x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Middle East leaders reassure forum Arab Spring will bring democracy

The new prime ministers of Tunisia and Morocco were the latest in a line of Arab leaders to stress the democratic credentials of the mainly Islamic parties that have come to the fore in recent elections at the World Economic Forum.

DAVOS, SWITZERLAND // Middle East political leaders sought to reassure global decision-makers at the World Economic Forum in Davos that democratic, moderate governments will emerge in the region once the turmoil of the "Arab Spring" is over.

The new prime ministers of Tunisia and Morocco, both moderate Islamists, were the latest in a line of Arab leaders to stress the democratic credentials of the mainly Islamic parties that have come to the fore in recent elections.

Tunisia's prime minister, Hammadi Jebali, whose Ennahda party won October elections, yesterday promised the country's new constitution would guarantee freedom of the press, an independent judiciary and an end to discrimination. "There will be no discrimination as to religion, language or gender," he said at the main Congress Hall in Davos.

Abdelilah Benkirane, the prime minister of Morocco, echoed his thoughts. "Whether these governments are Islamic or not, who cares? What is important is that they are democratic."

The results of recent elections in the Arab World have worried some governments and observers, with a surge of support for the Muslim Brotherhood and the rise of more radical salafists - adherents of a more fundamentalist view of Islam.

But for many the success of faith-based groups was not surprising, and the suggestion that Islam and democracy were incompatible was insulting.

Moez Masoud, an Islamic scholar and preacher at Egypt's Al Tareeq Al Sah Institute, said opinion polling showed people voted for Islamic groups in Egypt primarily because they were the most organised and effective.

"It wasn't about bikinis or no bikinis, or whether to implement Sharia law. It got down to jobs, money and security, and the people wanted the best-organised groups," Mr Masoud he advised his western audience.

Amr Moussa, the Egyptian presidential candidate and former secretary general of the Arab League, said: "We have all embraced democracy. The question is whether the West will be able to deal with a democracy that is Arab", he said.

The convulsions of the past year in the Arab world have been a hot topic at the annual gathering in the Swiss town. Western politicians and businessmen overwhelmingly welcomed the changes.

Robert Hormats, the US economics undersecretary, told another gathering: "The people of the Middle East want dignity, opportunity and political and economic participation. The great thing about it is that it is home grown, and not interfered with by outsiders."

He added: "Having elections is not the only part of the process, the nature of the constitutional process itself is very important."

Egypt, where a big majority of voters have elected Islamist representatives, should not be prejudged, Mr Hormats said.

"The people of Egypt have spoken through the ballot box, and I have met their representatives in Cairo on economic issues."

The billionaire philanthropist George Soros told a business gathering: "I see the Arab Spring as one of the more hopeful signs in the world. It is important these revolutions are successful as the following ones may be less benign."

Virtual unanimity among Arab politicians on the need to avoid extremism and sectarianism masks a real debate about the best model for the newly democratic governments to follow.

Ali Babacan, the deputy prime minister of Turkey for economic and financial affairs, suggested a secularist model, along Turkish lines, might be more appropriate. "What is essential is the will of the people, the rule of law, and the guarantee of rights. The state should be equidistant from sects and minorities, and should guarantee religious liberties."

The experts in Davos agreed that economic issues were among the fundamental causes of the Arab Spring, and the most important priority for the new governments of the region.

Ibrahim Dabdoub, the chief executive officer of the National Bank of Kuwait, said: "It's the economy, stupid, and jobs. A Tunisian killed himself because he could not find a job, starting the whole thing off.

"Egypt is the most important country in the region, if Egypt fails God help us. Long term I am optimistic about Egypt, but not in the short term. Growth, consumption and foreign investment are all down."

Mustapha Kamel Nabil, the governor of the Central Bank of Tunisia, said his country had underestimated the economic cost of the Arab Spring, in terms of declining growth and tourism, and the value of promises by foreign governments to invest in the country. "We have had lots of big words, but little financial support."



* With additional reporting by Reuters