I WAS fortunate enough to participate in a meeting of experts organised by the West Asia-North Africa (Wana) forum in Jordan earlier this month to study the situation in this critical region.
The initiative was begun in 2009 by Prince Hassan bin Talal, regarded as one of the foremost progressive thinkers of the region.
The Wana region has large energy resources and remains constantly in the news. It stretches from Morocco to Pakistan and from Turkey to Sudan. It is a non-governmental, non-partisan civil society initiative that addresses pressing social, environmental and economic challenges whose solution is advocated as being based on peace, social cohesion, human security and human rights.
Although the region contains different people with various religions and diverse backgrounds, it is also united by three factors. The first is its long-drawn-out transition to full independence that began after the First World War and continues.
Next, most countries in the region contain either energy resources or have strategic geographic significance that is the focus of Great Power attention.
Thirdly, the region has a large youth bulge where more than 60 per cent of the population is under 25 years with few employment opportunities. The region has been governed by dictatorial regimes for most of its existence. In almost all, power has been retained through the use of violence. Such an oppressive system of governance was usually supported by the West either to retain control over resources or to support a discriminatory foreign policy at the expense of the Palestinians.
Mai Yamani, an astute commentator on the region, analyses the situation by defining the states in the Middle East in ‘F’ words: failed, frozen, flexible, flourishing or frightening.
Yemen is now a failed state. Its political institutions have ceased to function. Frozen states include Saudi Arabia, where ‘democracy’ is omitted from the official discourse. Such states appear more stable in the short term, as oil revenues still buy the subservience and submission of most of the subjects, but stability coincides with the possibility of increasing violence and civil unrest, owing to widespread grievances over sectarian rule.
‘Flexible’ states like Lebanon and Iraq are frightened of war. Most have experienced it recently and are eager for stability and economic development. They hope to rebuild stability by holding elections. However, she says that the real change in the region will only occur with the democratisation of Saudi Arabia; this would also tame the fire of Wahabism that is fuelling so much violence in the region, including in Pakistan.The conference provided a glimpse into the minds of emerging leaders and youth who are collectively leading the transition. Both are promising. Prince Hassan called for developing a new mindset, “not one of intervention, but preventative, pre-emptive; one based on soft and not hard power; and able to create an institutional, legal, professional, cultural and educational cocoon for those who have fallen not so much between the cracks, but into the abyss”.
Securing legitimacy requires a consolidation of shared values and institutional practices. “If a regime is disconnected from its people, it is no longer legitimate,” according to Guma el-Gamaty of the Libyan rebels’ Interim Transitional National Council, who spoke of the lack of any real state apparatus in Libya. This lack of connection between the rulers and the ruled has led to a massive inequality in the distribution of the region’s considerable natural wealth. These comments have relevance for Pakistan too.
Sally Moore, the charismatic representative of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party and Youth Coalition of the Egyptian Revolution, made an emotional intervention and summarised the spirit of Tahrir Square where people spontaneously began providing municipal and public services such as cleaning, food and medical care more efficiently than their government ever did.
“People cared for each other and their environment,” she said. “We built a hospital in a nearby mosque. We fed people bread and fuul. Christians and Muslims prayed together.” This showed a special sense of fraternity destroyed by rulers whose grip on power emanated from force and oppression.
One also learnt of the impact that social media like Twitter, Facebook and the Internet generally has had on creating, leading and directing the transition from one of its exponents Omar Christidis of Arabnet. According to him, the cellphone had become an instrument of liberation. It was time that the West realised that it will be difficult to keep a lid on the region by installing and supporting pliant dictators.
The conference concluded that a sea change in attitude was occurring in the region under scrutiny. Pakistan too is now in the eye of the storm after Osama bin Laden’s death. Moreover, if the recent attack on a naval facility in Karachi is any indicator then this may be a prelude to the start of a similar movement in Pakistan as we too have a striking youth bulge like other countries in Wana.
Though the US has removed Bin Laden, his message is still resonating through Saudi Wahabism and Salafism. After the attack on Makkah in 1979, Saudi Arabia spent $75bn on propagating Wahabism throughout the Wana region and beyond. It is this generator of instability that is causing chaos. If the region, including Pakistan, is to have peace and see human development, then the much-needed reforms and regional cooperation must be based on human security, democracy and non-violence. The youth of the region demand it.
The writer is chairman of the Regional Institute of Policy Research in Peshawar.