02 May 2011

MBA Students Comment on Turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa


BOSTON—The Middle East and North Africa are in the midst of extraordinary political and social changes that have made headlines around the globe. This whirlwind of events is especially important to a number of Harvard Business School MBA students who have roots in the region. We asked five of them (including several who are also earning master's degrees in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School) to share their views.

Laila Kassis, Dual U.S. Citizen and Palestinian Citizen of Israel
Class of 2011, Joint Degree at Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School

"The Egyptian people won't revolt, not even in 20 years. President Hosni Mubarak's grip on power is as strong as ever," said an Egyptian investor to me while I was in Egypt last December. As we were speaking, twenty-six-year-old street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi was setting himself on fire, sparking the Tunisian Revolution. Egyptians poured into the streets a few weeks later. How did all of this start, and why did we not see it coming?

For decades people across the Arab world have been oppressed by authoritarian regimes that are often propped up by western governments. A convergence of factors — economic recession, beind–the– scenes US embassy cables revealed by WikiLeaks, a youth explosion, and the ubiquity of the Internet along with the concurrent rise of social networking — provided the spark for revolution and the means by which to execute it.

Remarkably, revolution united people across normally fractious class and religious lines. We are witnessing grassroots, mainly non-violent, secular uprisings by people demanding the right to determine their future — something they have placed far above superficial divisions. The message they are sending with their solidarity is that democracy is about more than periodic elections. Instead, it's about dignity and economic opportunity, about individual liberties and the national freedom to guide independent policy free from external control.

Youth have played a central role in initiating and guiding the revolution. In Egypt 70% of the population is under 30 years old, and 65% of 18-29 year-olds are unemployed or out of the workforce; much of the Arab world has similar demographics. These youth are literally the foundation on which their nations are built and must be central to shaping their new governments and societies.

Their venerable goals lie at the end of a thorny path. Some continue to risk their lives in the face of oppressive and violent governments. As the euphoria of the revolutionary movement subsides, others must learn to productively leverage differences to create new and just governments based on respect and trust. The eighteenth-century philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau said it best, "...for if the clashing of particular interests made the establishment of societies necessary, the agreement of these very interests made it possible. The common element in these different interests is what forms the social tie...without which no society could exist."

Government legitimacy is at the core of democracy, and only the people themselves, not an outside power, can grant it. While the stakes are high and the process is difficult, the Arab people must have the opportunity to struggle through it themselves. As tempting as it is for the United States and other western governments to try to shape outcomes in their own interests, if instead they embrace the essence of their liberal democratic values, have a little bit of faith, and allow the Arab people to take ownership of their destiny, everyone will benefit.

Toufic Khoueiry, Lebanon
Class of 2011 at Harvard Business School

On March 14, 2005, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese stormed the streets of Beirut chanting for the withdrawal of Syrian military forces from their country. For a country of four million people, the protest was of epic proportions. Never before in Lebanon's post-modern history had fear been so clearly overcome by a resounding call for independence. Forty-three days later, faced with mounting international pressure, Syria withdrew from Lebanon, putting an end to thirty years of occupation.

Fast forward to 2011. Today, entrenched political oligarchs still control Lebanon, leaving little room for the emergence of new leadership. Reform prospects are bleak, legal institutions are compromised, and sectarian polarization is at its height. Except for improved political freedoms, the Lebanon of 2011 seems no better than six years ago. What seemed in the spring of 2005 like the beginning of a comprehensive nation-building effort turned out to be ephemeral rather than transformative.

Revolutionary movements in the Arab world can draw key lessons from the failed Lebanese experiment.

First, movements that lack a guiding political vision centered upon institution building and reform are destined to remain unfinished. While rallying people to defy an oppressive status quo is important, marshaling efforts to revamp existing institutions is essential.

