Harvard, Cambridge, November 9, 2012

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An Arab World in Transition : The Transformations, the Challenges, theOpportunities

Harvard, Cambridge, November 9, 2012

An Arab World in Transition

The Transformations, the Challenges, the Opportunities

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to be here with you today at these truly historic times in the Arab world, and I would like to thank the Harvard Arab Club for giving me this opportunity.

In 2002, the Arab Development Report published by the UN described a region that is at the peak of human right, freedom and knowledge deficits. Few years later, Mohamad Bu Azizi set himself on fire redrawing the political map of the Arab world, and setting in motion the “Arab Spring”. Two years on, the Arab people are still courageously striving to close these deficits, with various levels of success in different countries; as forces of the “Arab Autumn” try to hold on to power, like in Syria, making the transition very costly in lives and material destruction after having inflicted severe social and economic damage on their people for decades. These same forces of Arab Autumn have missed most opportunities to pursue real political and social reforms in the past, and never used the recurrent regional shocks and challenges, starting with the 1948 Nakba and its repercussions including the 1967 defeat, to tackle the existential problems of our countries and our nation and adapt to global change. Instead they lost more land and strived on the divisions that they themselves fed. 

But change is happening. Make no mistake about it. 

In fact, the Arab World is currently witnessing two fundamental transformations, which in my opinion are irreversible. 

The firstis the dynamism within Arab society where the walls of fear and silence are collapsing. The revolutionary movements have launched a process of transformation towards more freedom and more representative and accountable governments: we have seen elections, televised debates, public expressions and demonstrations on the streets of countries where these things were unimaginable only a couple of years ago. The lid is off and the genie of freedom is out of the bottle. The Arab world is being transformed from populations that were afraid of their leaders to leaders that are becoming accountable to their populations.

The second transformation is in Islamic politics or what is referred to as political Islam.  Today, Islamic parties are at the helm in Tunisia and Egypt, the first of the Arab Spring countries. These parties are coming out from the intellectual shelter of forced marginalization and oppression to the challenging demands of real world policy issues and choices. Governing is providing them with a lesson that driving from the front seat is very different than driving from the back seat.

They are also quickly realizing that they need to embrace modernity and openness, i.e. they need to change or else they will be changed.

The world needs to judge them on performance; not on preconceived notions, nor on their rhetoric; and a key criterion will be their genuine commitment to the civil state where all citizens are equal in rights and obligations regardless of race, religion or political association.

Other encouraging signs have come out from Al-Azhar of Egypt, the highest Islamic religious institution, which has stepped up to this historic transformation and published a series of progressive declarations: one on governance in Egypt; another on the Arab Spring generally; and a third on personal and artistic liberties. A fourth on the role of women is soon to be released. Such openings and initiatives on the part of religious authorities and parties should be embraced and encouraged by secular and liberal forces in the Arab world and elsewhere. Upholding tolerance and moderation is not only an Arab or Islamic interest. It is a global interest.

Underlying both transformations towards more democratic governance and more open and modern political Islam, is yet another revolution that has been taking place. I am speaking of communication technology and access to information and knowledge that have exploded in the Arab world over the past ten years, helping break the barriers of time and place.


The contagion of the Bu Azizi phenomenon first spread on Facebook and Twitter. The most effective weapons in Egypt were not the bullets, but the mobile phones. The children of the Syrian revolution inspired the entire world using nothing but their laptops while hiding from one shelter into another. 

A 2010 UN study found that mobile phones are one of the most effective advancements in history to lift people out of poverty. The Arab world has proven that mobile phones are as effective in lifting people out of fear and marginalization. The internet and cell phones are empowering people. And mobile technology is fostering information equality, not just within Arab societies, but also between Arabs and the rest of the world, by enabling a rapid closure of the knowledge deficit.


Dear Friends,

The information revolution is irreversible. So is the transformation in governance and in political Islam. But there are many hurdles and pitfalls along the way that can make the road longer and much more painful. One of these is the misguided but to some extent self-fulfilling notion that, somehow, Arabs and Muslims are different than other nations. For them democracy cannot not apply.

Ladies and Gentlemen: The Arab exception is an illusion. So is the Islamic exception. The evolutionary change that has transformed other societies in Southern Europe, South America and Southeast Asia in earlier decades has now reached our shores and deserts, our cities as well as our slums.

But certain perceptions persist, and they feed on setbacks:  take the issue of the amateur movie, “the Innocence of Islam” best described by President Obama as “crude and disgusting”. It goes without saying that the acts of violence that we witnessed in reaction to it in some parts of the world are repugnant and immoral by all standards, including the standards and values of Islam itself.

The violent reactions made news and received wide coverage all over the world. This is understandable. It is a fact, however, that those who reacted violently to the movie are a very small minority of Arabs and Muslims, and that should not eclipse the truth about the broader Arab realties.

In the past, dictators used to exaggerate the threat of militant Islam in the Arab world to justify their ruthless rule, especially to the West. But those days are over in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya; and luckily, now we have free elections that can show Muslim Arab societies for what they are. And elections have shown that the overwhelming majority of Arabs are not violent extremists. Those exist in all societies but they are a small minority in the Arab world as they are elsewhere.

