Support Democracy, Development and Hope in the Arab World

The tragedy that is unfolding and deepening every day in the Arab world is one of the worst catastrophes of recent history. Sectarian strife, thousands killed every month, violations of human rights and of the laws of war, and social fragmentation: from Iraq to Egypt, from Yemen to Syria, each day seems worse than the last. Having worked for decades in various capacities with many Arab colleagues, having visited their lands, listened to their music familiar to a Turkish ear, shared meals, jokes, memories, anxiety, food and hope for the future, I know that democracy, including free elections, but also individual human rights, the separation of powers and equality of all before the law, is the deepest wish of Arab citizens, even if these aspirations are not always expressed with the exact words used in the West.

 As an economist I also firmly believe that inclusive economic development can only be realized in Arab countries if the road to democracy is firmly established and if modern institutions of political and economic governance support and regulate dynamic market economies that learn how to use globalization to their benefit.

When Barack Obama became President of the United States, many in the region believed that America would finally translate the language of support it tends to use for Arab democracy into more concrete policies. President Obama’s Cairo speech in 2009 was received with enthusiasm by the young generation in particular.

There have been many disappointments since those early days. But one is left speechless in early 2014, when the US administration not only sells 10 Apache helicopters to the Egyptian military but now wants to follow that by providing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of military support to a regime which just condemned more than a thousand prisoners to death, in a clear show of collective punishment, as part of massive repression against dissent of any kind. It is to Senator Patrick J. Leahy’s honor that he is trying to stop this sale in the Senate.

One need not be a sympathizer of the Muslim Brotherhood to decry the new authoritarianism on display in Egypt. It is interesting to note, for example, that the Turkish Parliament, including the very secular main opposition party as initiator, sent a unanimous message to the Egyptian regime to reverse the collective death sentences. Should Americans do less? Egypt is, and has always been, the heart, the most influential center of the Arab world.  In the medium term, as goes Egypt, so will the Arab world at large. Who in the region will be able to take seriously American professions of support for democracy, if a return to authoritarianism worse than what it was under the Mubarak regime, benefits from open and strong “de facto” American support?  The policy of first appearing to offer support to the Muslim Brotherhood government without sufficiently clear American “red lines” concerning their own undemocratic behavior, and now support for the new authoritarianism, has been a disaster.

The long run enlightened interests of the American people and the Arab people are the same: an eastern Mediterranean region and North Africa where democracy has progressed, as it has, for example in Latin America over the last two decades. A region that uses its considerable wealth to raise living standards in an inclusive way; a region that creates employment for its young people by trading industrial goods and services with the rest of the world, not just oil and arms. A region at peace because it focuses on the future and shared prosperity, a region where dictators can no longer use foreign enemies as scapegoats for their own shortcomings.

This is what the United States and Europe should stand for, with no ifs and buts. This is what is worth supporting. It is sad to see that misguided, very short term tactical considerations and the interests of arms merchants, again, as they have in the past, prevent a long term strategy that would truly help the millions suffering in the Arab world while making the United States a trusted partner for the long run.