Managing Compromise in the Middle East

CAIRO – The Middle East, and especially the Arab world, is experiencing a period of fundamental change and even more fundamental challenges. But the region’s ability to meet the many challenges that it faces has been complicated by national, regional, and international disagreements about what form change – both across the region and in individual societies – should take.

The international community undoubtedly has a central role to play in supporting social and economic reform in the region, and in assisting governments to find both the will and the way to undertake the necessary changes. But it is far more important that Arabs themselves adopt a forward-looking perspective in reckoning with the challenges that they face, and that they take charge of their own destiny.

That much became clear with the Arab Spring revolts in 2011. Even though the region was already being transformed by demographic changes, including rapid population growth, urbanization, and a spike in unemployed, university-educated young adults, the eruption of protests took many Middle Eastern and North African countries by surprise. Arab youths were a major force behind demands for change. So, too, were new digital technologies that freed up information and facilitated communication among ordinary citizens, essentially dismantling the monopolies that many governments held on knowledge and connectivity.

But the greatest reasons for disruption have been rooted in the inability of Arab governments and societies to manage effectively the changes sweeping the region, and their excessive dependence on foreign countries to ensure their security. Many governments, having grown sclerotic and rigid, were quickly outpaced by social and geopolitical forces beyond their control, and have proved unable or unwilling to adapt to any trend challenging the status quo. This also reflects the fact that central features in many governments’ domestic and regional agendas are not even of their own making, but were imposed from outside the region.