This past weekend marked 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 the Islamic State. 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).
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 the Islamic State. They also insisted more inclusive governments were a must in the post-Arab Spring era in order to avoid more turmoil.
“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,” said Mahmoud Jibril, a former interim prime minister in Libya.
Thousands of young people can’t find jobs, he said, so “they find Daesh (Islamic State) or al-Qaida, who offer lucrative jobs and paradise, even paradise on Earth. You cannot beat this offer.”
“What we need is a new Arab mind-set to deal with the challenges of the 21st century,” the Libyan insisted.
Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi said a victory over the Islamic State in Iraq required a political component as much as or more than military efforts. Referring to alienated Sunnis who have tolerated or even supported the group 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.”
In other words, so long as Sunnis felt like second-class citizens, they would prefer to be ruled by the Islamic State rather than by the Iraqi state.
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-Sissi 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.”
“No one can monopolize the truth,” he added.
Of course, it’s easier to debate at Davos than to implement these reforms in Arab countries. El-Sissi 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.
In the end, the Arab comments at Davos I found most trenchant came from a Libyan Islamic scholar and ambassador named Aref Ali Nayed. When the young Arab Spring rebels took to the streets, he said, these youthful democrats put forward no clear vision that could compete with the Islamist political model.
“The role of elites,” Nayed said, “is to develop a model for those young people” – an inclusive system that offers hope for a better political and economic future.
Of course, this also requires Arab leaders who are willing and able to implement such a model – and who have sufficient credibility with their own people. Otherwise, Nayed said, these revolts are “just a shot in the air.”
Rubin’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.