When the twenty-six-year-old college graduate, Mohammed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in Tunis, he sparked a revolution that was more than 40 years in the making. Sadly, he did not live to see the change. "Revolutions do not cause change they confirm the change which has already happened," wrote Dr. Don Beck, a complex systems strategist. Typically, this happens more to societies that are already changing, as the raised expectations put pressure on existing leaders and structures, like the geologic tectonic shifts that will rise to the surface during earthquakes.
As a once second generation Arab Nationalist who now works on emergence and geopolitical reform in Arab cultures, I have longed for this day to come. Since the end of colonial rule we in the Middle East have taken several shots at defining ourselves and our nations. We haphazardly embraced Marxism and Socialism, copying ideas that did not fit our cultural values. My generation believed that the road map to democracy in our region should not come from bloodshed but rather from building capacities in Arab people and institutions in the culture. Unfortunately, our political-clannish leaders who were embroiled in the history of the region were not interested in making our vision a reality. We were defeated. Our aspirations were crushed as we left our homeland in droves seeking opportunities in other parts of the world. Those who couldn't leave watched the oppression fester for years as it took the lives and the freedom of hundreds of thousands of people.
For the Arab world, this is just the beginning.
To help shape the newly liberated Middle East, we should look at what type of institutions must be created to harness the dreams of the people demonstrating in the streets and co-design for their emergence. Unfortunately, because of the effects of past repression and the historic absence of democratic institutions, the Arab street lacks the depth of political maturity required to create a full picture of democracy with viable and sustainable institutions. The Arab street never had effective leaders who concerned themselves with building the foundations for democracy. From Nasser to Assad to Saddam Hussein, leadership in the last fifty years in the region has lacked vision and capacity. It has too often relied on the rhetoric of empty promises. These men were leading as paternal leaders with impassioned speeches rather than pragmatists with a developmental road map for their countries.
This revolution is one that is toppling the old patriarchy and has little chance of succeeding if women are not given a voice as an equal partner in society. "Arab women will no doubt change the world" says Dr. Jean Houston, one of the founders of the Human Potential Movement who consults with the UN and advises on our projects in the Middle East.
It has been my experience through numerous projects I start in the Arab world that women emerge as natural leaders, in their community and beyond. They are the power that is moving the Arab world forward, and are creating their own version of feminism that does not look anything like the Western feminist revolution. Theirs is one that empowers their daughters to get the best education and gain the autonomy needed to be a true partner in nation building. In doing so they have been fostering and practicing their own brand of Arab and Islamic feminism that fits the value-systems within their cultures.
Dr. Suleiman, a charismatic woman in her 40s, is the former psychologist of the Dubai Police Department who intimates women's role in Arab culture: "We now have two generations of women who obtained advanced degrees from Western countries and came back home and yet we're still veiled by society and not by the veils on our heads. We are working to change this unhealthy attitude towards women, and will not rest till our daughters have the same rights and social standing that our sons." Demanding equal rights for women has to be an integral component of the new Arab identity that is being shaped, and must be recognized under the law and enforced by authorities. Adding this evolutionary piece will serve as the catalyst for this monumental change.
With such an explosion of repressed potential, how can the Arab world prepare for true democracy? What will be the ideal form of governing that works for the Middle East? And how can we in the First World understand and support the emergence of Arab-Style democracies? The crucial insight here is that one style of democracy does not fit all. The Myth that Western democracy, if given the chance, can spread throughout the Middle East has proven to be a false doctrine. We need not look further than the Western coalition's experience in Iraq and Afghanistan to recognize the failure of this thinking. Tom Barnett in his book The Pentagon's New Map states that Arab-style democracies will resemble more those of India, Malaysia or Singapore rather than Western Europe or the US.
Ayman, a young Egyptian national who holds a business degree looks and sounds much like the protesters in Tahrir Square. He says that there has to be a system for the older people to retire with a pension that honors their past contribution. This will be the only way for the younger, educated generation to have careers and participate in the socio-political development of their country. He is one of millions of Egyptians who couldn't find work in Egypt and settled for being a waiter at a Kuwaiti restaurant. We've seen many intelligent men and woman like him demonstrating in Tunisia, Bahrain and Libya who are well aware of the processes and the themes of democracy but lacked the comprehensive view of what it takes to build a viable nation.
Maysa, a Gen Y activist for Palestinian women in the West Bank reiterates the view about Arab patriarchy providing her pragmatic solution "to the Palestinian people, Arafat was the father figure. To the Arab street, Nasser was the father. But, now it's time to move on. We must build civil and government institutions that lead to nation building." From where will the determination and leadership emerge to accomplish this monumental task? Would a benevolent autocrat provide that interim role that will support the establishment of structures and systems that will lay down the foundation for this Arab-style democracy?
"The pathway from tribalism to democracy has to pass through autocracy" wrote professor Clare W. Graves, founder of psychology at the large scale. In these tumultuous times can the intelligence of the masses elect a benevolent autocratic leader without him becoming another Gaddafi or Mubarak? A benevolent autocrat is someone who recognizes the frailty of the infant stages of democracy and has the best interest of his/her people in mind and has their respect. Someone who has the power to quell the disruption caused by zealots and extremists, while promoting robust institutions and development prone societies. This is where the West has to rise up to the challenge and balance its interests with those of the Arab street.
If the West aggressively focuses on creating innovations in green technologies, then the Middle East will be relieved of an exploitative economic relationship and left with no choice but to focus on developing its most underutilized resource: women and the young. This has to be coupled simultaneously with a layered and culturally fit development program that addresses the most nagging issues in the Middle East. In a town hall meeting with young Fatah leaders in Bethlehem, I asked the audience to come up with a future vision for Palestine and the Arab world. In compelling Arab emotional outburst, they all said they want to have world class hospitals and universities where Westerners choose to come.
Arab-style democracy is a system where everyone is equal under the law -- women, men and children regardless of their riches or political or tribal affiliations. This has to spread and be enforced at a systemic level. New governments along with the private sector have to embark on robust and fully integrated development programs that go beyond the reach of a typical World Bank strategy. These programs cannot stop at ad hoc projects that build the infrastructure of highways, power and sewer systems without building the supporting societal and civil structures that can sustain nations.
Since religions plays a crucial role in the Middle Eastern identity, religious institutions have to be regulated to preach tolerance and supported, as they play a vital role in society. Schools have to become institutions that build autonomous individuals, not followers of clan leaders. This should happen in quality public schools that are available to the masses. Financial pressure on parents has to be alleviated by creating good paying jobs that fit their capacities. This list is merely the beginning of the changes that are needed to establish the new Arab nationalism within the unique boundaries of each Arab nation. The Arab league has to come out of the shadow of dictators and become a functional body that includes a trade organization to benefit the region's human and natural resources.
The values of the industrial age are just emerging in the Middle East under the umbrella of the age of technology and knowledge. Arab cultures have no choice but to advance in this global world, this has to be a systemic, holistic approach that will ensure the future of Arab Gen Y and stop the brain drain from the region. This is the time where the Arab intelligence can empower individuality, a quality that has long been the catalyst that helped the developed world thrive.