This weekend marks the fourth anniversary of Egypt’s Tahrir Square uprising, which became the hallmark of the Arab Spring.
As though to mock those long-dead hopes, Yemen and Libya have collapsed, Syria lies in ruins, and much of Syria and Iraq are occupied by ISIS. Several youthful leaders of the Jan. 25, 2011, revolt have been jailed (while the Egyptian leader they ousted, Hosni Mubarak, was just freed from prison). The death last week of Saudi Arabian King Abdullah – whose successor is also old and ill – adds to the turmoil in the region.
Yet, I’ve noticed one small positive sign amid the gloom that permeates the Arab world. Some of its leaders finally grasp that the root of their troubles lies with their own failings, and they can’t simply blame everything on the West.
This unusual level of introspection was evident last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where high-level government and business leaders gather for their famous annual confab. Although Davos panels are often upbeat, many of the senior Arab participants were more self-critical than I ever heard in years of attendance at Davos (this year I listened via live stream).
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They talked in graphic terms of the need to modernize their economies and provide work for their huge youth contingent lest the young fall prey to ISIS. They also insisted more inclusive governments were a must in the post-Arab Spring era in order to avoid more turmoil.
“There is a lack of alignment between (our) national economies and the global economy,” said Mahmoud Jibril, who served as interim prime minister of Libya for 7 1 / 2 months during the Libyan civil war. “Our education system has nothing to do with the 21st century. Our culture and our values have nothing to do with what’s needed for (our) economy to be competitive.”
Thousands of young people can’t find jobs, he said, so “they find Daesh (ISIS) or al-Qaeda, who offer lucrative jobs and paradise, even paradise on Earth. You cannot beat this offer.”
Jibril said he feared the future lay with extremism, given that Daesh recruited from the 15- to 25-year-old cohort and was attracting more and more young professionals because the group had become “fashionable.”
“What we need is a new Arab mind-set to deal with the challenges of the 21st century,” the Libyan insisted. He called for a national dialogue and decentralized government to piece together the fragments of Libya. Otherwise, he said, extremism will continue to spread.
Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi said a victory over ISIS in Iraq required a political component as much as or more than military efforts. Referring to alienated Sunnis who have tolerated or even supported ISIS as protection against a Shiite-led government, he said bluntly: “If you don’t get (Sunnis) to buy in, then no matter what gains you make on the military side, you can’t win.”
Besides demands for reform of governance and education, there were also calls to reform religious discourse within Islam.
Most striking, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi reprised his much-noted New Year’s Day speech at Al Azar University, a center of Islamic learning. “We as Muslims must seek reform,” he said at Davos, “so we do not allow a minority to distort our past, jeopardize our present, and threaten our future on the basis of a mistaken interpretation or inadequate understanding of our religion.”
He called for a change in religious discourse to “remove things that have led to extremism” and to adapt that discourse to the present. This, he said, had nothing to do with beliefs, but with the need to “remove some of the misconceptions.”
Of course, it’s easier to debate at Davos than to implement these reforms in Arab countries. Sisi is on the right track, but changing the region’s religious discourse is a mammoth task, especially as Saudi and Gulf Arab money continues to fund Arab schools, mosques, and cable channels that promote intolerant Islam.
As for inclusive governance, secular centrists such as Allawi and Jibril lack the clout to offset sectarian forces. Yet the fact that this debate is now on the public agenda represents progress.