Panel 4: Beyond the Street: Arab Youth in Post-Uprising Politics
November 15, 2013
Kate Seelye, Middle East Institute: Our fourth panel of the day addresses a topic too often overlooked by most scholars and policy analysts, which is sort of why the Arab Spring was such a surprise to so many, and that is the topic of Arab youth, their political activism, and the tools they’ve used to empower themselves. I’m especially excited about this panel because, as I just said, we have a lot of fresh voices from the region who are very actively engaged in shaping their civil societies and pushing for more democratic states.
Moderating today’s panel is an analyst who’s been following the democratization process in the Middle East very closely and that is Brian Katulis who joins us from the Center for American Progress where he’s a senior fellow focusing on U.S. national security policy in the Middle East and South Asia. Brian has written and consulted extensively on the Middle East and worked in Egypt, in the West Bank for the National Democratic Institute in a previous life and understands well the challenges of building democratic communities. So, Brian, I’d like to turn the panel over to your competent hands.
Brian Katulis, Center for American Progress: Thank you very much, Kate, and it’s really a thrill to be here.
I was actually supposed to be on a plane earlier this afternoon and when Kate reached out to me and asked me to do this, I was very enthused for three reasons. First, in part for my appreciation for Wendy and her leadership and the whole team you have over at the Middle East Institute. It’s been a tremendous conference. I was at the dinner last night. It’s a wonderful organization and there’s more talent coming. It’s a great place to analyze and discuss the Middle East.
Second, in large part, the topic interests me. Very interesting, if you look at the agenda, I don’t know if it was planned this way, but some people have said that some of the sessions were really pessimistic about the situation in the region and certainly the region is in a very difficult and complicated phase. They’re ending the conference on looking towards the youth and the future with voices from three very important countries which is a third reason why I was really enthused to do this.
Because, when you think about it, almost three years after the Arab uprisings or whatever we’re calling it right now, the important role that youth movements played in starting the change was key. But, when you look at who’s still leading these countries and the generation change that has not yet come in the politics, it seems to me we’re just at the start of a tremendous period of change when you look at demographics, politics, and things like this.
I don’t want to go on forever. My job here is to tee up the conversation and introduce what is an excellent panel. We’re going to go in the order we’re seated from left to right. Our first speaker will be Ahmed Maher who is with the April 6 Movement. He was the founder and former chief coordinator of the April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt. Our second panelist is Mabrouka Mbarek, a member of the Tunisian Constituent Assembly and we didn’t go in that order, sorry. (Laughter.) My notes were improper. That’s her but you’re still speaking third. Our second speaker is from Libya - and we’re actually going geographically too, if you notice, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia - is Ayat Mneina from the Libyan Youth Movement. Canadian-Libyan writer and analyst. Our final speaker, at least in the introduction, will be Lina Khatib from Stanford University but going out to Beirut to direct Carnegie’s Middle East Center in Beirut.
What I thought we’d do is start out the conversation with a very simple question on three different countries at very different points in transition and still in transition, I wanted to get each of the panelists’ snapshot perspective of where things stand in terms of youth politics and the changes in these countries based on your own personal experiences and give us that snapshot of where things are and where you think things are heading in terms of youth politics. Ahmed?
Ahmed Maher, April 6 Movement: Thank you for this introduction. My name is Ahmed Maher. I work as a civil engineer. I am the founder of the April 6 Movement.
If we try to talk quickly about what happened in Egypt, the revolution happened in 25 January 2011 and it has taken many years before, more than eight or ten years, to prepare for this revolution. And, it has taken, after Mubarak stepped down, many waves of revolution and pushes for real democracy and we had many clashes and conflicts between the revolution and the authorities, the SCAF in 2011 and then with Muslim Brotherhood and President Morsi in 2012/2013.
Now, we have a different situation in Egypt. Now, the people forced Morsi to step down but also the authorities, the deep state, the old regime try to return back to the authority. And yes, we have some troubles about human rights but the youth movements are trying to start from scratch, to start from square number zero and focusing on human rights issues and focusing on the idea of civil state and real civil state and try to push again like the times before for our dream of revolution and dignity and social justice and real freedom. So, we consider it to be a very difficult situation in Egypt and it will take a very long time to achieve our demands.
Katulis: Great. Libya?
Ayat Mneina, Libyan Youth Movement: Thank you, Brian, for that and I think what Brian had said initially was that it was young people who really brought the revolution on the world stage and really were brave enough to speak out, finally. But, it is those same young people that are being pushed back into the shadows now that people want these countries to move forward and transition. Libya is kind of seen positively by the international community. There is a conflict of interests when it comes to those powers in Libya versus the young people and where the government wants young people in this transition.
Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, civil society in Libya is something that was kind of nonexistent until post-revolution and, given that that’s the case, civil society has not really permeated inside Libya in terms of actually being a grassroots source of power for things that everyday people see as a concern in their lives and an opportunity for change. That being said, the government has largely dismissed or allowed civil society to be the realm of young people and that’s something that is kind of ineffective because civil society has not really permeated in the country. You could say it’s an immature society and in that sense, it’s not enough for young people to stay there.
The notion of the older generation having more experience and having capability or capacity that young people do not hold because of their age is the excuse usually given to Libyans on the ground - that you can’t join politics yet because you need to wait for us to set the scene, establish the country, and then you’ll have plenty of time basically to take our spot which is actually a very dangerous idea to have because it now when young people need to step up, when the country’s actually being put into the direction it’s going to go in down the line.
That’s basically the opinion of the youth on the ground. Not everyone wants to join politics but everyone wants to be effective and wants to be included in that conversation so that’s the struggle.
Katulis: Great. So, Ahmed and Ayat, you both used common phrases “starting from scratch,” “we’ve been pushed back to the shadows.” Again, a few years into these transitions, Mabrouka, I wonder if the situation is similar or is it different in Tunisia? How do you see it? You’re certainly involved in the political transition in a very important way.
Mabrouka Mbarek, Tunisian Constituent Assembly Member: Similarly to Libya and Egypt, the youth were the population that had the courage to take the opposition in the streets, which triggered the revolution. I think right after the revolution what was really important, there was electoral law that not only forced every political party to have a mixed list - women and men alternatively - there was also a condition that one candidate has to be below 30 years old. That was a major step. That’s why today the constituent assembly, of which I am a member of, a quarter almost, it’s at 24% of the MPs are below 40 years.
I would say in Tunisia I feel like the youth they don’t claim their rights - they exercise them. They’ve been really active in political parties, in civil societies. Right after the revolution, there was a burst of civil society and the political party that I’m in, there’s a large number of youth. They’re almost directing every single department, communication, and activism, etc. So, they are active. They’re not waiting so that the laws specify that you have to include youth, etc.
I’m a member of the constitutional committee that drafted the preamble and fundamental principles. One of the things that came out - there’s a lot of youth, a lot of civil society, that came to the constituent assembly because we did a lot of consultation and they said we want an article about youth so we decided we’ll do it. We checked in other constitutions and found that Ecuador has an article on it, etc. We try to say that the government has to have inclusive policies and we recognize that youth is a member of society and therefore, they have a place to participate.
