By Gerald Butt
By Gerald Butt
November 1, 2011
Historians will categorise 2011 as the year when the Arabs’ patience finally snapped. After decades of meekly accepting oppressive, dictatorial rule, they took to the streets to demand change.
But Arabs will be required to find new and deeper reserves of patience as they wait for the real results of the revolutions to appear.
Removing a dictator and holding free elections is one thing. Changing long-solidified attitudes and traditions is something else.
Putting corrupt rulers and their associates on trial is not the same as rooting out the culture of corruption that exists throughout a society.
Nor does a change in the system of government mean that an instant solution will appear to remove the economic woes that contributed to the momentum of the Arab Spring in the first place.
For most of 2011, the economies of six Arab countries – Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain – have been damaged to a greater or lesser extent by the disruptions to daily business, a sharp fall in tourism and a drop in investor confidence. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) says that all these states face an economic downturn this year.
The experiences of Tunisia and Egypt show, too, that foreign investors will not be willing to part with money until they are convinced that the new political systems to emerge from the revolutions guarantee stability. That could be a long process.
Economic disruption has also caused a rise in youth unemployment, already averaging around 25% in many Arab countries.
Persuading young people to be patient a little longer – that jobs and prosperity may be on the horizon, but not yet within their grasp – will not be easy.
The post-revolution governments will have to tackle the jobless problem as a priority: no other issue is more likely to spark a second round of revolutions in the years ahead.
But yet more patience still will be needed for the gradual change of attitude and outlook in societies that for decades have lived in the straitjackets of dictatorial rule.
The elections to new constituent assemblies and parliaments, and the free choice of presidents at the ballot box are no guarantees of long-term democracy if independent monitoring bodies are not in place.
In Iraq, for example, critics of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki accuse him of adopting a presidential style of leadership, against the background of political paralysis and sectarian strife.
Until civil society in its broadest sense has deep roots in countries like Iraq, Libya and Syria, places that have known none, then the future will be precarious.
The most daunting prospect for the post-Arab Spring Middle East is that none of these changes to society is likely to reach maturity until there is a profound shake-up in the education system, from the bottom upwards.
Many years will be needed until the results of such a process start to appear.
But without the start of a movement to revitalise education, the long-term prospects for the region will remain bleak.
Tough political decisions are needed today – if the achievements of the Arab Spring are not to be frittered away in the years ahead.
Education needs investment at many levels – to modernise syllabuses, to move away from rote learning methods, to improve teacher training, to repair the fabric of schools and colleges, and much more.
Western institutions considering investment in countries emerging from the Arab Spring will be drawn less towards education and more towards the energy sector and other potentially lucrative areas.
But long-term stability can only be achieved through a commitment to reforming the learning process. Education is already an overlooked victim of the unrest.
In states affected by popular revolution, schools and universities are, at best, limping back into action in this new academic year.
In Egypt, economic hardship is forcing thousands of families to take children out of school so they can help to eke out a living, while political unrest is continuing to disrupt university life.
In neighbouring Libya, education has been severely handicapped since the start of the anti-Gaddafi revolt and will not resume properly until stability returns.
In Yemen, most schools and universities have been closed for months either due to security issues or because of shortages of fuel and other essentials.
In Syria, too, classes have been subject to frequent closure because of the anti-government protests and the authorities’ reaction to them.
Young Arabs can ill afford such interruptions to their studies.
A UN report two years ago spoke of “grave concerns over the state of education in the Arab world” – a region where one third of the adult population is unable to read and write and close to “nine million primary school-aged children do not attend school”.
Since that report was written, the picture has become even bleaker.
Arabs across the region have shown that they have a capacity for patience. But they have now also discovered a new self-confidence that, in all likelihood, will mean that they will be less patient in the future.
The leaders of the new Arab world would do well to take heed of this fact.
Gerald Butt is the editor of MENA Prospect – a weekly briefing paper on the Middle East for the energy industry.