Second, revolutions that challenge prevalent political constructs successfully should beware of being hijacked by political opportunists. In the absence of effective leadership, such movements are subject to the influence of parties seeking to catch a rising wave, at which point splitting the spoils supersedes deep change. People need to remind themselves that they are the heart and soul of these revolutions. If they cannot choose new captains for the ship of state, they should at least insist on keeping current captains in check.

Last, the leaders of revolutions should recognize that some people support the crumbling regime. Adopting an integrative rhetoric that seeks to gain the hearts and minds of these segments of the population in the name of national unity is much more productive than political demonization and witch hunts.

As the young men and women of the Middle East and North Africa attempt to reshape their political systems, their peers in Lebanon will be watching them closely, regretful of an opportunity lost and hopeful that a Beirut Spring will blossom again. But with two long-lived incumbents ousted in North Africa, and others about to follow in their footsteps, anything is now possible in the region.

Seifeddin Khoufi, Tunisia
Class of 2012 at Harvard Business School

The wind of freedom disrupting the Arab world began to blow in January when a young fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself in the small, forgotten city of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia. But he was not the first to make the protestor's ultimate sacrifice. In 2009 another young Tunisian had done the same thing in Monastir, a popular tourist destination that enjoys much more media exposure. So why did the Tunisian revolution start only a few months ago, and why did it unleash so much unrest through the region?

Bouazizi's s desperate action didn't become another forgotten news item for two main reasons. Tunisians had reached the tipping point of frustration due to the unbalanced distribution of wealth between the country's coastal region and the interior, high unemployment among the country's college graduates, and the continuing absence of freedom of speech despite increasing exposure to western democracies.

In addition, social media reports of the government's violent reaction to the first demonstrations triggered an overwhelming feeling of camaraderie and patriotism. All Tunisians didn't accept what was happening to their compatriots. National pride, social cohesion, and altruism suddenly reemerged and strengthened the popular uprising. This translated into the "purity" of the movement and the absence of political, economical, or religious slogans. It was a revolution for dignity and freedom.

The coexistence of these two factors generated a revolution in Tunisia and Egypt that spread across the Arab world. The question now is whether Tunisia and Egypt, among others, will succeed in installing sustainable democratic systems.

We need to understand that these countries—even when sharing the same language and religion—have different society structures, economic development, education level, and openness to the West. A successful transition to a sustainable democratic system necessitates at least three common requirements:

  • An authentic and intrinsic popular thirst for democracy, freedom of speech, and participative self-determination represents the basis for a successful democratic transition.
  • Society has to go through an internal soul-searching process that includes questioning the role of Islam in political life. Avoiding a societal debate about Islam and excluding the Islamic movements from public discussions will only play in favor of extremism and present a significant obstacle against sustaining a potential democratic system.
  • Putting in place a strong government system that features institutions equipped with sufficient checks and balances will protect democracy and defend it against any radicalization.

The role of the West in accompanying this transition is quite delicate. The United States and Europe should help these countries organize transparent and free elections, navigate the current difficult economic phase, and create jobs for the mid- and long-term. That said, they should not be seen as trying to impose their will or ways on the region by, for example, backing a certain party or candidate of their liking.

The Middle East and North Africa are at a true inflection point in their long histories. The next steps will require considerable care.

Maurice Obeid, Lebanon
Class of 2012, Joint-degree at Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School

The United States has no vital national interest in Libya; yet there is a good case for intervention. First, the international community asked for it. With unprecedented speed, the United Nations authorized it, and with unprecedented unity, the Arab League urged that action be taken against a fellow Arab government.

Second, there was little doubt about Colonel Muammar Qaddafi's intentions. Residents of the city of Benghazi were to feel his wrath, as a preamble to ferocious atrocities to follow.

Third, there is much to learn from history. Take Rwanda and Bosnia as two contrasting examples. In 1994, President Bill Clinton and French President Francois Mitterrand chose not intervene in Rwanda. The aftermath was the extermination of 20% of Rwanda's population. In 1995, on the other hand, the US put an end to mass rape and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. In neither case did the US have a vital interest, but Clinton intervened in Bosnia on moral grounds while the British and French hid behind the banner of a "civil war." America saved the day.