Again, there’s laws and then, there’s action. I see that in day-to-day life. Tunisian youth are participating. Even though, now during the national dialogue all the candidates that pushed to become the next Prime Minister, they are all above 80 years old, then we can see in parallel a new coalition born within the constituent assembly, the majority is the youth. Again, I feel like Tunisian youth don’t wait. They act.
Katulis: That’s a great observation. Lina, you’ve been studying this for a while and you’ve been writing a lot. What are the bigger trends that you see? Again, three years into these transitions, where do you see this all going with the youth politics?
Lina Khatib, Carnegie Middle East Center: Okay, what I’m going to say is probably not going to be too popular. As someone who has been looking at what is termed youth politics, our problem is the prism we have been using to think about issues of youth politics is, I think, very narrow and, dare I say, wrong. In my opinion, youth have been largely romanticized by both the youth themselves and by people outside who tend to, in general, invoke youth when they want to talk about positive things. Of course, youth do positive things as we’ve just heard but that’s not really the big picture. If you think about the populations of the Arab world, most people in the Arab world are actually under the age of 35 so when we talk about youth we’re actually talking about the majority of the populations in every country in the region. To associate youth with just reform and activism and positive things is, I think, a bit myopic because we are seeing so many negative trends that youth are a part of. That’s one thing we should kind of undo, which is the romanticization of youth.
The other thing that we’ve been doing wrong in thinking about youth politics is ghettoizing youth. Although I’m very, of course, honored and flattered to be on this panel, which looks at youth politics, I really hope that we can all work towards not having youth issues as a kind of separate niche thing. The way to empower youth is to have youth integrated in every single issue we talk about. If we think about the major problems facing youth participation and youth politics, if we want to call it that, they are actually the same geopolitical and security problems facing the region in general. For example, what we’re seeing in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria is the endurance of old political elites, ok? This is a large macro-issue that affects political participation at large. If we look at Yemen, Syria, and Libya, we also have a big macro-problem, which is the endurance of and rise of Islamist extremism. These two issues have a real impact on political participation.
Then, we have to look at the issue of the international community and its own role in tackling these two issues. We see that when it comes to youth the international community is often thought of when it comes to education support, democracy assistance programs, very rarely do we think of youth when it comes to the international community’s foreign policies but this is where we should be actually thinking. We should put the foreign policy hat on. When we think of foreign policy, say U.S. policy regarding Egypt, Syria, and Yemen, the blunders of U.S. foreign policy have served to keep the old guards in place and this has basically hindered youth political participation. When it comes to Tunisia, all the positive developments that Mabrouka has spoken about have been met with relative inattention on the part of U.S. foreign policy simply because Tunisia is no longer a priority for U.S. interests, unfortunately, even though it should be, as Professor Larry Diamond said in the morning. When it comes to Libya, we’re seeing very little follow-up. Yesterday, those of you who were at the dinner would have heard Ambassador Susan Rice talk about this great initiative to support education in Libya yet at the same time the security situation in Libya is really dire. When you have a situation where there is a lot of extremism and a lot of violence, how can you expect any progress on any level to really happen?
To kind of try to solve the problem by simply focusing on the soft issues that are normally associated with youth and ignoring the hard politics is, I think, very myopic and I will also here add looking at the role of regional actors like Saudi Arabia and Qatar in maintaining the status quo in several of the countries whether by supporting old guard elites in certain places like Egypt or supporting certain Islamist groups in a country like Libya or even Tunisia.
Regional geopolitics, international geopolitics are playing a big role and also, political participation of youth really is about political participation in general. Because of all these macro problems we’re seeing issues like rising sectarianism, constitutions that have not been what the youth actually wanted when they participated in their uprisings in 2011, restrictions on freedom of expression, continuing economic problems limiting what the youth can do, political and social polarization in countries like Tunisia and elsewhere and the resurgence of extremism. All these macro problems are affecting everybody in the region and youth are simply the majority of these populations.
This is the prism I think that we should think through.
Katulis: Those are a great set of comments and what I thought we’d do is go back through and get the reactions from Ahmed, Ayat and Mabrouka to those overall comments. I think it set the table very, very well and in particular this point of the label “Arab youth.” Is it just too broad? Quite obviously, there are just so many different competing economic, social pressures that create divisions amongst the Arab youth and then Lina also mentioned negative trends among Arab youth. How do you see it in your own countries and maybe start with Ahmed in terms of Egypt? Egypt is at a very sensitive and difficult juncture here. There are clear divisions among the youth. What do you see as the biggest camps and the more negative trends there?
Maher: I think that the main problem now in Egypt is the divisions spreading in the community between pro-military or pro-Muslim Brotherhood. The original groups that were like sparks in the revolution or started the momentum in the 25 January now they are focusing on the revolution demands and the same revolution demands about social justice, about dignity, about human rights, about freedom. So, we don’t want to join any campaign that is pro-military or pro-Morsi or don’t want to make Morsi president again like Muslim Brotherhood does. It’s very difficult now in this situation to have real reconciliation and the word of reconciliation is very bad in Egypt. Anyone talking about reconciliation and negotiations, now they consider him as enemy and, you know, he supports terrorism or something like that - that is of state opinion or the authorities’ opinion.
We need to push for the idea of reconciliation because we can’t live under the slogan of “war on demonstrators” all our time or all our lives. Now that the young groups, they can mobilize people, they can make demonstrations, they can force a dictatorship to step down, they can organize in Tahrir square or any square, they aren’t afraid of state violence or the police or arrests or killing but the problem is that we have no alternative or machine like the two forces: old state or bureaucracy or the deep state and Muslim Brotherhood. Both of them have real alternatives and machines for elections and they will organize and have money and have economy, have big number of supporters, have structure, but the young groups don’t have this alternative.
I think we will win to achieve our demands if we focus on building the real alternative and I think now, this time, we are trying to bring ourselves united to have a front focusing on the revolutionary demands and build this alternative for the future.
Katulis: So, you agree with the criticism some have that the youth just been too disengaged from the formal politics that they’ve taken to the streets and they haven’t organized themselves in a way that these more traditional groups have. It’s interesting when you think about Mabrouka’s comments about Tunisians, very formal mechanisms that are in to include the youth. Do you think Egypt, Libya need more of that? What will it take to get the youth more actively engaged in formal politics?
Maher: Yes, I think it’s very important to let the youth have more chances to participate in politics. I was a member in the previous constituent assembly during 2012 but I found that situation inside very hard because it’s controlled also by the Muslim Brotherhood and they ignored any advice or any projects from the young people during that constitution.
Same now. There is now return, again, from the old forces, that they try to write a constitution but also there are some revolutionary voices or liberals inside the assembly but there is also the youth don’t have a good percentage to try to help or something like that. The SCAF in 2011, Morsi in 2012, the new authorities and the new regime now, they promise that they will let young people participate more in politics and institutions but no one let them have a chance and we could turn again to the street politics not the real politics or political parties so they push us again to using the street politics and demonstrating.
