x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Economic integration is the best antidote to extremism

The key to defeating extremism will be found not in religion, but in economics. Osama bin Laden died in Tunisia, not Pakistan, in the sense that the Arab Spring is leaving his ideas far behind.

The pithiest comment on the killing of Osama bin Laden has come from Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Tunisian Islamist party, Ennahda: "Bin Laden died in Tunisia before dying in Pakistan." You cannot fault Mr Ghannouchi's logic. The revolutionaries in Tunisia and Egypt paid no heed to bin Laden's creed of endless jihad, and his influence was zero.

Opinions are split on what the death of bin Laden means for the wider Muslim world. There is a euphoric view that the grim decade of the "war on terror" has come to an end. Political struggle in the Arab world will now be conducted through social media, strikes and sit-ins, not suicide bombings. According to this view, as President Barack Obama brings home the troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, the Islamic world will be set on a path of peace and development.

The facts on the ground are far less clear. No man is irreplaceable, and it is clear that bin Laden was more a spiritual guide and figurehead than a man with operational control over his followers. His unique contribution was to give disparate militant groups in the Muslim world, all with their own local grievances, a global brand and international agenda.

These al Qa'eda affiliates are still in business. A week ago, 15 people were killed in a bomb attack on a packed tourist cafe in Marrakech. In Iraq, al Q'aeda-linked gunmen are targeting the government and security forces on an almost daily basis. There are fears that bin Laden's supporters will mark his death with revenge attacks.

But this should not disguise the fact that the agendas of these groups are basically local. The man most likely to adopt the mantle of global jihadist-in-chief is the Yemen-based, American-born Anwar al Awlaki. We cannot know whether al Awlaki will become a real threat or just a minor irritant.

What is clear is that the underlying causes of social and economic discontent in the Arab world are not removed by some popular uprisings. There are plenty of young men with no jobs and no prospects who would relish the chance to get away from family and take up arms against the "enemies of Islam".

Bin Laden has popularised the practice of declaring non-Muslims, or Muslims who do not follow his interpretation of Islam, as legitimate targets. This is a threat to the cohesion of every multi-confessional country in the Middle East, from Iraq to Egypt. Even if America manages to disengage from Iraq and Afghanistan - a distant prospect at the moment - Washington will keep its umbilical link to Israel, which will remain an irritant.

Even in countries with successful revolutions, there is frightening contradiction between the demands of the people - for higher wages, more secure employment and better social welfare - and the ability of their weak economies and insecure leaderships to deliver. The strikes that are erupting all over Egypt could lead to harsh repression and vicious social conflict - a scenario that the British foreign secretary, William Hague, described in a speech on Wednesday as "collapse back into more authoritarian regimes, conflict and increased terrorism".

The key to preventing this is not to focus on religion, as has been the priority among anti-terrorist experts of the past decade, but to look at old-fashioned economics.

Professor Vali Nasr of Tufts University in Massachusetts, who has studied the middle classes in the Islamic world, says that the problem with the Middle East is not too much religion, but rather that these countries are not organically connected to the world economy. Apart from oil and gas, the countries of the Middle East are not part of the global supply chain. They do not make things that other people want to buy.

This fact is demonstrated by the success of the UAE as a business centre. Iranians, Pakistanis, Lebanese and Palestinians do not come to live in Dubai for the desert climate. They come because it opens the opportunity of doing business with the world in a way that is not possible in their homelands.

It is noticeable that the only Muslim country of the Levant that has truly joined the global economy is Turkey, with its vibrant manufacturing industries. It is also noticeable that the Arab Spring began in the countries that were integrating fastest into the global economy.

Tunisia has a well-developed European export industry and thriving tourist trade. Egypt has made great progress in opening up its economy to the world over the past decade, despite a lack of trickle-down wealth.

The fatal sin of both countries was that cronyism distorted this new form of capitalism, with the spoils of privatisation in Tunisia going to businesses linked to the president's family.

If Arabs are to capitalise on this unique moment in their history, they will need a lot of economic help - perhaps more than the world can think of providing at this moment. According to Prof Nasr, Egypt alone needs a minimum $80 billion in support from global financial institutions to help it through the harsh process of restructuring its economy. And that is just the beginning.

Countries going through this process also need wise and strong leadership - not usually available immediately after a revolution - as well as tough guidance from abroad to prevent foreign aid from going astray.

We all know what the value of free advice is: nothing. Turkey had the great advantage of being guided by the European Union, which for decades has had a clear interest in fostering a prosperous, democratic country on its south-eastern border. The same was true of the former communist countries of eastern Europe.

Who will do this for Egypt? It has to be the United States, the European Union and the Gulf countries. These countries have to believe that their interest in Egypt is not counter-terrorism but in a new economic deal for its people.

When the American celebrations over the killing of bin Laden have calmed down, Washington needs to think again. The most important task is not "finishing off" al Qa'eda, but fulfilling Mr Obama's promise of a new start with the Muslim world by sparing no effort to set Egypt on the course of prosperity.

 

aphilps@thenational.ae