The uprisings in North Africa and other Arab Spring countries are no different from uprisings that took place elsewhere in modern history: a quest for human dignity, a revolt against tyranny, poverty and injustice, and a search for freedom, prosperity and justice. But as we know from history, the march to freedom is invariably long, chaotic and nonlinear. It is not difficult to unite about what we are against, but it is difficult to coalesce on the change needed and how to go about it, particularly after many decades of stifling political pluralism and the absence of civil society.
Change in North Africa remains a work in progress. I want to suggest measures that can facilitate the change process, not only in North Africa but in the rest of Africa as well. The challenge before us, however, is how to ascend peacefully to a new, cathartic culture based on freedom and dignity.
We live in an increasingly paradoxical world. Amazing scientific and technological advances are a huge leap forward – but, at the same time, there is a striking inability to translate these accomplishments into concrete actions to uphold human dignity and maintain peace and security. Though we have become closer than ever before, ironically, at the same time we have become distanced from each other, with a creeping feeling of “otherness” generated by growing inequities, polarisation and a lack of human solidarity.
Poverty and hunger persist at horrific levels, conflicts have been left to fester for generations and brutal repression and the denial of human dignity are the hallmarks of a third of the world’s nations. The sanctity of life depends on who is dying and where; rich countries are apathetic to the plight of the poor and inequality in the distribution of wealth has reached unprecedented levels.
More than 50 countries, many of them well-established democracies, have reportedly aided and abetted acts of torture and “rendition”. Target killings, cyberattacks, wire-tapping and other violations of human values and decency are systematically employed with impunity. The international community did little more than wring its hands when millions of innocent civilians were slaughtered in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Darfur and other places. Today, violence continues to ravage our planet in Africa, Asia and even Europe.
More than two billion people survive on less than $2 a day, and more than one billion live in extreme poverty, on less than $1.25 a day. Almost half of them are in Africa. About 900-million people do not have enough to eat. Millions die every year because of a lack of access to medical care. Millions of refugees live in squalor. Yet the richest 1% will own more than all the rest by 2016, and the 80 richest individuals now have as much money as the poorest 3.5-billion.
These are not just numbers. The plight of the poor is compounded by, and results in, a lack of good governance, oppression, human rights abuses, marginalisation and a deep sense of injustice and anger. All the ills we suffer feed on one another in a deadly cycle.
Sadly, the ones footing the bill are the innocent civilians who are not even being provided with the most basic humanitarian assistance. It is not that we do not have the money. What the world spends on peace-keeping operations and disaster relief combined barely amounts to 1% of the $1.7-trillion we spend on armaments a year.
Our international institutions, including the United Nations system, have become anachronistic. They suffer from structural deficiencies and lack authority and resources. Our most significant global threats today are threats without borders: poverty, terrorism, climate change, weapons of mass destruction, communicable diseases, cyberattacks, human trafficking and illegal drugs. They all need international co-operation. No one country can overcome them on its own.
So, clearly we have heavy lifting ahead. Where do we start? To my mind, there are some fundamental issues that are key to this transformative culture. Its central building block is an agreement on the shared values and norms we are all ready to live by. This means constitutions and laws that meet international standards of political, economic, social and cultural human rights. And a system of governance that is inclusive, transparent and accountable, where the rules of the game, including term limits, are respected and not changed in mid-course. Democracy is a comprehensive set of values that goes much beyond a ballot box, a multiparty system or civilianising the leadership.
In the Arab Spring countries, the lack of agreement on these shared values and norms led to chaos in some places and violence in others. Tunisia succeeded, after great effort, in agreeing on a Constitution with national consensus. In Egypt, as a result of the power struggle among different factions – religious conservatives and liberals; the old regime and the revolutionaries – we had a constitutional theatre of the absurd. We had seven versions of a Constitution in four years before we settled on one. And for the past three years Egypt has been without a Parliament. In Libya a botched transition has been marred by a civil war, two competing Parliaments and governments, and no agreement on a Constitution.
Understanding the importance of social unity and reaching a consensus on the basic values and laws that should govern a pluralistic society is fundamental for social cohesion. This is even more crucial during a transition from authoritarianism to democracy, when the focus should be on building a new democratic culture and new institutions, irrespective of ideological differences. The alternative is violence.
A formula of how to live together in a spirit of reconciliation and tolerance, by looking forward, is a must. South Africa’s experience in this regard is both instructive and inspirational. The nascent Tunisian experience of the Islamists and seculars working together and launching a Truth and Dignity Commission to bring about closure could be a model for others.
One of the most intractable and divisive issues that most North African countries, and many Muslim countries, continue to grapple with is the nature of the relationship between religion, religious institutions, morality, the rule of law and the state. The question is whether there is a need for religious reformation, or whether this conflict is the result of a loss of ability to identify with the state, where people then seek their primary identity in religion, ethnicity or race, and where differences become a faultline.