Katulis: Great. Ayat, how do you see the divisions among youth in Libya and as a main factor, especially as it moves forward, hopefully with its constitutional process and next round of elections, do you see any distinct camps emerging amongst the different youth groups there?
Mneina: Unfortunately in Libya, like what Lina was saying, the young people are a part of every single faction in that society. Among young people, there’s the camp where it’s the civil society organizations and that takes up a large majority of young people because most of them do want to contribute to the positive reformation of their nation. But, then there’s also the young people that are involved in these militias which are actively aggressing upon them and upon anything that they are trying to execute in their plans or whatever it is like monitoring the government, acting as watchdogs, or even just having awareness campaigns. The militias are often meeting them right in the middle of the road and stopping those efforts.
Another camp is young people who really are kind of lost when it comes to politics and when it comes to development of the country because they are not necessarily in Benghazi or in Tripoli or don’t have access to the civil society organizations. They don’t understand what their government is talking about when they’re addressing the nation. The politics of the country haven’t really been developed enough for everyone to get a sense of what’s going on. I think in Egypt that’s been something developing for decades and I’m not sure about Tunisia so I’ll let Mabrouka talk about that. Political identities and political ideologies in Libya are almost brand new so you don’t have distinct Islamists that are going to stay Islamists throughout. They’re not convinced. These people are jumping identities between Islamists one-day, liberals the next, and then Muslim Brotherhood is also another thing. There aren’t developed identities that people can kind of monitor actively and keep track of and then, young people joining that political sphere. These identities changes and it’s very confusing so there isn’t a neutral system that would allow youth to just join the political realm - that realm has already been colored according to those people that are within the GNC and within the government so that’s a barrier in and of itself.
The second barrier is that youth are the ones that are fighting each other on the street and then they’re the ones that are stopping the civil society organizations, which are made up of youth.
It’s a very confusing equation and I just have to say basically until the security situation has really been under control we can’t really expect any of this progress to move forward until the government clamps down on that issue - be it finding these youth other alternatives for them to turn their energy, that is getting training, or joining the Army or whatever it is. Most people in militias don’t want to remain there and most people in civil society want to have more of an effect. Other young people who do want to join politics want to be allowed in so there are many different camps. They clash very much but there needs to be some issues that need to be addressed as a whole.
Katulis: Great. One thing you just said, Ayat, and it’s something I’ve seen in my own analysis -I’m putting out a report next week on Egypt with Michael Hanna - this issue of ideas and ideological politics. I thought maybe both Mabrouka and Lina could talk about this. I know we’re talking about the youth. Talk about it in terms of how they see concrete ideas, political and policy ideas, in the challenges that Tunisia faces.
Because the one conclusion, and this may not be accurate, one interim conclusion I have is that the depth of the political debates, the ideological debates is very thin. There aren’t really distinct ideological camps. I don’t know if you agree with that - that in many countries in the region it’s a battle of elites, political elites and old orders, that aren’t really connected to vibrant ideas. That may be untrue in Tunisia but I wonder how you see the next generation in Tunisia and their ideas, the big name camps that are emerging there. First Mabrouka and then, maybe, Lina.
Mbarek: Thank you. Well, in Tunisia we can see different groups of youth - the one who have firsthand experience in politics, those who are involved in civil society, the entrepreneurs, and those who are left out. Unfortunately, those who are left out are the majority.
I’m going to start those who are in firsthand politics. Besides the coalition that I talked about, there have been also informal groups. The government is three parties - two secularists and one moderate Islamist - and the youth of each of these parties formed an informal group called As-shabab, not like Somalia (laughter), Shabab al-Troika because we call ourselves a troika.
Whenever we have a problem to convince our leaders, we meet and we find out that we do have our ideologies and amongst the people who are participating in civil society, we can sort out. There are the youth, the young people who participated in launching the revolution and somehow they were raised into celebrities through social media or being nominated for the Peace Prize or picked up by the World Social Forum. They’ve been flown all over the world and they are supposed to be the elite. These young people when we ask them - they’re called the “influencers” - what they’re thinking about economy, about specific topics, they really can’t - mostly they’re working for transparency but then they don’t have many ideas when it comes to programs. When the tamarod movement in Egypt started, they felt that their role was rebirthed. Their role, which was the principle role, that made them celebrities, so they were backing what was happening. When El-Sisi showed the repression, then they dived into silence.
I’m talking about this because we compare it to more organic movements and I can speak of three movements - one called Sawaid, one called Magelonash, and one is the Agriculture Union. I want to talk about this because that shows how the youth have ideas.
Sawaid, they actually developed to defend the constituent assembly’s work, the continuity of the transition because when tamarod in Egypt was going on, there was also the similar threat and prominent opposition figures from the old regime actually called publicly for the dissolution of the constituent assembly. We worked so hard. There was a lot of things going on and we were almost done with the constitution and they actually said we should start from scratch, calling the police to work a coup d’état and also the army as it was mentioned this morning. Sawaid, it was different. They really wanted stability and they brought a lot of people in the street to promote stability.
Magelonash, it means, “They haven’t told us.” It’s a group of young people who decrypted what nobody talks about which is the Partnership of Deauville. In May 2011, in Deauville, the superpowers planned the economic package reform for all the countries - Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Yemen, and Tunisia -and they decrypted it and also decrypted the plan from the IMF - the restructural plan. They campaigned with “they haven’t told us” that the subsidies are a huge issue but we shouldn’t change it otherwise it will lead to another revolution but the biggest expense is debt. They haven’t told us. They haven’t told us. I mean, the whole campaign is decrypting and they even train MPs in the assembly. That raised awareness when Cyprus had an enormous crisis and the IMF was really pleased to find a solution that did not require Parliament’s vote then thanks to this youth movement, Magelonash, we forced the Minister of Finance and the Governor of the Central Bank to come to the Parliament and answer our questions and forced them to understand that this major reform has to pass parliamentary vote.
The other one is the Agricultural Union and on the board is a young woman who is less than 35 years. It’s a woman. She’s young and she’s very vibrant and they do have a lot of programs to boost young entrepreneurs in the field of agriculture and to promote food sovereignty, to try to put back agriculture in the heart of the economy. In Tunisia, we depend on phosphate and tourism and this is highly risky.
In contrast, I feel like organic movements respond more to what Tunisia needs but also they develop the ideas and they promote stability, economic stability, political stability and for the last word for those who are left out. Those who are in cafes, young men in Tunisia are spending hours in cafes. Those who don’t contribute, don’t have a job. They are left out and there’s a frustration that is growing. The transition is lasting too long. We want it to finish as soon as possible. The problem is this frustration grows and these people are becoming fragile and they are a group that can be influenced to go to Syria and to even lead to violent form of activism. I can speak of the youth movement, Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution, who are really frustrated because the government has not done transitional justice and so on and they’re responding with violence.
