Onward Arab Spring: The revolution can succeed if the elites get out of the way and leave it to the dot.com generation

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On Al Jazeera TV in 2005, I spoke about how helpless and reactive the Arab people were and the sense of capitulation and impotency that characterized the Arab world at that time. My argument was that the future of the Arab world would be shaped by the dot.com generation. My prediction is now in the process of coming true, but it is meeting with some understandable obstacles. Let me explain.

The traditional socialization process in the Middle East has been built on a completely different foundation from that in America. In Arab families, children have been taught to obey the father as the final authority -- "Do this! Don't do that!" When kids start school, teachers with large sticks tell them to memorize what they hear without even thinking. Then they move to religious institutes and must repeat what the sheik in the mosque says, also without thinking. The media have been devoted entirely to supporting the rulers.

Older people in the Arab world were brought up as robots. They learned to say "yes" and not how to say "no." But because of globalization and the explosion of the information age, the control of the state has diminished. Ideology and national flags mean little to young people connected to a bigger picture through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and satellite TV -- all of which have more influence over them than family, school, mosque or national government. These young generations have become more daring, more capable of saying no, more willing to take the initiative. They're much bigger dreamers than we were, and they are risk-takers. So their expectations have grown.

The Arab nation-state has been a failure in delivering economic and social progress. Non-oil-producing countries depend mainly on grants and loans from Western Europe or the United States, which means they've had feeble economies unable to satisfy the needs of wave after wave of ever-growing generations.

The population in the Arab world today approaches 400 million, with about 67 percent of its people under the age of 40 and looking for jobs. The unemployment rate in Libya during the February 2011 uprising was more than 53 percent. For university graduates, the unemployment rate is even higher in the other four Arab Spring countries -- Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Syria. As a result, poverty has spread -- no jobs, no housing, no hope of building a family.

When a young man in Tunisia immolated himself, it triggered the Arab Spring, which rapidly unfolded on a scale unprecedented in the history of the Middle East. The coup d'etat was the preferred method of regime change.

Unfortunately, this unique Arab Spring phenomenon has been misunderstood by three intimately concerned parties.

First, the dictators underestimated what was happening and have paid a heavy price.

Second, our foreign friends in Western Europe and the United States thought the Arab Spring was a replication of the past, a temporary rising of the "Arab street," so they approached the elites to stabilize the situation. This was and remains the wrong approach.

Then there are the Arab elites themselves, those like myself, who didn't realize that this new phenomenon was a creation of today's younger generations. These rebels have no leadership because they communicate through Facebook and don't really know one another -- they just meet in squares. They have no preset agenda and don't agree on a given set of priorities or objectives. They want a "dignified life" and "freedom"-- no more than that. They just want to live like most of humanity.

As opportunistic members of the elite, we thought that we could jump on board the revolution and lead our nations toward the future. But elite leaders have been rejected, and the instability certainly will continue as long as the real stakeholders, the real owners of the Arab Spring, remain out of power.

So, we'd all better rethink the meaning of the Arab Spring: It represents a sea change in leadership.

Consider Libya. As the Gadhafi regime came to an end last year, there we were, with a huge land mass, a relatively small population of 6.3 million and vast amounts of oil money, but most people were leading 1950s "Back to the Future" day-to-day lives.

Still, Libya has everything necessary for unprecedented economic development in the region. It has a remarkably diverse environment for tourism, including a beautiful Mediterranean coastline, unspoiled historic sites, green mountains and a picturesque desert. It has abundant potential renewable energy resources, wind and solar, in addition to its oil reserves. It has highly educated, highly skilled workers -- especially those Libyans who fled because of Gadhafi, including 2,700 Libyan doctors in the United Kingdom alone.

Libya could play a major strategic role in connecting Europe with Africa. By 2050, Europe is expected to have fewer than 72 million people, while Africa will have close to 2 billion, with 300 million young Africans marching north looking for jobs. To sustain its current economic output, Europe will need 110 million skilled workers by 2025. By that time, Libya could be an educational, health care and transformational training hub, turning out young Africans armed with the skills necessary to sustain and grow the European economy.

European leaders must decide now whether they want Libya to be a path for illegal immigration by millions of mostly unskilled Africans or a partner in mutual economic development.

Inside Libya today, all the political forces must gather around one table for a national dialogue, including, as equal partners, those who took up arms and played a major role in liberating the country. There is no other choice. Politically unified, we could start presenting Libya as a model for the Arab world, a place where development and democracy are aligned and work hand in hand.

Some nations in the Middle East are making economic progress but lagging in democratic practices, while others, such as Lebanon and Kuwait, have made some democratic reforms but lag economically. Libya has an opportunity to do both: We can have democracy, and we can have genuinely diverse and forward-looking economic development.

I am proud of the young Libyans who started this revolution and are out on the streets whenever they feel that it is drifting off course. Because of my faith in God and in our young people, I trust that the Libyan march toward democracy will be a peaceful and prosperous one.


Mahmoud Jibril, who earned master's and Ph.D. degrees in political science from the University of Pittsburgh, is president of Libya's National Forces Alliance and a former prime minister of Libya who played a leading role in the nation's 2011 revolution. This article is adapted from a lecture Mr. Jibril delivered at Pitt on Oct. 31.


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