In The News

The Arab Awakening: Governance Lessons for Asia and Beyond

May 4, 2011

Over the last months, the world has watched as uprisings and revolutions have spread across the streets and squares of the Arab world. In Egypt, entire families – mothers, wives, daughters, grandmothers, showed remarkable courage in standing shoulder-to-shoulder with their brothers, sons, and fathers in the face of black-clad riot police calling for the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. Youth in Syria, Libya, and beyond continue to risk their lives, calling for lower food prices, job opportunities, and, most importantly, political reform. The future of these nations is far from certain, but few can argue that the recent events mark one of the most dramatic global political developments since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Protest in Egypt

The protests that toppled governments in Tunisia and Egypt, and that are de-stabilizing other Arab regimes, have been youth-led and technology-enabled. Above, a protester waves a flag in Egypt's Tahrir square. Photo by M. Soli.

According to a new poll conducted by the Pew Research Center – the first major poll in Egypt since Mubarak’s ouster – “Egyptians are looking forward with extraordinary confidence and enthusiasm to their first free and fair elections this fall after the defining revolution of the Arab spring.” As the new president of The Asia Foundation, and former president of the American University in Cairo, this news, and the events that led to its unfolding, are powerful, instructive illustrations of what a lack of good governance, civic participation, and a functioning civil society can look like at full tilt. Our mission to improve governance and increase citizen participation in Asia requires we deeply examine the factors and forces that led to the sudden collapse of such entrenched regimes.

Arab youth truly have been at the vanguard of the revolution. The protests that toppled governments in Tunisia and Egypt, and that are de-stabilizing other Arab regimes, have been youth-led and technology-enabled. For example, in Egypt, it was YouTube images of an innocent torture victim in Alexandria, combined with 70,000 volunteers on Facebook that galvanized the first major protests on Tahrir square on January 25. So, we ask ourselves, what does all of this mean for the rest of the world?

For lessons from the past, we can look to Asia for some examples. In 1998, in Indonesia, a student-led movement toppled a dictator of 32 years, unleashing similar fears to those felt in Egypt that extremist forces would fill the power void. In the years immediately after Suharto’s fall, however, Indonesia’s reform process was remarkable, Robin Bush, our country representative in Jakarta, recently recounted on In Asia. But, she quickly cautioned, as “reformists in Egypt start to chart their course through a democratic reform process, and experts begin increasingly to view Indonesia as a “Model for Egypt’s Transition,” it behooves us to take a closer look at where Indonesia’s reform has taken the country 13 years later. Many observers and analysts in Indonesia today feel that reform has stagnated for years now, and in some areas, is actually regressing.” (Read Robin’s new post this week, where she offers lessons from Indonesia’s democratic transition.)

On the 25th anniversary of the 1986 People Power Revolution that ousted Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Steven Rood our country representative in the Philippines, blogged from Manila that although the anniversary offers a “lens to view the same kind of peaceful ouster that played out in Egypt…..history’s verdict will depend on how much the new dispensation improves the lives of citizens.” Both countries suffer from poverty, and although in both cases the revolutions changed the government, they left uncertain consequences for development.

And Asia Foundation Korea expert Scott Snyder wrote on the idea of a “Libya Model” for North Korea, warning that this model “does suggest that the path to inevitable and necessary political change in North Korea may be inescapably violent, chaotic, and unsettling not only to North Korea, but to its neighbors and the world.”

This week I’m guest-editing In Asia, and our experts examine some of the most pressing issues and implications for Asia. Preeminent China scholar and Asia Foundation Vice Chair Harry Harding looks at China’s continuing political stability; while Stanford’s Don Emmerson asks, what is “the Muslim World?”  Our trustee, National Geographic’s Terry Adamson, examines how brands and products influence global values, and John Brandon, who directs our International Relations program, wonders if current events might distract from U.S. commitment to Asia. Korea expert Scott Snyder looks to East Asia for clues to democratic consolidation.

Asia Foundation President David Arnold visits Kabul University.

David Arnold, Asia Foundation president and former president of the American University in Cairo, visits Kabul University.

Today, I began a global speaking tour; the first stop was Stanford University in the Silicon Valley, where I joined Larry Diamond, Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and Stanford University, and Don Emmerson, to discuss the dramatic political developments sweeping North Africa and the Middle East, and the implications of those developments for the rest of the world. From the Bay Area, I’ll head to Jakarta, and then on to Sydney, Australia, where I’ll speak at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, and then on to New York for The Asia Foundation’s inaugural Lotus Leadership Awards, where we’ll honor visionary AIDS researcher Dr. David Ho, and finally, later this fall, to The Economist’s Banyan conference in Singapore.

We can of course only speculate about the path that various Arab countries may follow over the next decade. However, in the current global communications age, simply adopting a “wait and see” posture is probably not an option. As with the collapse of the Berlin Wall more than two decades ago, the reverberations of the “Arab Awakening” are being felt well beyond the Middle East.

David D. Arnold joined The Asia Foundation as president in January 2011. He can be reached at president@asiafound.org.

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