Katulis: Thank you. Lina, I wonder if you have some thoughts again about the overall trends. I think the interesting thing about your opening remarks, it was just a reminder that we’re at the start of a phase and do we even, three years into this, have any inklings of what are the different camps that might be emerging amongst the youth, especially amongst those who might be going into politics in the next round of elections?
Khatib: Democracy, transition, these things are not linear and they take a very long time. I think one of the biggest frustrations for lots of people observing and participating in these processes is that everybody had such high expectations for things to materialize very soon and that’s just not realistic. We’re really seeing an evolutionary process and this will take a long time and in any evolutionary process, when it comes to politics, it’s sometimes a case of trial and error. I think we’re witnessing that very clearly in Egypt where you see certain movements start, try new things, they don’t work, they learn from their mistakes, they try again and on it goes. I think with time we will arrive at a time when we see viable political movements in the region but I think right now it’s very difficult for us to expect - and again, I emphasize, when we talk about youth, we’re talking about most of the populations of these countries - these populations who have never experienced democracy or pluralistic political participation to all of a sudden know how to act strategically. This will not be something that will happen in three years or in five years or maybe ten years. This is a process that will take at least a generation. Let’s be realistic. I think one issue with most people who participated in the uprisings who thought that by having ideals they can make change happen, I think they are slowly learning that you need to have hierarchies. You need to organize into groups. You need to have long-term goals.
Again, it’s early days. I think we should take a big picture view of the trends that are happening so as not to also lose faith in what’s happening in the region. We’re at the very beginning.
Katulis: Great. I’m going to draw you in in a little bit so think about the questions you might want to ask the panel.
We’re going to continue the discussion a little bit here but Lina, you just described this as a learning process and it’s organic, and that’s correct, but I wanted to ask each of the panelists, again almost three years into the changes and each of you in your own way being very active and being leaders amongst the youth population, what have been the biggest lessons learned for you? Ahmed? Maybe positive lessons learned and also negative lessons about your own experiences and how are you going to carry that forward in terms of the next phase?
Maher: The most important thing is that we’re all the time optimistic and don’t forget your beliefs and don’t accept any pressure against your beliefs and, also, fighting to have your demands of freedom and justice and, also, it will take a long time.
Also, I think we did many mistakes. The first mistake for us was that we trusted the military in the beginning in 2011. This was a big mistake. We left Tahrir Square very early. We met the generals of that time and we said, “ok, we’ll give them a chance” and they betrayed us in 2011. The second mistake for me that we did not organize ourselves. Many youth groups fight against each other after Mubarak so we had to organize our groups to unite, at least a united front, to achieve our demands that let the old regime, the post-wings of the old regime, military or Muslim Brotherhood because they were ready for authority so they took the jump and they push that for the wrong track. The lesson is that we need to avoid that in the next revolution.
Mneina: I think a lesson we learned early on but we let go and then we relearn it as things go on in Libya is that for me, as a young person, I learned from the revolution that there was no waiting for other people to step forward for me. If there was something that I wanted to see done, it was for me to take on that initiative, or young people as a whole. Why I say we forget that is because we quickly were directed to step back and let the government take care of things and those older than us to do their jobs. We grew complacent really quickly and then went into civil society and hung back. That lesson that we’re relearning is that, “hey, we are young but that’s exactly why we need to take this into our own hands.”
Our abilities are surprising us throughout time as things are unfolding and developing. The fact that we, as young people, can really be that change and instead of waiting for Libya to get an army or to get its constitution together or to appoint a space for civil society to be included in the conversation - well, we need to organize ourselves and we need to start doing that before we can even ask for anything. We need to know what we want.
Mbarek: The biggest mistake I’ve done and many people did in Tunisia is to let us fall into the trap of religious polarization. We hear it over and over and it’s really difficult to steer out of it. But, I’ve noticed that when it comes to talking about economy, then we can bring people together. The three movements that I talked about as organic youth movements, it was amazing because they were able to bring everybody together regardless of religion polarization and that to me is remarkable.
The one other biggest mistake is we haven’t really had our own transitional justice. We’ve talked about it a long time. A lot of organizations came and told us about it. At the very, very beginning, we had a law to put aside old regime and it’s not enough. We should have everyone remember what was the old regime, the torture. I wish to see a museum of torture so that people really understand or remember what had happened.
What we’re seeing today is the old regime coming back in different forms and reclaiming power and the stalemate that we are in is not a power struggle between Islamists and non-Islamists. Because I live inside it, I can tell you. It’s mostly a power struggle between the old regime and the new regime. Even our big partner Ennahda - because maybe I didn’t mention that I’m from the Congress for the Republic, the secularist, non-Islamist party - we’re seeing even a split within Ennahda of people who are giving up and thinking we have to work with the old regime and a big part saying no. These partners saying no are encouraging us to do a coalition, a young coalition inside the assembly to reclaim political legitimacy.
All of this is very complicated and it’s very frustrating. Everybody is frustrated and I think I would say the lesson learned is everyday we have to keep in mind - once I said a democratic transition is like giving birth to a child for the first time. It’s long, enduring, painful but the outcome is marvelous and yet, uncertain. I think the analogy, it shows a very difficult journey and we can’t meet all expectations in Tunisia. If we come to elections soon and we manage to have a functioning government with three parties, a sense of consensus between multiple parties, I think that will be the major success. We cannot answer economic distress. We cannot answer a lot of things but, at least, having an okay constitution because it will be consensus based and therefore not perfect, an okay constitution that protects elementary rights and an experience of pluralism, I think to me, it’s already a great success.
Katulis: Great. You mentioned you brought people together on the economy and I was wondering if you could come to this town and do trainings for our members of Congress. (Laughter.)
Mbarek: It’s funny because the government shutdown. I live in Vermont, right, so I commute between Vermont and Tunis and every time it’s very stressful for me to go back to the constituent room and discuss sha’ria law and basic rights, etc. but the one time I felt happy was about the government shutdown. I was thinking, “You know, democracy is not for granted. It can go back” and I felt really comfortable about it. (Laughter.)
Katulis: That’s true. Before we open up the dialogue to you, I wanted to come back to a point that I am personally interested in and I think a lot of people in the audience are, given that we’re just two blocks from the White House, interested in and I think we’d be remiss not to raise this. Lina, in your opening remarks, you made some glancing references to U.S. policy. I’d love to hear a little bit more from you all on that and then also maybe from our friends from Egypt, Tunisia, Libya here just to get some reflections.
Not that it’s all about us. I think especially this administration has tried to go out of its way to say, “it’s not about us.” But, there is this expectation, I think in the region, that the U.S. should be there in some sort of way and I think the earlier panels covered this.
Lina, I thought maybe you could fill out some of your thoughts in terms of how the U.S. and maybe other outside actors have responded to this and how it will need to change how it will respond to the changes that are to come?
