A better future for the Arab world
A solidarity pact between Egypt, Libya and Tunisia could help all three countries jump-start their economies, writes Mohammad Tarbush
One of the top priorities of Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi should be the signing of a solidarity pact with Libya and Tunisia. Only a bold initiative on this scale can trigger a departure from the stagnation that those countries, and the Arab world in general, have been trapped in over the past three generations.
To say that the present state of affairs in the Arab world does not match the true potential of the region or its people would be a gross understatement.
All kinds of theories have been advanced as explanations for this lopsided situation, from want of unity and collective purpose, to uneven distribution of wealth, to the creation of the state of Israel, to a lack of real independence, to the absence of democracy, to religion, and to the downright silly hypothesis claiming that there are unique "idiosyncrasies of the Arab mind".
The main deficiency of such theories springs from the fact that they view the Arab world as if it had emerged in the early 20th century as it is today, without attaching due significance to its warped foundation, laid down by the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916, that arbitrarily chopped it up into innately weak and dependent states.
No force can ever put the clock back, but through Arab solidarity measures can be taken to make structural modifications to that defective foundation.
Imagine a solidarity pact that would consolidate the combined natural and human resources of, say, Egypt with its 84 million people, Libya with its seven million and Tunisia with its 11 million.
Egypt could and should become a pioneer of such a solidarity movement, and Europe with its long experience in regional integration could be a vital source of conceptual and logistical support for the project.
Notwithstanding the difficulties Europe is now facing, the fact remains that through modest steps, such as the establishment of a customs and tariffs union, six European countries embarked in the mid-1950s on a "utopian" project that has since brought together 27 fairly heterogeneous countries that were encumbered with a past marked by bloody conflicts and apocalyptic wars.
In the case of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, even discrepancies in the concentration of wealth, distribution of population, and degrees of economic development could be turned from being hindrances into incentives for the spread of more generalised prosperity and egalitarianism, and thus for instilling a degree of the equilibrium needed to sustain local and regional stability.
Were they to be brought together as part of such a pact, the shared frontiers of these countries would add to the feasibility of aligning their economies. One can easily imagine the tremendous efficiency and productivity that would result in all sectors from the application of economies of scale and complementarity.
With time, these countries could evolve and be seen as role models for other Arab states to follow, the obvious ones being Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan, once known collectively as Bilad Ash-Sham (Greater Syria). By focusing on the many things their people have in common, rather than on the divisive elements that have sprung out of the Sykes-Picot legacy, it is certainly plausible for these countries to reproduce their not-so-distant past when people, goods and services moved freely within their frontiers while, as provinces of the former Ottoman Empire, they also enjoyed a relatively high degree of autonomy.
Such functional integration could quickly lead to the emergence of such blocs as credible and reliable destinations for outside investment, particularly from the cash-rich Arab states in which the latter's relatively small local markets and size of populations cannot absorb or justify large development projects.
The majority of the cash-rich Arab states have been pumping their petro-dollars back into the economies of the countries importing their oil, with the result that while the latter continue to prosper, three generations after some Arab states were bestowed with huge revenues from oil they remain one-dimensional economies having almost total dependence on one single finite commodity.
Meaningful acts of Arab solidarity today could open up new development horizons and help countries to jump-start their sluggish economies. They would enable the Arab region to become self-sufficient in most fields and propel its people towards a future where prosperity, justice and dignity are not offered by the state to a select number of cronies as perks, but are claimed by all citizens as entitlements.
It is within the reach of President Mursi to trigger the process needed for such a metamorphosis.
The writer is a Geneva-based banker and political analyst.