Experience with another maniacal autocrat also provides valuable learning. After forcing Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait in the first Gulf War, Bush Senior watched as Hussein massively smashed Kurdish and Shia uprisings in the north and south of Iraq, killing more than 100,000 of his own citizens.

President Obama, therefore, is right in his decision to intervene in Libya, but he is wrong in giving up leadership of the operation to NATO. Without the US, NATO is severely limited in weapons and experience. Even if it succeeds in deposing Qaddafi, the task will not end there. It is impossible to imagine a new Libyan government that independently patches itself together and provides security to its citizens. More likely, lawlessness and tribal tensions will ensue. The West should not have intervened without a strategy. A half-baked effort may inflict more damage than no effort at all.

Obama is adopting a case-by-case approach. It is unimaginable that he will support upheaval in the Arabian Gulf. Much more is at stake there, economically and geopolitically. But just because the US won't intervene in Saudi Arabia or Bahrain does not invalidate the case for intervention elsewhere. Doing good when pragmatic is more important than the consistency of a clear doctrine. The downside, however, to a pragmatic approach is that Arabs in would–be revolutions (or in the midst of failed revolutions) would not forget that America did not walk the talk in their moment of greatest need.

The Arab world is in transition. Outcomes will be mixed, but Arabs have rediscovered their humanity. Decades of forced servitude had left them lethargic. Now they know they can flutter their wings. The next decade will undoubtedly be difficult, but Arabs can at least get a shot at self–determination. And that is priceless.

Ahmed El-Oraby, Egypt
Harvard Business School Class of 2011

The world watched several months ago as Tunisians and Egyptians broke the fear barrier and participated in peaceful mass protests against their totalitarian regimes that brought down their respective presidents. It was beyond belief for me as an Egyptian to witness a nation rising against its Pharaoh—regardless of class, religion, or political ideology—risking lives and livelihoods to fight for basic rights, justice, and "bread."

The ensuing events across the Arab world continue to bring inspiration and anxiety on a daily basis. It may be impossible to make an accurate prediction of how events will unfold in each country, but a few things stand out in my view:

  • As much as the uprisings and protests are about liberty and democracy, they are every bit as much about economic policy. While Egypt's upper and middle classes were calling for political reform, a vast majority of the nation's blue-collar workers, unemployed, and poor were protesting against rising food prices, the scarcity of jobs, unfair income distribution, and the failure of Egypt's internationally-celebrated neo-liberal economic reforms to "trickle down" to the masses. Protests of textile industry workers, real-estate tax agents, farmers, and even the clowns of the National Circus had already gripped Egypt over the past four years. In moving forward, Egyptians will have to tailor a new economic order that addresses the issues of social justice, regulation, income distribution, and private enterprise.
  • A key to the resilience of the Arab protests lies in their grass-root flat organization and their lack of clear leadership. In Egypt, thousands of activists congregated through virtual online communities that grew around the escalating protests of the past years. As a critical mass turned out on the first day of protests on January 25, the movement came to life and the courage and sacrifice of many more in the ensuing days generated an unstoppable momentum. In retrospect, the flat network structure was the only effective way to counter the concentrated powers of state security. Today, however, this structure is facing increasing pressure. Many Egyptians who had protested are joining or forming political parties and other types of hierarchical civic organizations.
  • Arab activists overcame the traditional state–controlled media and relied on tools that are "disruptive" to the existing regimes: social networks, grassroots efforts, and eyewitness reporting on the Internet and pan-Arab satellite channels. These tools were not only important to the initial organization of the protests, but essential to countering the state–sanctioned narrative of the protests and maintaining solidarity and morale as the protests continued.
  • Only a few days before the events, Arab culture and society were perceived around the world as broadly apathetic, stagnant, and uninspired. This, however, did not prevent thousands of youth from working hard, engaging with society, and aspiring for a better country. By the collective action of a few dreamers, history was,and continues to be, made.

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