Khatib: I will emphasize what I said earlier. Unfortunately, when it comes to the U.S.’s role, there’s been attention to issues like the NGO controversy in Egypt and the United States being kind of, I would say, manipulated by the powers that be in Egypt as well as manipulating the Egyptians regarding the role of the United States so that there is this separation. In a way, they’ve managed to play it quite beautifully from their perspective, meaning to make it very difficult for people on the ground to even engage with the United States in a direct way and also making it difficult for the United States to reach out.
We have that going on. Again, I would go back to the bigger picture issue: sorting out foreign policy in general regarding these countries is what will actually make meaningful change happen.
Let’s just take Syria as an example because this is one of the biggest blunders, I think, for the current administration. With Syria, we have seen U.S. inaction cause the problem to endure, in my opinion. Inaction is not about neutrality. Inaction is in itself a decision so I don’t think the United States should hide behind its “not about us” as being the reason for not doing something about Syria. I’m not necessarily talking about military intervention. Very early on, if we had seen strong U.S. foreign policy, we would not have needed military intervention. I think strong diplomacy did not even exist from the start.
So, you have that situation. You have a whole generation of Syrians growing up without education. Growing up in refugee camps meaning they are ripe for recruitment by all kinds of extremists groups from all kinds of political and paramilitary leanings. You have a generation that is growing up without knowing what a state actually means because what we’re seeing is heading towards a failed state in Syria. So many complex problems that are a direct result of U.S. foreign policy blunders. I will not say, “Oh, the United States should give more assistance to civil society and support education.” Yes, we know all that but I don’t think really we should be focusing our attention on that. I think the macro-picture is much more fundamental right now.
Katulis: Ayat, pretty much almost 24 hours ago where you’re seated, the National Security Advisor to the President gave a speech. I think most of us were there last night, and she mentioned Libya, as was mentioned, and the activities that the U.S. is doing and things like this. The overall question is how do you see, as it relates to political change and also youth, the U.S. role there? Is there a role? Is that presence felt in that way that I think Ambassador Rice tried to describe?
Mneina: Whether or not the U.S. is physically present in Libya is kind of a nonissue for young Libyans. They’re keen on learning about the West and the ideas that they want to value in their country moving forward. That’s already been taken care of. These people are online. They’re desperately searching for that kind of knowledge base so a lot of impromptu civil society and young people have - a lot of the reason why the people took to the streets originally was because they were just becoming open to the rest of the world instantly using technology and becoming aware of how different their situation was from the rest of the world and how they needed to change it.
In terms of U.S. presence on the ground, I think civil society development, or education aside, the presence or lack of presence was extremely felt after the attack on the consulate in Benghazi and then how the U.S. proceeded basically to just leave Benghazi. In Tripoli, their presence is felt in Tripoli. The Ambassador Deborah is very well known among civil society, among young people. She’s very accessible but I think the issue here is to help Libya begin to address or begin to include the whole country instead of focusing on one specific area because it really just isolates everyone else from that conversation and from that potential of exchange.
In terms of education opportunities and things like that, that’s always been very emphasized within Libya and a lot of young people are going abroad to get their education but the development on the ground is something that a lot of time they look to the U.S. to set that precedent. So, if the U.S. is not in Benghazi, will people in Benghazi start thinking, “ok, well if I get an opportunity to leave, then I’ll probably leave instead of staying here and trying to help things develop.” There’s a tone that’s being set. Obviously, the Libyan people aren’t going to wait for the U.S. to decide what that tone is but it definitely is a factor.
Katulis: Great. Mabrouka, you mentioned briefly the Deauville Partnership and how there were youth groups trying to explain exactly what this was and the debt issue and things like this. Again to the broader question, is the U.S. even a factor in the political debates among youth in Tunisia? What, if the U.S. desired, could it do differently?
Mbarek: The role of the U.S. in backing the Deauville Partnership is probably a mistake. The Deauville Partnership is the economic package, future, of this region and it’s not an organic plan and hasn’t been done by the people who are concerned. When we look carefully at the reforms and the consequences of the reforms, we see the classic neo-liberal package that has interest in the private sector. In Tunisia, what is really important to see and when we look at the private sector in Tunisia, the Tunisian companies are not competitive. Therefore, opening the market will just lead to a decrease of national capacities.
We have these youth movements that brought a lot of alternatives that you can see even in the United States, creating sustainable communities that are resilient to global crisis. Investing in agriculture in order to decrease dependences on a Europe that is in deep crisis. All of this I think is important and we see it in the U.S. I see it in Vermont because I live in Vermont and it’s all about local food or organic food. All of this, we used to live like this in Tunisia in the 70s. We were self-sufficient and we were also gaining a lot of resources from exporting agriculture. Tunisia was the breadbasket of Europe. It’s really important to think about these policies. I think the U.S. could probably share more of these Vermont values (laughter), if I can say that, then the Partnership of Deauville.
One other thing that we’ve done and actually I worked with a youth group calling for the audit step. It’s the auditing of the illegitimate debt. In Tunisia, the first expense that we have in the budget is servicing our debt. When we look at our debt since Bourguiba and we look carefully at details, we can see that most of it was derailed into corruption therefore we have legitimate questions to ask whether we should pay or not. I’ve sponsored and co-written a bill for the debt audit and we have tremendous pressure from international organizations, especially from those grading agencies that are always telling us that we shouldn’t do it otherwise our grade will go down. I understand there’s a fear of a domino effect. If Tunisia does an institutional debt audit, then Egypt will do it, then all Africa will do it. We’ve seen it with Ecuador. Ecuador did one and then there is a domino effect of civilians’ audit. We’ve been working with Ecuador and Norway and Norway successfully did its first credit audit so we have a debtor country, Ecuador, and a creditor country, Norway, that are really leading the path.
When we talk about transitional justice for me, auditing the debt and knowing whether is the burden on Tunisian citizens or not, I think this is part of transitional justice. What the U.S. can do is be a leader with Norway and push this initiative which I think would really be in the interests of everyone because it is in the U.N. principle of, it’s called borrowing and I forgot, the ethical borrowing act or I don’t remember exactly, but there are principles and this falls into that because if we do an audit, we can then recommend how creditor countries can better give and improve the due diligence process. We can also make sure that the debtor country will use the money effectively because again when the U.S. gives money to a country, the taxpayer wants to know that it’s going effectively to the ground and not to corruption. I think that’s one of the initiatives that I haven’t seen, besides Norway, any creditor country being bold enough to do it and I wish others would follow the lead.
Katulis: Ahmed, I left the easiest and most simple country for last in terms of U.S. engagement and we all know it’s smooth sailing. (Laughter.) Everything’s fine just there.
When you think about the U.S. role over the last three years and there’s a lot of he said, she said, different perspectives about it but it’s generally negative, what would you say the U.S. might try to do differently in the next phases in terms of how it engages Egypt and the different populations including the youth?
Then, we’re going to open it up to you.
Maher: I think that the U.S. role in Egypt is the same for many years. It was the same during the Mubarak time. They supported Mubarak for a long time and they said, “Mubarak is better than Muslim Brotherhood. If Mubarak changes, Muslim Brotherhood will take the authority and that’s not good for Egypt.” Also, the same during the SCAF time. They said, “SCAF is better than Muslim Brotherhood and if you forgive the SCAF for any mistakes or problems, it will be better than Muslim Brotherhood.” During Muslim Brotherhood, they said, “Muslim Brotherhood is better than Salafis (laughter) so let them go.”
