x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A difficult time, but hope springs from this season

Bad news from Arab Spring states should not be allowed to obscure what is important: 2011 brought fundamental change for the better in the Arab World.

The year of the Arab Spring ended in a flurry of dismaying news. In Egypt, soldiers raided the offices of pro-democracy groups. In Syria, the authoritarian regime keeps to its savage ways. In Libya, tribal militias balk at deferring to the new government, and Al Qaeda is recruiting. In Yemen, nominal change, when it comes, may prove to be devoid of real reform.

For millions of families in these and other countries, though, the most immediate problem is economic. Violence, uncertainty and institutional change have left many of the region's economies in tatters. Tourism is a wasteland. Jobless rates, always high, have grown worse.

The daily drumbeat of headlines about these problems has left many people in all parts of society pessimistic.

But amid all the alarms, the start of a new year is a good time to consider how the big picture will appear in the light of history, a decade or a century from now. We believe the verdict is already clear: in a fundamental way, the Arab World changed for the better in 2011.

To be sure, there will be delays, detours and mistakes along the way. But the era of authoritarian Arab republics is plainly ending. There will be no single new model of Arab governance, but across the region public opinion has claimed a central role in determining the legitimacy of governments. In the era of smartphones, YouTube and Twitter, there will be no going back to the old techniques of repression.

History tells us that around the world, many states have found their way to responsive governance and economic efficiency via revolution, sometimes only after prolonged turmoil. The change is rarely neat and painless; there is no reason to expect seamless transitions to new politics and societies in the Arab Spring countries, either.

But the economic anxiety of this New Year's Day will, we hope, begin to dissipate in 2012. New political liberties should bring new economic freedoms, encouraging entrepreneurship and individual enterprise. Remember that Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation helped to spark the Arab Spring, was a street vendor infuriated by petty and corrupt meddling in his little business.

In this context it is noteworthy that Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood has, contrary to some previous expectations, promised that it will not call for nationalisation of private businesses.

Across the region, progress towards ending cronyism and corruption, and the removal of authoritarian restrictions on small business and investment, can open the way to rapid economic progress.

Theories and promises are little consolation to people whose families are hungry today. But political and economic liberty are twins that can grow strong together.