‘Arab Uprisings’

There’s plenty of attention here on the economies of developed countries but events in the Middle East and North Africa are not far from the minds of those here in Davos.

They were the subject of a keynote address by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon

BAN: “I’d like to use this platform today to use a call to action on two immediate crises: the death-spiral in Syria and the widening turbulence in Mali and the Sahel.”

Mr. Ban said the international community needed to come together to end the ongoing violence in the two countries and ensure assistance is available to those in need.

But he also highlighted the wider uncertainty regarding the so-called “Arab Spring.”

BAN: “People experience new freedoms, but worry just the same about jobs and instability.  The winds of the Arab Spring have swept away some repressive rulers, but left many questions swirling in the air.”

One of those questions Is can democracy really take hold in the region?  And given that today is the second anniversary of protestors flooding into Cairo’s Tahrir Square, here’s former Secretary General of the Arab League and one-time Egyptian presidential candidate Amr Moussa

MOUSSA: “So far my answer would be ‘Yes, but…’ The president, President Morsi, is in his office due to elections.  What we need is a sustainable democracy, not just a democracy that brings a president for once, or a parliament for once. This depends on the position taken by the people, and I believe most Egyptians now, and in the Arab world, believe democracy is the solution.”

Cynical observers of the Middle East have pointed to a long tradition of strongmen and dictatorships suppressing democracy movements but Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights says this time is different.

PILLAY: “When there is such a fundamental change, responding to the calls on the street for civil and political rights; economic and social rights; human rights, there will never be a situation where the dictatorship that reigned before will prevail again.”

Though much attention has focused on the Egyptian uprising, it all beganin Tunisia.  So how’s that country faring, a question I put to Mustapha Nabli is an economist from Tunisia and former Central Bank governor.

NABLI: “Broadly speaking, there is a small recovery, a weak recovery, but economic and other financial indicators are not doing well. Unemployment is still very high. The financial indicators are turning to orange, if not red, in terms of the deficits, the external balance of payments deficit, the fiscal deficit, the debt situation and so on. So the situation is tight, the outlook is not as positive as one would like it to be and this is essentially linked to the political situation because the political situation is still stuck.”

I wanted to ask you about the political implications of this.

NABLI: “I think the political situation is really creating the economic, and we can talk about the impact of the economic situation on the political situation as we go down the road, but for now I think the most important impact is the direction of the political transition which is not going as fast and as clearly as it should be and this is creating a lot of uncertainty, creating a lot of unease and investment is not picking up and economy is in a difficult situation.”

What would you like to see coming into force?

NABLI: “What I would like to see is really the political transition move forward more clearly, more speedily. We need to have a timeframe for the constitution being completed, for new elections being prepared, for political stability to return, for security to improve. These are the prerequisites for the economy to start improving again.”

Inside the Congress CentreInside the Congress Centre

It’s been hard at times to get a comprehensive picture of what’s happening across the region. Information often comes in fragments – the only source: reports based on unverified videos. This is especially the case in Syria, but one U.S. journalist, Lara Setrakian, used her contacts at Davos, to create Syria Deeply, a platform for comprehensive news coverage of the country.  It launched last month. I asked her why Syria prompted the innovation.

SETRAKIAN: “It was the right idea at the right time. We need to do news better.  We need to cover these critical issues better. The humanity behind the headlines not just guys with the guns and the money, but the civilians who feel these conflicts need a voice. And for the first time in our journalistic history, it’s very possible to see all sides, to capture 360 degrees or at least more of those degrees.  So it was the possibility that technology and innovation makes possible but it was also the sense that the time has come and there was such a stark difference between the criticality and the importance of that issue and the degree to which people understand it. They don’t understand it nearly well enough.”

What do you think about the state of foreign reporting in general, especially from the Middle East.

SETRAKIAN: “I think it’s incredibly sad. I think the fact that cost-cutting at major news organisations has been a basically commercial decision with broad public policy and public service implications. And then most importantly, I find, when you don’t have reporters based abroad from Switzerland, from the U.S. or from anywhere else,  your country’s knowledge pool suffers. You don’t have the person in your camp with the depth of expertise to raise their voice at the appropriate time. If we use our expertise as journalists to translate these complex issues and use technology to convey those complex ideas, we can change a whole generation’s perception of what is happening in the world.  So what we are doing with Syria Deeply is building a website and then working with the teacher’s associations in America to turn it into open courseware so a programme called Teach Syria is going to be rolled out on February 1 using our content to help school teachers in America teach kids from age 10 to 16 what’s happening in the Syria crisis in very basic terms.”

Setrakian says this model could be used for any number of topics – Eurocrisis Deeply, Drugs War Deeply, Gun Control Deeply.

But while the web can be a tool. It also must be treated with caution. So says Tim Berners-Lee, the man credited with inventing the World Wide Web.

BERNERS-LEE: “I have been talking about the stability of the social network.  Whether, the question is, when somebody has an idea or puts something out there and it propagates outward, is the system something that will test it for truth?  Have we designed our social networking systems so that the human race can have a rational discussion?  When we build new social networking systems we need to really think about the effect they are going to have on the conclusions people come to,  and whether they tend to make the truth surface, or whether they end up with the truth being buried.”

Have something to add?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.