Now, maybe in the beginning they said, “we are against any violations of human rights” but now, I think, two weeks ago in Congress they said, “Egyptian Army is our friend. They helped us in the war in Iraq and Egyptian army opened Suez Canal to the U.S. Army so they are friends and allies so we need to support Egyptian Army in Egypt.” It’s the same rule all the time. They support any authority. They support any winner in Egypt. In the revolution of 25 January, they said, in the beginning, “Mubarak must stay.” After that when they feel that Mubarak would step down, they say, “we support the revolution.” It’s the same rule all the time. We need U.S. supporting principles, not supporting authorities. So, the people in the U.S., the human rights defenders to push for that, don’t support authorities or interests. Please support principles.
Katulis: Those are great comments.
Ok. You’ve been very patient. Here’s the deal. We’ve got 25 minutes. I already see seven people lined up here. Please tell us who you are, if you have an affiliation you want to share with us, please do that and questions rather than comments and if you want to direct those questions to a particular panelist even better. Because we want to try to get as many included here, let’s keep it short and direct it to a panelist if we can. We’ll start to the right. Sir?
Question: My name is Safei Hamed from Chatham University and actually, this is an excellent session because it leaves us at the end with a good, optimistic note, seeing all this bright youth and that is good for the future.
My question to any one of them or all of them, realizing that the Arab world has always suffered from incompetent, corrupt, and very poor leadership. Although the younger people are 60%, they always held very little power. Now, hopefully the next stage will be that more of these young people will be in the leadership but the way I see it, and I would like to see whether you share my view, that you are facing different barriers or gaps. We call it here a generation gap, especially in a culture like the Arab culture where you have to respect the elderly and the elderly is 84 years Mubarak. Socioeconomic. Most of you, I see, are Western educated and that’s a big barrier too. Another thing the experience - many of you have not really surrendered to the old corruption and pessimism and the fear of the past.
Katulis: Your question?
Question: My question is are these true barriers and if they are true barriers in your country, how are you going to overcome it?
Katulis: Yella, who wants to take it? (Laughter.) No one? Are these true barriers? Yes? No? Ahmed?
Maher: I’ll try. For me, I believe that it’s a long-term process and because it’s not about persons, it’s not about Mubarak and it’s not Morsi. We talk about the deep state from my perspective and many years of corruption and many years of a failing economy so it’s not easy to remove all this old regime. It will take time and a lot of struggle.
For me, I live in Egypt and was educated in public schools and public universities, not Western school, so I feel the same life as Egyptians. I live in the same district and every day there’s the garbage everywhere in Egypt. There is no traffic control, no security all the time, so we need to have a better life in Egypt. What we need, we don’t want to be in the authority. Just we need a better life. We need good governance in Egypt. We need to respect human rights. We need those principles. That, yes, is Western life but there are some points that are very effective - fair elections, respect human rights, governance, transparency. That’s good. That will fight against corruption and that we support. We try to do that and we know that it will take a long time.
Katulis: Great. Sir?
Question: My name is Amin Mahmoud. I’m with the Egyptian Association for Change. I would like first to thank Ahmed Maher that he didn’t run for office again in his organization, which is unusual in our part of the world. (Laughter.)
Also, I would like to ask you what are you doing with other organizations to stand against the military after the bloody coup and also against the religious state? We don’t want a religious state. We don’t want the military. After 60 years of military rule, really, Egypt is down in the bottom of many countries and we used to be equal to Korea and India and so on. Now, we are in bad shape. If you don’t cooperate with everybody in Egypt to stand against the military and the religious state, we’ll be doomed. What are you doing?
Katulis: Easy one.
Maher: I didn’t say a coup. You said the coup. (Laughter.) I didn’t say it’s a coup. It’s forbidden to say that in Egypt.
Yes, we want a civil state, not a religious state, not military state. It’s in our principles to have a real civil state and to make our army as an army, defending Egypt, defend the borders, protect Egypt - not governing, not ruling Egypt. That’s what we want. That’s our priorities. So, we are against this polarization in Egypt and this is spreading between Sisi supporters and Morsi supporters and anyone from this campaign, anyone who didn’t participate in Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations, they consider him as a supporter of the military or enemy. The same, anyone said, “coup” or that we need to make an investigation of what happened in Raba’a or in any accident or that killing the protesters so they consider him as terrorist.
We formed something called the Third Way or the Revolutionary Front. It’s the same groups that started the spark in 25 January. This front said the Muslim Brotherhood did many mistakes, terrible mistakes, and Morsi cannot be again President and in the same time, we cannot support authoritarian regimes or military ruling or the return of the old regime or the state security again or those figures of the old regime. So, we are interested in supporting the principles of the revolution and we try to be united again and bring a pressure to make the roadmap better for Egypt.
Katulis: Thank you. Sir?
Question: Noureddine Jebnoun, Georgetown University. My question is directed to Mabrouka Mbarek.
According to International Youth Council, the cases of suicide by self-immolation in Tunisia since January 2011 exceeded 400 which means Bouazizi wasn’t the last - which left some of those youth guys with two options. The first one is to endorse armed violence in Syria. The second one is to try to reach what they call the European paradise or El Dorado by boat. I can add the rate of the unemployed youth reached 42% this year. So, what can you do and what can your government do to overcome this issue?
Mbarek: Obviously, one of the major challenges - there’s a lot of challenges. We’re building a democracy. It’s like a package of - you have to have rights, you have to have employment, you have to build a political legitimacy – all of this is a heavy package and it takes a long time to build. In the meantime, while there is all this political discussion on the constitution, on who’s going to take power and of course, there are young people who are risking their life. I know of that because in my family we have people try to cross the Mediterranean to go to Italy and even have a job that is not even dignified.
I think it would be pretentious to come up with the solution and I don’t think anyone has thought about it. The main issue is the economy here. These people really need to have employment. That’s why they leave Tunisia. The main issue is that we haven’t come to a national dialogue on the economy. We have taken the Partnership of Deauville. We try to implement it in a way that the constituent assembly will not look at it, will not vote on it, not even think about it while we take the attention of the population on polarization between Islamists, non-Islamists, between old regime and new regime. This is the essential problem. What we wanted to do is as soon as the election is over is to come up with a non-political understanding on economic policies.
To me, and I’ve talked with the Union of Agriculture, there’s a lot of young people who are ready to work in that field. Agriculture can employ right away 150,000 people. The problem is Tunisia has done almost no investment in agriculture. I think that sector can absorb a lot of youth unemployment so can civil society. These are two sectors that can absorb a lot of youth and make sure that they have a job, make sure that they have a dignified life and they’re not sitting in cafes.
