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Cynthia P. Schneider

Cynthia P. Schneider

Posted: March 2, 2011 05:59 PM

Co-written with Nadia Oweidat

Young Arab women and men of Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and Yemen have proven that they are willing to die to build a better future. They yearn for freedom, opportunity and democracy. It is doubtful they will accept anything less. It may take time and it may get messy, but in the words of one of the Tahrir Square organizers, "The new great awakening is unfolding across the Arab world."

What will this new world look like in five to 10 years if the vision articulated in protests, blogs, posts and tweets becomes reality?

First, after decades of brutal repression and lack of accountability, governments in the Arab world will be responsible and responsive to their people. They will foster individual freedoms, religious and ethnic diversity, enable economic growth and uphold fair judicial processes.
Elections will bring leaders who can deliver on their promises or else they will be voted out. The specter of Tahrir Square will hang over every government.

The new accountability will extend to individual citizens, too. The youths who planned and organized the peaceful demonstrations in Egypt have demonstrated a new civic responsibility.
What was the first action after Egypt's Hosni Mubarak stepped down? A youth-organized cleanup of Tahrir Square, which extended to local efforts throughout the city. Neighborhood by neighborhood, the residents of Cairo and other cities and towns are taking their country back.

Second, it will be a world with greater productivity, economic growth and more equal distribution of wealth. The Arab countries have tremendous untapped natural resources, from oil and other natural resources to the inherent talents and abilities of their people.

With the majority of the population younger than 24 and 80 percent literacy, the Arab world can turn itself around. Decades of oppression have resulted in astounding stagnation that was well-documented in the U.N.'s Human Arab Development report.

With freedom and such youthful energy, this stagnation can be replaced with prosperity -- to the benefit of not just the Arab world but also the rest of the globe. Productivity among the youth would also mean a new market of about 300 million individuals who share one language and culture.

For the first time, countries throughout North Africa may become meritocracies that reward talent and achievement. In the past, whether under Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali or Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, there were two ways to advance: Being a relative or friend of the leader or bribery. Talent and high achievement more often were punished than rewarded.

There are exceptions to this rule. The Library of Alexandria, where industrious, dedicated employees regularly work 60 hours a week to produce a daunting program of exhibitions, concerts, conferences and more, shows what Egyptians are capable of in an environment that rewards hard work and proven ability.

Third, countries in the new Arab world will safeguard economic opportunity by being accountable and transparent. In this new information age, the ill-gotten wealth of the regimes is being exposed. Demands for restitution and punishment swiftly have followed, notably in Arabic Facebook groups and tweets. Calls to sue Mubarak for embezzling resources started the very first day after he left office. Switzerland is freezing his accounts and Ben Ali's.

Fourth, the new Arab world will again be a place of free thought and expression. It is the place that has given birth to the three monotheistic religions and a significant contribution to world's civilization in medicine and philosophy. (Greek philosophy lived in the Arab world for a thousand years before it went to Europe).

The silent, moderate majority finally will find expression through burgeoning independent media outlets. Expelled writers, filmmakers, thinkers and activists, now able to return to their homelands, will join to supplant the regime spokesmen and Islamists whom the dictators once used to whip up fear and support.

The wave of expression and creativity will capture the new feeling of Arab unity sparked by the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions. Policies isolating Arab countries from one another through restrictions of visas and travel will be lifted. Arabs who have long dreamed of a region like the European Union will travel freely across borders.

Fifth, the rights of women, who are part and parcel of this revolution, will be advanced. "The Facebook girls" phenomenon of young women organizing the protests online has become a signature element of the revolution. One covered woman named meemzoo tweeted, "It's time we stopped waiting for our day! The time is now for a women's revolution in Egypt and all the Arab world!"

On the streets, covered women mixed with uncovered, Muslim with Christian, all standing side by side with men. Newscasts frequently have captured the young women leading the crowds in chants and songs.

While the possibility remains that the Muslim Brotherhood ultimately will impose an Islamist state in Egypt, facts on the ground don't support the dire predictions peppering the Western media.

First, before deciding that Egypt is Iran, take a close look at the Muslim Brotherhood. Its popularity stems not from any promise of an Islamist state, but from its goals of combating corruption and providing services, such as education, neglected by the Egyptian government.

Secondly, spokesmen for the Brotherhood, before and after Mubarak's fall, have supported the people's call for a secular state. Finally, no charismatic figure comparable to Iran's Ruhollah Khomeini has emerged from the Brotherhood.

The Arab world is marching toward democracy, with or without the United States. To be relevant to the breakneck changes rocking the Middle East, the U.S. first needs to reexamine its foreign policy and its narcissistic definition of its security. A free and democratic Arab world aligns with America's security interests.

There is still time to change the perception of the United States as a place that utters sweet words of democracy but supports dictators -- as it has throughout the lifetimes of the young Arab leaders.