Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Reflections on the Doha Forum

I've been back from the Doha Forum for a week and I am still trying to digest the wealth of information and my observations at the conference.  Over 600 participants from 100 nations were represented. From Algeria to Yemen, the Arab nations of the Middle East and North Africa were clearly represented.  Yet, the participants came from Afghanistan and Albania, from Belize and Brazil, from Canada and China, and from the United States and Uzbekistan.

Even without the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt, this conference attracted the best minds (mine excluded) from around the world to discuss the underpinnings of democracy and free trade.  What does it take to form a democracy?  And is that the best or the only form of government that provides its people freedom?  What does it mean to be free?  Can one have a democracy in a monarchy?  And does a democracy promote the most equitable, most ubiquitous channels for free trade?

The Arab Spring, as the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt are now being called, raises new questions.  What is it that the people want?  This question was asked many times during the conference.  And perhaps the best answer was in terms of what the people do not want.  "We clearly do not want autocracy; nor do we want to see a theocracy," was often the response.  "We want freedom to live as we wish, freedom to work where we want, freedom to express our opinions without fear of reprisals."  "And we want jobs."

In Egypt, over 50% of the population is under the age of twenty-five.  Of those, the vast majority are college-education, yet unemployment is running at 25%.  That appears to be a dangerous combination: the youth have been denied hope of a future and, coupled with their increased awareness of the world around them from the Internet, they are discovering that they deserve more.  The lack of jobs in Egypt and other countries in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) is clearly the spark that ignited the waves of protests.

As an American, I was interested in how I would be received since we had just killed Osama bin Laden days before my arrival.  The tone was friendly to me and all Americans (and the West in general).  There was only one dissenting opinion about bin Laden's death - - and that was from Pakistan  based on their concern for their national sovereignty.  But even Pakistan's opinion was muted in the wave of the democratic reforms being proposed throughout the Middle East.

The young admire Americans; they are not so happy about our foreign policy however.  They are skeptical when the US Government and The West intervenes and offers to "help."  They remember, for example, that the U.S. backed the Mubarak regime on the basis that a stable totalitarian government in Egypt was better than an unstable democratic one.  And the Arab nations express their concern over a return of "colonial powers:"  Britain in Egypt, Italy in Tunisia, and France in Algeria to name a few. And of course, the US involvement in Iraq as well as our historical, and in their perception, the U.S.' unilateral support of Israel.

The collapse of Tunisia and Egypt, by non-violent means, has ignited a signal flare throughout the Arab region, where they now see positive change that an advancement toward the freedoms that democracy brings as not only possible, but probable.  This is "Democracy 3.0" for them; after the democratic reforms of Asia and Central Europe, the Arab peoples, especially the young, see this as their chance to change and mold their destiny.

More to come.

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