I wished we were talking about economy before but that didn’t happen. All the national dialogue that we’ve seen so far is always about power. This is unfortunate and that’s why I’m saying that all these countries that are backing the Partnership of Deauville, that make us believe it’s organic - it’s not even organic. I see the IMF coming to the financial committee two hours before it starts in a surprise visit. They remove all journalists because they don’t want them to be there and then they tell us here’s your package. That’s your law. That’s your program when we know perfectly well that that is not ours. This is the problem. We haven’t talked about economy. We haven’t come to an understanding. I think now it’s a little too late because we are almost done with the transition. We need to wrap up that transition but right when it’s done we have to invite all parties and come to an understanding in what are going to be our economic policies to create jobs for the youth.
Question: My name is Kayla Cruz-Herrera and I’m a student at the University of Wisconsin. My question is for Mabrouka. You mentioned that a quarter of the Tunisian Assembly is under 45 and that party lists have to include one young person. I study legislative gender quotas and proponents of these quotas say that they bring women to the table and when women are at the table they’re more likely to propose policies that concern women. My question is: is the presence of youth in the Tunisian Assembly having the same effect and if so, what are the main policies that concern Tunisian youth?
Mbarek: The answer is yes, of course. We have women caucuses in the constituent assembly. We have, and again I also talked about this, this informal group Shabab of the Troika. Of course, we put together all these ideas about how to include youth but it’s not exclusive to young people or to women. We try to engage men and older people but I would say the merit is not to the people inside the constituent assembly. I think the hard lifting is the civil society. They’re the ones who are pushing us to do something. Maybe when I see young people, when I see women, when I see them advocate in the constituent assembly, I am more willing to work but, really, the hard lifting is the civil society. Because again, in the constituent assembly, we have many roles. We control the government, we’re the legislator and we write the constitution so it’s really difficult to do everything and to find solutions for everything. That is the reason why it’s really important to have a civil society and what we’ve witnessed since the revolution is that mainly the youth participate in civil society and this is incredible. I think the government should have policy to make sure that that stays like this and encourage, again because I do believe that the civil society sector can absorb a lot of unemployment and can shape policies.
Just one remark. The writing of the constitution is deeply influenced by what’s happening in the streets. That’s actually research that I’m doing while I’m working on the constitution and hopefully, I’ll get it published. What we’ve seen is that the civil society, the movements, the protests and also the problems - all the problems- are there to influence us. If people are not included, then we’ll include them. If there are people who are trying to impose morals in the private sphere or there’s this whole debate on private-public sphere, then we know that in the writing of the constitution, we have to address that. But, what I’m saying is the youth movement in parallel is actually almost inside the constituent assembly in Tunisia.
Katulis: Great. It’s 5:05 and as the captain of your panel, I want to land this one on time so the nine of you, the five of you standing patiently, I want to give you all chance and the four of you’re here, this is what we’re going to do. Rapid fire. Who you are, what’s your question, direct it to a panelist and then we’ll round it out. We’ll take five quick questions and try to close this as quickly as possible.
Question: Nadia Oweidat, Oxford University. My question is: are there a lot of inspiring experiences and stories that are not making it to the media whether in the Arab world, which is understandable given that it’s Gulf-owned mostly and they wouldn’t want to help the morale of the youth who want reform, but also even abroad because there’s no longer two audiences? If there’s a story in the New York Times about the youth who are decoding IMF, etc., it’s going to make it to the Arab world, it’s going to make it on Facebook. Do you have a media strategy? Are you working on one? Thank you.
Question: Mohammed, Georgetown. My question to Ahmed is: do you think we still have a revolution in Egypt? If the military is now back in power, if Mubarak and members of his regime are now free, if demonstrators are now being killed on a weekly or daily basis, if security forces are now once again deployed inside universities, do you think we still have a revolution in Egypt? And, if not, how can we restore it? Thank you.
Question: Mohammed Ibrahim, Johns Hopkins University. The question is for Mabrouka. You mentioned about the tamarod movement and the risk of helping the old regime coming back. I would like you to elaborate on: is this still a real threat and how would you contrast the current situation in Tunisia in the transition to democracy with Egypt?
Question: Bill Lawrence, George Washington University and until recently, Crisis Group North Africa Director. I say coup for Ahmed. (Laughter.) I’ve got two very quick questions but a quick preface.
To Lina, I totally agree with your problems and your prism comments about youth as we look at this but as we’ve heard from the panel, there are generational dynamics here and there are youth dynamics here, which are still important. I would suggest that we look at this as a “youth as problem, youth as solution” because a lot of these solutions are going to have to come from youth for youth because of all these dysfunctionalities we’re talking about.
The two questions along those lines: for Ayat, the security situation in Libya, which a number of people have talked about, is in many ways a youth issue. For the 90% of militiamen and militias that are pro-revolution and trying to defend local security, let’s put it that way, these young people have few other options. They’re not going to turn in their weapons any time soon so as a youth issue, how do you see bringing these 200,000 militiamen back into the fold?
For Mabrouka, taking what Dr. Jebnoun asked and moving it a little bit along. 50% of Tunisians work in the informal economic sector. 30% of the economy is informal sector and the Tunisian government, for good reason, has become allergic to the informal sector. It’s now seen as something to crack down on and we’re seeing in many ways replication of discourse, if not actual actions, to shut down the part of the economy where most young people live. Getting beyond this top-down solution of how do we create agricultural jobs by government program, how can we actually create an economy in Tunisia that always the Bouazizis to function? And these masses of kids who you’re saying are the left out crowd, the Leagues for the Revolution crowd, how do we empower those young people to function economically beyond the capacity of the government to create jobs for them? Thank you.
Katulis: And the last question.
Question: Karen Rajcab. Analyst. An earlier panelist mentioned that a lot of extremists have been reaching out to schools and trying to pull in the youth to support their cause. Is that something that you’ve seen and if so, has civil society attempted to address the issue?
Katulis: Great. That’s a great list of questions and I thought maybe we’d start with Ayat because we have not heard from you in a little bit. The question of the armed groups and on Libya and the youth.
Mneina: Sure. I’ll address that question first. In terms of security being an issue that makes up a lot of young people that are propagating those issues and how to address that is unfortunately in Libya, being so diverse, whereas it should be an advantage that we’re so culturally rich, it’s actually become a source of divisiveness so that youth are kind of divided among their interests or where their allegiances are so you’ve got militias talking to only militias, civil society talking to only civil society. Government is on a whole other spectrum so you have these isolated groups that they would only further their own interests. There’s no breaking that I feel until those different groups come together and have a discussion. I find that something as basic as having a town hall meeting in communities would bring all those people and their interests and their concerns together regardless of where their allegiance lies. I feel like ostracizing militias hasn’t been good for Libya and so, they need to be involved in that process.
I just want to address the other question about having inspiring stories from young people being highlighted. It’s something that mainstream media easily falls into the trap of when crisis hits, this is when we want to report on things and good is often overshadowed. Young people are actually doing so many phenomenal things on the ground that are often overshadowed. One of the projects Shabab Libya is working on is Libyan Youth Voices and that’s highlighting things that we think are inspiring on the ground. It’s for both the Arab world and for the international community. Hasn’t launched yet but it will be lyvoices.org.
