Middle East

Rumblings in the Middle East

Manuela Paraipan

Manuela Paraipan is director executive of the Bucharest-based Middle East Political and Economic Institute (MEPEI). She writes for several newspapers and international institutes and has acted as media advisor to various parties in the Middle East.

Uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world have drawn speculation of a possible "domino effect" similar to revolutions in Poland that continued in Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Romania, the only Eastern Bloc country to overthrow its communist regime violently.

 “There are differences related to historical experience, societal mentality and trends, economic status, so on and so forth, between the major change that took place in the late 80s and the prospects of a similar change taking place right now in the Middle East,” Paraipan says.

“One of the important features is that in both cases we speak about a protest against authoritarianism and against institutionalized injustice towards many, if not most,” she says. “Whether its Europe, Middle East or some other part of the globe, the name of the ideologies and differences become irrelevant as the real ideology of the regimes is discretionary power. And here lies the problem.”

The MEPEI director says that the region of the Middle East and North Africa in general faces “daunting” economic and social problems. “These are important aspects of the problem itself but not the only ones,” she says. “Authoritarian regimes work to fortify their rule by placing political power and the wealth of the country in their hands. Lack of transparency, almost absolute and arbitrary power, and weak social and economic reforms are the root causes.

“For too long the large part of the society is not only at the will but at the whims of a tiny elite that abuses the trust given. What people are asking is not much and in fact is natural: to enjoy basic human rights and to see some accountability, politically, economically and from a security perspective,” she says.

With many Arab countries ruled by aging autocrats facing succession issues, Paraipan says that this “is why you need checks and balances and an elected—I emphasize elected—leadership. Of course, elections are just one democratic feature. There is also the condition of transparency that has to be coupled with elections. Otherwise, some will keep getting elected with 80 and 90 percent of the vote, and simply put, that is ridiculous." Paraipan continues, "Let the political parties and groups compete, and then the society chooses the program that best responds to its needs, at a specific point in time.”

With most Arab regimes being perceived as pro-West, she suggests that, for the time being, the United States and even the United Kingdom are now showing “a sense of ambivalence.” “The interest for a long time now in the West was to keep in power those who you are familiar with, or to put it more bluntly, the evil you know. If the strategy worked in the past it certainly does not work anymore.

“States have interests and each state is selfishly following its own. Problems appear when the strategy and the tactics employed are downright obtuse.” Paraipan believes it is wiser and would show a long-term vision to “actually listen to the voices coming from the respective societies and encourage reforms on all three tracks: political, economic and social.

“Make aid conditional upon tangible reforms. [If there are] no reforms, no freedoms, no political transparency, no allowing of a robust opposition, then there is no aid of any sort. The relationship state to state may continue, but it will be colder and in pragmatic terms that bring a set of consequences.”

Asked whether the West should have acted earlier in bringing about reforms in Arab countries, she argues that the United States and the United Kingdom “should have and could have. … There aren't that many options. Either adopt a realistic view coupled with a medium- to long-term vision, or be ready to admit that one thing you speak and a different one you seek to implement.”

With the current focus on the uprisings in Egypt, by far the largest Arab state of more than 80 million, she believes that what happens there is crucial not only to the region but elsewhere. On whether the protests will lead to complete revolutions occurring, Paraipan says it depends “on the local circumstances, how far the opposition wants to go, how far the others let them, and external influences from inside and outside the region.

“In Egypt's case, Mubarak should resign with whatever grace is left to do so, have a transitional government and then head to elections,” she says. But she also points out that the people protesting in Tahrir Square and those who took the streets in Tunisia did not protest against an individual “but against what each represented and stood for.

“Hence, a broader change is necessary. Omar Suleiman, Gen. Shafiq and others who were integral and essential players within Mubarak's regime have to sit down, dialog and negotiate with the opposition. There was a shift of power and it is of no use to deny the evidence."

When asked if there are also risks to oil-rich Arab states, Paraipen says, "Now that they have the example of Egypt, but more so Tunisia, people understand that they indeed have power. I expect future ramifications—perhaps more low key, but not lacking vigor."

This article was originally published by the Islamic Republic News Agency: www.irna.ir.

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