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1 October 2011

Arab Spring: from instability to progress

It’s time to re-write the rule book.

By Zamila Bunglawala

Authoritarian dictators may have ensured stability, via repression, trhoughout the countries of the Middle East and North Africa for the past 40 years – while the oil-hunger countries of the world watched – but it is mass instability that is now bringing rapid progress to the region. From the whirlwind of the Arab Spring – from street protests, to uprisings, to revolutions and civil war – we are seeing how instability is delivering seismic shifts and progress to the political, economic and social landscapes of Arab countries. And, it’s happening within seasons, not decades, fuelled by the aspirations of its people.

Democracy takes time, granted, and how you get there has long been documented but what is happening in the Arab Spring can not easily be labelled, and no pre-packaged ‘long-term strategy’ readily applied. Its pace and unpredictability are its assets, which also mean it is impossible to judge the next step.

Instability can reduce confidence, breed doubt and panic – in Europe we currently fear Euro-contagion and a ‘double dip’ which has sent our markets reeling and gold bullion peaking. Similarly, some Arab countries are miscalculating their moves and imposing irrational policies to try and stabilise their countries while others are already planning elections, signing huge international investment deals and bringing together tribes and dissidents who have long been left out in the cold – and in many cases countries are doing both.

Indeed, many Arab countries will take two steps forward and one step back, and some will even resist change while also trying to introduce reform, as they learn how to read and respond to the ‘Arab street’.

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This past 10 days we have seen a plethora of such changes from Mahmoud Abbas submitting the UN bid for Palestine and boldly declaring that the Arab Spring has arrived in Jerusalem, to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia’s incremental yet still unprecedented moves in giving women the vote in 2015 and revoking the sentence to lash a woman for driving her own car, Qatar continues its support for Arab nationalist uprisings – financially and militarily – by committing $0.5bn in development loans to Tunisia while at the same time accepting the resignation of the brains behind the rise of Al Jazeera, Waddah Khanfar, and replacing him with a Qatari royal, to the surprise return of President Saleh to Yemen and Turkey imposing an arms embargo on Syria while hosting opposition figures in Ankara.

The Arab Spring has reminded us all, including strategists who write ‘five-year plans on progress and stability’ and dictatorships that try to hold to power, that once in a while a black swan comes along, enabling incredible progress to be made even in the most unlikely of places, where instability can sometimes be a force for good and not knowing what the next move is, becomes your most an invaluable asset.

And, when that ‘place’ is an entire region of hundreds of millions of people – many who are under the age of 30 – who share a language, a culture, a hunger for change and progress, and a desire to achieve their aspirations, then it is time to re-write the rule book on ‘how to deliver progressive change, equality and rights’. There are rumours that the Nobel committee will award this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to the main actors in the Arab Spring, which would be consistent with having awarded it to John Hume and David Trimble previously. No one saw that coming either.