Katulis: Great. Ahmed?
Maher: I want to talk about the global inspiration. From the beginning, before the revolution, we read about revolutions that happened in Eastern Europe, in Poland, in Czechoslovakia, in Serbia, in many countries and it was inspiring for us to mobilize our social movement and to mobilizing people and learn lessons from these countries about their revolutions. Also, give us many lessons after the revolution that they take a long time to succeed. They take many years. Ten years and twenty years in Poland and Czechoslovakia to achieve the dream of revolution and now it’s very much global inspiration because now we have a good connection with other countries, with young people in other countries who need to or try to make revolution and make change for democracy for these countries. It’s the youth’s global inspiration and it’s very important. I think it will change the regimes and make a new future for many countries because now the Internet helps us to make that.
About the question of military and arresting people and killing people in the streets and the old regime return again, is there any hope for revolution? Before I answer the question, I want to say that I was arrested last time when I was here in D.C. and I hope that they won’t arrest me this time in the airport but I will answer you.
Yes, there are many violations against human rights and the old regime is coming back again. The state security is arresting people. The state security is killing people. Police killing people in the demonstrations. State security making illegal investigations in the airport on my colleagues from one week. Yes. I know that. The old regime, they are in the TV everyday and that can make us pessimistic or frustrated but when we remember in 2004 when we were just 200 persons overall Egypt surrounded by 15,000 soldiers and then Kafeya movement and then April 6 Movement and then what happened all this year until revolution and then the generation after revolution so it gives us some push and hope to continue. We will complete our struggle and in 2014 after one year, this campaign, this situation will change because we will have Parliamentary elections and then other elections so it will change. We will have our other campaigns, not this polarization, so be optimistic. I’m sure that after 20 years it will be better than now.
Katulis: Mabrouka, you had a couple of questions directed at you.
Mbarek: I’ll answer the question about economy and then the old regime.
I’m glad that people find the debt audit being inspiring and how I think that Vermont economic policy can be implemented in the region.
And, why there’s no communication? I’m trying. It’s just in Tunisia people are not interested in that. I could say even the media is very biased and I could just tell you a story. When I was in the Congress of the Agricultural Union and I wanted to speak at the media and they said, “Which party are you?” I said, “I am the partner of the government.” They say, “Oh, I’m sorry. My machine is broken.” Sure enough, the machine was not broken two minutes later. Tells you a lot.
But, also the international community is not also interested. I’m always invited to talk about women, about youth and at first, I will not participate and in the end, I changed my strategy and like I go to participate and every time I steer and it goes to economy. Sure enough. But really I did one op-ed that went through CNN once so that’s great but I wish - I just don’t know. Maybe economy is complicated and maybe people don’t want to think that all these powerful countries are doing a real mess, pushing these economic plans that actually are disastrous. It really needs a lot of analysis. It’s not just slogan.
We’re working with a lot of people who are studying economic impact and all and it’s not easy to grasp but in the end we’re really fighting against something that is bigger than us. You have the World Bank, the IMF, the G-8, all these who have invested a lot of money to create this market for multinationals. I was in a meeting where a lobby group said that, “The law on the public-private partnership must be voted now and you have to make everything possible to be voted.” And, the constituent assembly, we pushed that back. Then, I’m not surprised why then people are calling for the dissolution of the constituent assembly or calling so that the constituent assembly is tasked only to write the constitution and does nothing other than that. Anyway, but I welcome journalists who are in the room, if they’re interested, I can, of course, do an interview.
About the how do you make sure that the economy will include young people? How to make sure that all the Bouazizis will have a decent life? There’s not one solution. Again, it’s a lot of things but I believe that we should boost Tunisian entrepreneurs. I’ve seen and I receive a lot of calls from Tunisians, especially from abroad, they want to invest but the laws are very difficult. There’s a lot of bureaucracy and there is a mentality that a foreigner will serve Tunisians better. We have this huge capacity of Tunisian entrepreneurs that are left out. The new code of investment is not giving them any room.
We have a problem with tax collection. In Tunisia, this main issue, I have the last time I saw a mayor told me that she had 200,000 dinars in the street and she had nobody to collect. What I would like to see is all these people who are working in the administration and having nothing to do because the public sector is overcrowded to re-insert them and to train them to collect tax. That will generate a lot of revenue. Of course, we have to tackle corruption and reform subsidies but it will be silly to think that changing subsidies and replacing to cash transfer can work when we know that the administration, there’s not transparency, no good governance. So, all these things need to be done step by step.
Then there is the cycle of debt. We are paying illegitimate debt as I said but we are taking loans and the Governor of the Central Bank tells us we have to have loans to pay salaries but in effect, the real reason is essentially we take loans in dollars and euros to pay the foreign companies that want to repatriate their profit 100% in currency. That’s problematic and nobody wants to negotiate that they repatriate, I don’t know, may 80% and leave 20% in dinars so they would invest locally, in a local economy, knowing that they pollute, they use natural resources so it’s normal that profit repatriation is not 100% especially when Tunisia is in a difficult time. We need to invest in energy.
All of this is not one solution. It’s a package of things that we should do right to generate employment and again, I do believe civil society and agriculture can absorb all of this youth unemployment and that will be the first thing that we should invest in, but there is no magic solution. It’s a whole package. What’s really important, again, is that we all come around the table and discuss what is the best for us.
Katulis: Great. Thank you. Lina, do you have any final thoughts?
Khatib: Just very briefly. In response to Bill’s talk about the inclusion of youth as a solution, I just want to say that whatever the initiative, whether we’re talking security sector reform, foreign aid, economic reform, anything that the international community wants to do to help any country in the region, it’s very important to have local voices represented in the process from the very beginning and this is echoing what Mabrouka has said.
Unfortunately, so far, we’ve seen largely either engaging with people like us or exotic-izing people who are not like us, which is part of the reason why we’ve seen so much unconditional support for Islamists. Because the international community wants to appear inclusive and pluralistic and therefore, they would accept transgressions by these other groups because they want to appear very inclusive and pluralistic. This has been a problem that has fostered the presence of old elites in their political process and their strengths and I’m talking about both the old guard and the Islamists as old elites. Be as inclusive a possible.
Katulis: Great. Well, two things. First, I want to say again thanks to the Middle East Institute and Wendy and Kate and all of the great work that they do. It’s a vital organization. I know many of you support it financially or intellectually. Continue to do that. This was a great conference. Second, I want you all to join me in thanking the panel and applauding them for what was a very fascinating discussion.
Seelye: I second that, Brian. This has been a terrific day. This has been an inspiring panel and I want to thank you all for joining us. We’ve covered so much today and yet there’s so much more we remain committed to covering. So many voices we seek to bring from the region. We really value fresh perspectives. We hope you do too. If you do, please go online. Join MEI at mei.edu. Check out our publications. Sign up for our language classes and we look forward to seeing you next year. Thank you.