Guide to Reform the Middle East? Try East Asia

Opposition movements in the Middle East and North Africa enjoyed early successes in Tunisia and Egypt, yet the struggle proves hard in Syria, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen. The outcomes – new democracies or brutal crackdowns – could alter the region’s relationships in unimaginable ways. East Asia is a model of what can go wrong then right: US failure to deliver democracy to Vietnam four decades ago does not prevent cooperation today. Patient US attention steered Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and others from devastations of war and dictatorship to democracy and strong economies, explains BBC world affairs correspondent Humphrey Hawksley. East Asia has coped with extremism and nationalism; it’s pried strong militaries away from business and politics, while citizens compromise on priorities and goals. The US and other powers must offer support with stabilizing systems of law and governance, while respecting identity and control. The process may take decades, but with aid and guidance, citizens of the Middle East could become stakeholders in their governments. – YaleGlobal

Guide to Reform the Middle East? Try East Asia

In North Africa and East Asia, former enemies can compromise and build new governments
Humphrey Hawksley
Wednesday, April 20, 2011

LONDON:  Four months after the Arab uprisings began, Tunisia and Egypt are struggling to build new institutions acceptable to their impatient citizens, Libya has embroiled Western democracies in conflict, and other nations such as Syria and Yemen are resisting wide-ranging reform.

Following the inconclusive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s important that change in the Middle East and North Africa, MENA, is handled in an effective way. The MENA rebellions offer an opportunity to re-examine what exactly is needed to create strong democracy and good governance.  

In 2005, two years after the Iraq invasion, then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave a speech in Cairo that suggested a reversal in a long-held US policy of backing dictatorships. “For 60 years, my country, the USA, pursued stability at the expense of democracy, and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.”

Six years on, as MENA unglues, there’s little evidence of substantive attempts at reform other than the already-established violent regime changes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even now, despite America’s deep strategic interest, no details have been laid out as to how peacefully change should be achieved in MENA. This patchy record is a far cry from the successful emergence of democracy under US protection in East Asia where Japan, Taiwan and South Korea have transformed from war-ruined countries to advanced industrialized democracies. The Philippines, Indonesia and others gradually and assuredly tread in a similar direction.

America’s success in East Asia lay in the need to counter the expansion of communism, following failure in Vietnam. It should now take note of the uncertain outcomes in Afghanistan and Iraq to draw up fresh policy to counter violent Islamic extremism in MENA with the same  patience and concentration that it offered to East Asia.

East Asia’s dictatorships were not shifted overnight. They were unpleasant regimes and some remain. The region blends emerging democracy with waning authoritarianism. It shares a prioritized common ground of wealth creation – designing institutions to encourage trade and raise standards of living. Its experience is raw and ongoing, and the lesson it gives us is that building democracy takes decades, not months. But it can succeed.

The East Asian experience would counter, for example, long-held views shared by many in Washington and Cairo that the policies of the Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood are too polarizing for the democratic process. 

Muslim Indonesia has dealt with its Islamic extremists, not by suppression but by inviting them inside the electoral tent. The most organized group, Islamic Partai Keadilan Sejahtera, or PKS, with links to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, was encouraged to take part in elections. In turn, its leaders convinced followers that there was no contradiction between their religion and democracy and that the electoral process could pave the way for an Islamic government. PKS holds about 10 percent of the seats in the 560–member parliament and, from Washington, Indonesia is viewed as a new democracy that has won its War on Terror.

Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and others could learn much from Indonesia on the need to separate the military from business and politics. The Indonesian military’s automatic right to hold 20 percent of the legislative seats ended in 2004. Its political influence remains, but is weakening.

In the same way, the military’s commercial interests that made it largely self-financing were scheduled for divestment by 2009. That did not happen, and the military reportedly still runs multibillion dollar projects including oil and gas, forestry and mining.

In Egypt, the military, too, is deeply involved in business, particularly in the water, olive oil, cement, construction and energy industries. Yet for both countries to reform fully and attract investment, these industries must be free of military control and open to independent auditing. Indonesia gradually moves along this path.  

The countries of MENA could also learn from trade-obsessed Taiwan and South Korea, for  peacefully and painstakingly working out details for creating wealth, raising taxes, writing property law, building roads, schools and hospitals and making citizens stakeholders in their societies so that electoral changes of governments have become a routine part of life. To achieve stability and reform, emerging political parties in Taiwan and South Korea had to write manifestos to sell policies such as on rule-of-law, corruption and property rights to their citizens and the wider world.

MENA’s opposition groups must do the same – and need to be aware that forcing out a dictator, demanding democracy and calling for air strikes and Western aid are not enough. They must plan beyond taking power to good governance – mapping out the minutiae of school curricula, tax rates and health care. Publishing manifestos would do the vital job of intellectually testing detail.

Like East Asia, MENA must attach itself to regional and global institutions that encourage compromise, curb extremism, dilute violent nationalism and solidify shared goals.

The region is rich with institutions that could be put to better use. A rejuvenated Arab League and Organization of Islamic Conference could work with the European Economic Area (EEA) to lay down a stronger framework for regional trade. The EEA draws in laws and values of the European Union that would protect wealth and human rights. The Union for the Mediterranean, which encompasses 43 countries, could become an overarching engine for development. Turkey might act more as Japan has in East Asia, aware of its colonial past, but helpful in promoting democratic ambitions.

Such integration would allow the region’s new leaders to embrace the exchange of trade and ideas, strengthen national institutions, and override longstanding sectarian and religious issues.

To succeed, however, the US and its allies must think through how aid and advice is delivered and acknowledge that the Iraq and Afghanistan models have not worked well. And the leaders of MENA uprisings must explain to their citizens the art of compromise.

Like it or not, the United States will remain the leading global power for the foreseeable future. Iran and North Korea might choose to oppose US power, but post-Vietnam East Asia has used the US as a positive force with great benefits to their citizens without forfeiting sovereignty or cultural identity. MENA needs to find the same beneficial balance between retaining control and accepting help. 

In 1951, as Europe smoldered in the ruins of the Second World War, former enemies France and Germany signed the trade-based European Coal and Steel Community Treaty, which led to the founding of the EU. In 1989, the EU acted as the engine of reform for the collapsed Eastern bloc.  

In 1967, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand founded the Association of South East Asian Nations with the focus on economic growth and social progress. ASEAN is now a cohesive institution that creates wealth and prevents conflict and includes former enemies such as Vietnam and Cambodia as members.

The aspirations of the MENA uprising are universal, as were those that drove the American War of Independence and the collapse of the Berlin Wall – the quest for representation within government. As East Asia endured dreadful wars in the 1970s, many claimed that Asian societies were not suited for democracy. This proved to be nonsense, just as similar claims will prove to be in North Africa and the Middle East.

Humphrey Hawksley is a BBC world affairs correspondent. Click here to read his work.

Copyright © 2011 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization