last three years, a bewildered world has watched the countdown to the UK’s
departure from the European Union, better known as Brexit.
EU will likely affect the British economy severely. Yet, from an Arab
perspective, the UK’s prolonged Brexit debate is not a sign of political
contrary, only a country with the UK’s deeply embedded political maturity could
even hope to withstand such a vast rupture in legal, commercial, and even
social relationships that have been built up over the last half-century.
world, by contrast, has witnessed at least one big Brexit-like event every
decade since 1948 – and these political, economic, and social ruptures never
seem to heal.
such episode was the establishment of Israel and the resulting Palestinian
“Brexit” from the territory that became the Jewish state. Much of historic Palestine
was abandoned, and its people were destined to live in refugee camps for
decades to come. An entire Arab economy disappeared, and Israel was boycotted
by its Arab neighbours.
1952 until 1970, Egypt under President Gamal Abdel Nasser embarked on an
economic nationalisation experiment that championed import substitution and
greatly weakened the country’s commercial ties to the rest of the region. And
when Nasser’s successor Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979,
Arab countries punished Egypt with an economic and political boycott.
same period, several other leading Arab states, including Iraq, Syria, Libya,
and Algeria, were inspired by the Soviet economic model and restricted
private-sector trade and investment.
15 republics that made up the Soviet Union, the Arab world’s Soviet-inspired
regimes did not trade among themselves; in fact, some, like Iraq and Syria,
boycotted each other.
Arab world’s political economy was not breaking down or heading toward autarky,
geopolitics inflicted further damage.
Iraqi troops invaded and occupied Kuwait, at the time the Arab world’s most
dynamic economy, depriving the country of its sovereignty. Iraq was put under
international sanctions as a result, and US-led forces subsequently liberated
Kuwait. And, of course, in 2003 a US-led coalition invaded and occupied Iraq, a
decision that plunged the regional order into turmoil and continues to affect
Arab Spring from 2010 to 2016, the region experienced an accelerated chain of
Brexit-like events as protesters in several countries (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya,
Syria, Yemen, and, eventually, Iraq) sought freedom from regimes that many
political tensions elsewhere closed the Algerian-Moroccan border to business,
severed commercial links between Qatar and several Gulf countries, and isolated
“Brexits” come with little warning, negotiation, parliamentary deliberation, or
media debate, and usually persist for decades. But the impact of these
self-inflicted economic disasters is now painfully evident.
ongoing street protests, strikes, and violence in several Arab countries
suggest that a moment of reckoning may have arrived. This unrest could unleash
an Arab Spring 2.0, this time focused, one hopes, on prosperity rather than
certainly seems to be the message in Baghdad, Beirut, and other cities around
the region, where protesters are calling for politicians to step back and let
technocrats take the lead.
may be naive to expect policy experts to behave better than professional
politicians, Arabs are fed up with opaque political systems in which they have
little if any influence over decisions affecting their lives.
Spring 2.0 should therefore ignite a debate about the sort of economic future
citizens want, how they interact with their own governments, and their
countries’ relations with neighbours. In short, after decades of their own
dead-end Brexits, Arabs need to discuss the same issues that British voters
have been addressing since the June 2016 referendum.
opening up the policymaking process to society-wide debate and advocacy.
Broader engagement with the region’s home-grown technocratic talent may produce
much-needed policy innovators.
the Arab world currently lacks strong and active think tank-like institutions
that galvanise experts’ advocacy (like those who have shaped the fates of other
countries during severe crises) that need not always be the case. After all,
policy engagement is not just about elections and representation, but also
about careful analysis and informed advocacy.
Republic, Plato writes that, “There can be no good government until
philosophers are kings and the kings, philosophers.”
At the same
time, there is of course no guarantee that Arab technocrats won’t turn into
ruthless politicians themselves. Both Hitler and Stalin, for example,
manipulated science to justify major social engineering projects that killed
millions of people.
some effort to depoliticise public policymaking and put social engagement
before political enforcement, more Arab Brexits, and continued economic
malaise, are a certainty. Protesters in Baghdad, Beirut, and elsewhere are
calling for participatory politics and open debate. Their call must not go
Sami Mahroum is director of Strategy and Research
at the Dubai Future Foundation and non-resident fellow at The Lisbon Council.
He is the author of “Black Swan Start-ups: Understanding the Rise of Successful
Technology Business in Unlikely Places”. © Project Syndicate 2019.
Headline: The Arab world needs a Brexit debate
Source: Free Malaysia Today