I believe both questions are valid and measures in both directions are required so that religious belief and a strong social contract are no longer viewed as mutually exclusive.
People must feel that their rights and freedoms are protected and respected in practice and not just on paper. Africa is making some progress in the areas of political participation and respect for human rights. It is essential, however, that the space for civil society be wide open. A free and independent broadcast media is key, particularly in countries where illiteracy is widespread. And the existence of an independent judiciary that upholds universally accepted norms of justice is a sine qua non for all of the above.
It is crucial, as I mentioned, that people identify with the state, but they will only do so when their human dignity and basic freedoms are respected. If that does not happen, then the authority of the state will start to crack and conflicts and violence will ensue.
Once a society starts to become violent or polarised, it is often tempting for governments to adopt measures that restrict rights and freedoms in the name of law and order and “national security”. But as we well know, violence begets violence. History tells us that the only way to build a stable, peaceful and cohesive society is through respect for human rights, equity and policies of inclusiveness. Stability without freedom is pseudo-stability waiting to explode.
Human development – health, education, housing and social welfare and, above all, employment – is the number one challenge facing Africa. Governments must create the conditions in which the private sector can flourish. The mobile telephone networks developed by African entrepreneurs have transformed Africa in the past decade in a way that no government could have. And stories abound of Africa as a new frontier for innovation: mobile money, technology hubs and so on. And it is heartening to see brilliant young African entrepreneurs making headway.
But we need to be aware, however, that economic liberalisation does not absolve the state of its primary responsibility to ensure that everyone has a decent standard of living and access to basic needs. Development plans measured by growth rate only, and neither complemented by appropriate social policies nor resulting in job creation, often lead to growing inequality and social unrest. Egypt’s development plan before the 2011 uprising is a good case in point. It achieved a high rate of growth but it was a jobless growth, with little or no impact on poverty alleviation, leading to growing inequality.
We must also guard against the patronage and corruption systems that are emerging with economic liberalisation. Corruption, in the words of Transparency International, “undermines justice and economic development, and destroys public trust in government and leaders”. Endemic corruption is a corrosive scourge that chips away at societies from top to bottom. It is the poor who suffer most: low-quality education, a lack of access to health services, a high cost of basic needs, inadequate infrastructure, and so on.
In all our development efforts, education remains critical. Egypt and Libya, unlike Tunisia, suffer from a high level of illiteracy and a low quality of education. Quality education has had a transformative effect within a little more than a generation everywhere it was introduced. Lack of focus on education also fuels the tragedy of brain drain, forcing the best and the brightest to leave.
Sustained economic opportunity is essential. Most of Africa continues to suffer from weak infrastructure, a neglected rural sector and an uncompetitive business environment. Across the continent, we see a plethora of laws, plans and visions for development, but too often they exist only on paper. Governments need to learn to turn words into deeds and address the issue of implementation – making things happen.
African countries trade far too little with each other. To push its development, Africa needs to move from an overdependence on foreign trade to an expansion of regional trade, and from exporting to processing commodities to add value, create jobs and expand domestic markets. Africa should also move from a reliance on shrinking development assistance and look more to African sources of finance.
At the international level, African countries need to engage in genuine political co-operation and develop unified positions. It is gratifying that the African Union is playing an increasing role in trying to resolve the many tragic armed conflicts that still plague the continent. It needs to be more robust and better financed if it is to achieve its full potential.
Africa’s governance is improving in many respects and a bright future awaits the continent. Poverty, inequality, communicable diseases, oppression, violence and environmental degradation represent immense challenges and, as I mentioned earlier, many of the drivers of the Arab Spring are present on the continent. These grisly realities shame us all. But we must not ignore the real progress that has been made and the many African success stories.
More than a decade ago, the Economist described Africa as a “hopeless continent”. But in 2011 it published a piece under the headline “Africa rising”. Africa is now the second-fastest-growing region after Asia, with an encouraging but still inadequate average growth rate of about 5%. With its enormous assets and resources, Africa can certainly do better. Africa today has all the potential to undergo the cultural transformation our founding fathers dreamed of: a culture of peace based on human dignity, social justice, compassion and solidarity.
This will require the right set of political measures and economic and social policies, together with an environment based on inclusiveness, equity, trust and dialogue; an environment that constrains the human impulse for violence and adjusts our mind-set to understand that we are the same human family, irrespective of our superficial differences of religion, ethnicity or race.
The challenges we face are bigger than any single country, conflict, issue or person. And we have to recognise that none of us is going to prevail alone. We will either swim together or sink together. William James said: “We are like islands in the sea: separate on the surface but connected in the deep.” It is time to think differently and act differently.
This is an edited version of the lecture Mohamed ElBaradei gave at Unisa on Africa Day, May 25, as a guest of the Thabo Mbeki Foundation. ElBaradei is an Egyptian law scholar, diplomat and winner of the Nobel peace prize in 2005