher said, it should expand its support to the Palestinian people, who also yearn for democratic freedom.

How to Usher in Serious Reform

  • Arab world’s role: Muasher argued that reform should entail the evolution of a strong parliament to dilute the powers of an overly strong executive branch and provide more oversight authority. This would be a gradual process, spanning five to ten years. Old policies prioritizing stability over democracy must be abandoned. He added that it is important for any revised constitutions in the Arab world to enshrine the principles of peaceful rotation of power and a commitment to political, cultural, and religious diversity.
  • EU and international community’s role: If Arab countries are not ready to help themselves achieve democracy, there is nothing the international community can do, Muasher said. Erlanger added that, as the EU struggles to find a way to help the region, it must avoid coming across as patronizing. Muasher stressed that once the Arab countries decide it is in their best interest to undergo reform, the EU and the international community can provide financial support to help build institutional capacity for evolving governments. Muasher also noted that the EU could also consider increasing incentives in action plans, such as market access, given that past incentives were not very successful.