David Rothkopf

The Arab Spring needs a success story: if we have to choose just one, make it Egypt

Old Middle East hands know that when conflict comes in the region, history says that the smart money should be on David. The trick is knowing which David on which to bet. For example, when it comes to leading America’s most important initiative in the region, there might be a reflexive tendency to think that ...

-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images

Old Middle East hands know that when conflict comes in the region, history says that the smart money should be on David. The trick is knowing which David on which to bet.

For example, when it comes to leading America’s most important initiative in the region, there might be a reflexive tendency to think that the key David is General David Petraeus, leading as he does the U.S. effort in Afghanistan. But in reality, the most important David right now may be the National Economic Council’s David Lipton, the low-key, experienced, smart former under secretary of the treasury who is chairing the inter-agency working group looking at economic aid programs for Egypt.

That’s because in a region full of screeching, competing urgencies, there are few things more important to the United States’ interests than in making Egypt’s revolution work. And to make that revolution a success — to ensure Egyptian stability and that pluralism has a chance to take root in that country — the key is going to be whether the next government is able to deliver jobs and opportunity for the majority of Egyptians better than Mubarak could.

There is no clarity yet in Washington — or anywhere, I suspect — as to what all the changes sweeping through the Middle East mean for narrow national or broad global interests. The situation is too fluid. There are too many moving parts. We cannot know whether upheaval will bring lasting change or whether change will be for better or for worse in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Yemen, Syria, Jordan, Bahrain or elsewhere in the region. In every instance the players, the variables and the stakes are different. And other uprisings may be yet to come whether in the Palestinian Territories, Iran, or Saudi Arabia. So, one-size-fits-all policies are impossible to fashion.

But coherent, well-focused ones are not only possible but urgently needed. That means working with the international community to embrace positive change, identify, and reduce threats, send clear messages and set sensible priorities in terms of the time and resources devoted to each situation. In turn, government limitations in terms of capabilities and political will being what they are, that means zeroing in on the most important cases, the ones with the greatest resonance and implications, and trying to ensure the best possible outcomes in each.

Given Egypt’s centrality in the Arab world, its size, its political, cultural and historical roles, it is a natural choice for focus. And given that the issue in Egypt at its heart is, as it is elsewhere in the region, about creating lasting hope for the people, the success or failure of this Arab Spring will not be measured in the number of governments that fall but in the number of jobs that are ultimately created, especially for the young.

The United States and the international community can no more assure such job creation than they can any political outcome in these countries, but we can work to provide much needed aid flows, capital for infrastructure, trade deals that enable the world to have access to locally produced goods, technical assistance to ensure the right economic policies are implemented, etc.

Lipton’s working group within the administration is playing a central role in identifying the policies options that are available to the United States to assist with such efforts. He is abetted by senior officials such as those at the State Department, like the canny and effective Bob Hormats, under secretary of state for economic affairs, who are actively working on the Hill to identify how already allocated resources can be redirected to address this critical priority.

At higher levels within the administration, Secretary of State Clinton has played an absolutely central and driving role articulating the need for doing whatever possible to seize the opportunity and forestall the risks created by the changes that have come to Egypt. She and her team are working actively with the Europeans — who must play perhaps the leading role in this — and other allies from the region considering multiple options including the launching of a vehicle with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to help with the funding of vital projects in this regard. It is likely that in and around the upcoming IMF/World Bank meetings there will be more activity in this area. (TheEBRD is an especially good vehicle via which to implement such programs given its unique history as a bank created to support political and economic transitions.)

It is vitally important that the U.S. Congress recognizes that after decades of providing billions in military aid to Egypt without much in the way of controversy, it is more in the U.S. interests than ever to provide economic support right now when it will go not for the purchase of tanks and ammunition but for the training of Egyptian workers and the opening of Egyptian factories. It created ill will when the demonstrators in Tahrir Square picked up tear gas canisters that were made in the USA. The way to clear away that cloud will be to give Clinton, her team, Lipton and the rest of the administration the tools they need to help ensure the peace and promote democracy in a vital part of the world at a vital moment.

Should Egypt’s reforms succeed, and growth and new jobs come to that country, the effects will be manifold. Reform will be seen at home and throughout the region as a path to prosperity. It will be seen to have delivered on its promise and that will encourage further reforms. In addition, Egypt, to succeed, must remain both stable and open to the international community which in turn will promote freer exchange of ideas and ultimately greater diversity of views, an important contributor to national political moderation. Finally, Egypt shares a border with Gaza and with Libya and if it is successful, its example, lessons and businesses will have much to offer to foster economic growth in those countries. However, even if Egypt sees real democratic progress in elections this year, if those elections do not produce economic progress, the door will be open to more extremist groups who will pray on the dissatisfaction of the population at large.

There is much to debate about America’s policies and those of our allies across the Middle East. Some issues — from the future disposition of the Libya question to likely challenges associated with the Palestinian move for independence — will prove contentious and thorny. But if there is one area in which there ought to be consensus it should be that we do everything in our power to ensure that the future of the Middle East and this Arab Spring is determined not by generals on the battlefield but by economists, businessmen and diplomats who can deliver to the region hope rather than those old familiar threats that have cost the people of the region and the world so much for so long.

 Twitter: @djrothkopf
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