For those who have been following, a huge debate that is happening at the moment is over how democratic these Arab revolutions are/will be. Besides the Christofs and McGeoughs of this world, some have been actually considering what it would take to improve these societies.
James Richard, writing for Foreign Policy, makes comparisons to the fall of the “Former Soviet bloc” at the end of the cold war. He notes that, like those countries, the Arab dictators have maintained centralised economies, where most major industries are state-owned and the majority of employment is in the public sector. Comparing the transitions in Russia with the Eastern European states, Richard notes that it is better not to immediately privatise everything, as this advantages the educated class and results in Russia-style oligarchies. Rather, he argues, Arab states will need a process over several years to allow their population to appreciate the ins and outs of a free-market economy.
Before anything else, Arab publics need to be educated about their countries’ common economic realities and goals. Only after these countries have a clearer picture of the true underlying value of their businesses should they list firms on a stock exchange or allow privatization shares to be freely traded. Fortunately, to varying degrees, the region already has capable financial professionals and judiciaries who can help with the necessary procedures.
Richard also briefly observes that more than just economic improvements, these states will need to build democratic institutions to provide for rule of law and civil rights.
But other institutions may have to be created wholesale. Freedom of speech and the press requires a legal framework to foster transparency in these new economies.
In a strong rebuke of the “benevolent Orientalism” described my last post on the topic, writing for the Wall Street Journal, Dennis McShane has outlined his idea for how Britain can help grow democracy through the use of “soft power” – sending representatives who speak the local languages to help establish political parties and the values necessary for engaging in a democratic process.
In the House of Commons on Monday Mr. Cameron told me: “I very much support the whole idea of greater party-to-party contacts and political contacts, and building up what I call the building blocks of democracy in terms of civil society and political parties. This is an area in which Britain has expertise and excellence.”
Mr. Cameron should ask employers and trade unions to release Arab-speaking experts to go and help the wannabe democracies along North Africa’s shoreline, as well as finding ways of helping the Iranian people striving for freedom. The model should be the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy, which under different administrations has promoted democratic change around the world. It is soft power with muscle, unafraid in rejecting the cultural relativism that both the left and the advocates of stability-over-liberty use to argue that “Western values” cannot be imposed on the East. The values Mr. Cameron mentions are universal and as much the right of the poorest Nile farmer or Iranian student as they are of European intellectuals.
Finally, Lee Smith in Tablet magazine has made the controversial point that to be truly democratic, Arab societies will need to break-out of their oil-dependency in order to maintain functioning economies, and that Israel is an example of how this is achievable in the Middle East. His article spends a little too long praising Israel without explaining the policy reasons behind Israel’s success, but it is still worthwhile for that observation.
Democracy is not something that happens overnight. It took almost a millenium from Magna Carta for all Australians to have voting rights. The Arab world has a long road ahead, but hopefully, through this kind of advice, it can stay on course.