This needs to be better recognized by our friends in the West.  For a long time, many believed that peace and security in the Arab and Muslim worlds can only be imposed by autocratic regimes. Unfortunately, these notions are revived when we have incidents like those associated with the anti-Islamic movie.  They are false and need to be countered by us all.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

Nothing but an Arab world that is free, democratic, and prosperous, is the antithesis of militant extremism. Nothing guarantees lasting stability and minorities’ rights, but full respect of the process toward the democratization, because democracy has taught us that unlike other forms of government, it has the ability to self-correct.

But we should also remember that the process of change is often long and painful, and even disorderly. Unlike transitions of previous decades elsewhere, the Arab Spring is happening under the scrutiny of the global eye, being broadcasted in real time via live television and mobile devices. The current technological advantage may have contributed to high expectations, but also strong frustrations when setbacks happen.  The spectacle is not always pretty or peaceful. This is usually the case in revolutions as it is in wars.

So bumps on the road are to be expected. But the road should be traveled nonetheless. The response to obstacles should be more liberty not less liberty; more democracy and free speech not less. The answer is more Arab Spring, not the same old Arab Autumn. The West has a responsibility and an interest in empowering the forces of moderation in the region, as well as fostering and providing support for reforms at all levels: political, social and economic.

This brings me to another challenge: People’s expectation of quick economic dividends from the political transition, at a time of global economic deterioration, collapsing investment flows and rising unemployment. Even in normal times, things usually get worse before they get better after major upheavals.

The main responsibility in facing such economic challenges falls naturally on the newly elected governments to put together policies for short term stabilization and recovery and for longer term growth and development. These policies should include reforming social safety nets for those most vulnerable to the transition. Using the advantage of late-comer and fresh design, they can learn from other countries’ experiences.

Most importantly, policy plans need to fast track the necessary reforms in the political, judicial and administrative institutions, and in the business climate, in order to boost investments and enable the private sector to create the 50 million new jobs needed in the Arab world over the coming decade. In this context, now is the time for stronger Arab economic integration that is based on shared interests and objectives. 

I would like here to also stress the importance of translating what was agreed upon by the G8 in their meeting in Deauville regarding the allocation of a sum of $ 40 billion to support the economies of the Arab spring countries along the lines that were adopted by Europe during the Eastern European transition.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am quite optimistic about the ability of our Arab world to face the road bumps and high expectations. But it is another challenge that I am truly worried about: ending the age old injustice in Palestine and the associated Arab Israeli conflict.

Using the false pretext of Palestine and conflict with Israel, a number of Arab regimes continued to ignore badly needed economic, social and political reforms and to abuse human rights. Emergency laws that were kept for decades and enhanced the iron fist of the regimes rather than implementing the universal human laws and principles became the common modus operandi. 

The unresolved problem in Palestine continues to fuel extremism.  Moreover, Iran has sought to hijack the causes of the region, ranging from defending the honor of Islam and its prophet, to Jerusalem to Palestine, but for national Iranian objectives. Iran’s support of the Syrian regime, suppressing a legitimate quest of the Syrian people for democracy and freedom, is happening directly and through Hezbollah’s armed personnel, all under the pretext of standing up to Israel. This is the same excuse that the Syrian regime itself has used for 40 years to oppress and imprison the Syrian people.

Recent statements were issued by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard clearly threatening a response by Hezbollah against Israel out of Lebanon if Iran is attacked; and just a couple of weeks ago, Hezbollah and without the consent of the Lebanese people or the Lebanese government sent a drone into Israeli airspace.

It is ironic that during the times of the Arab Spring, Lebanon which for the longest time was the regional pioneer in democracy and freedom is now being taken hostage by a theocracy and a dictatorship; all in the name of the struggle for justice in Palestine.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

The re-election of President Obama is a great opportunity to tackle the pending issues facing our region. Many have expressed worries regarding the stronger involvement of fundamental elements in Syria; but let us not forget that for the longest time, the uprising in Syria was a peaceful one, that the chants on the street were all about peace and national unity.  The atrocities committed by the regime have militarized the conflict. It is the ultimate proof of the nature of this brutal regime that it used so much force against an uprising that started as a call for reform not for regime change. Decisive action is needed today in Syria to help unify the opposition and oversee a quick transition that reverses the dangerous slide towards more violence, which we condemn from whichever side it originates.  

We also hope that a second-term will provide President Obama with the necessary impetus to tackle the Palestinian problem. I hope people like you who are academics and opinion makers in this vivid democracy play a role in promoting the argument that a stable democratic Middle East is not possible without a viable Palestinian State.  This will contribute significantly to strengthen the forces of moderation and fight extremism, promote regional investment, growth, development, and job creation and facilitate the transition towards democratic rule.

Today, Palestine is not on the US agenda. It should be.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

The world has become very small. We are all in it together. It is our choice today to either fall in the trap of those whose agendas thrive on permanent conflict and prejudice; or actively pave the way for a better world: a world of mutual respect and inclusion; a world of shared values and objectives; a world of security and prosperity for all.

Thank you for your time.

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