Results of the Arab Spring: Voting
More than one year after the Arab Spring began, what next?
The explosion that rocked the Arab world had an unlikely beginning. In the sleepy southern Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid 200 kilometers south of the capital, Tunis, police seized a street cart full of fruit and vegetables from a local seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, a routine incident of petty harassment.
Until that moment on December, 17 2010, Tunisia had had the reputation of being one of the most stable and prosperous of Arab nations. Casual police intimidation was commonplace and tolerated, but just below the surface massive social discontent had been brewing for years, from the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, Tunisia, Egypt, the biblical Palestinian lands to the scorching, oil rich Gulf states and Iraq.
When Bouazizi self-immolated his death sparked a region-wide military, political and social firestorm. Autocratic and military regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen fell and a wildly popular and spontaneous ‘Arab Spring’ promised sweeping social and economic change, much as the 1968 Prague Spring began an era of liberalization in the then Soviet-occupied country of Czechoslovakia.
Uprisings rarely run smoothly or evenly, however. Though there has been genuine progress in some areas, doubt, confusion, setback and conflict also scar the nascent Middle East dream.
A popular car sticker in the Egyptian capital of Cairo sums up today's mood of bewildered apprehension: "Anybody Understand Anything?"
While the bitter civil war in Libya or the fall of Egypt's long serving President Hosni Mubarak captured world headlines, a recent regional poll underlined the real driving forces behind the upheavals: most respondents emphasized demands for better employment, education, healthcare and the end of corruption.
And while Japan, through its major development organization, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), offered new and immediate support to promote and strengthen emerging democratic reforms, most importantly it has been working quietly for years to also achieve those long-standing basic demands of the newly empowered Arab ’street.‘
Japan has few historical connections with the Middle East. Its name is rarely mentioned in political and military discussions which are dominated by the United States, Britain, France, Russia, the United Nations, Israel and other regional countries.
But as a nation with few natural resources Japan imports 50% of its petroleum from the Middle East, making the events there of vital importance to Tokyo.
And despite a low-key approach which means its role goes largely unnoticed in most parts of the world, JICA has become a key, almost ‘silent partner’ in promoting regional development to ensure political and social equality.
It is a role similar to one in Afghanistan where Japan does not contribute directly to NATO military forces in that country, but runs a massive civilian aid program in areas such as health, education, community and economic development.
In the early days of the Arab Spring, particularly in Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco. JICA sought to directly boost emerging democratic forces and it was Japan's low-key and neutral background which appealed to new leaderships.
"We have received many offers from international society but most countries have (hidden) political motivations," declared Egyptian Planning and International Cooperation Minister Fayza Aboulnaga. "Japan has provided serious assistance to Arab countries without political intervention. That's why we ask Japan for help."
Japanese experts were dispatched, an Egyptian High Election Committee was provided with vital equipment to help conduct fair and transparent voting. Seminars were held to explain Japan's own party and election systems, its own ‘democratization’ since its defeat in World War II and for the media, how to effectively cover future elections.
This year Kazuyoshi Kuroda celebrated 20 years helping emerging democracies--in Cambodia, South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania, the Balkans, Pakistan, Indonesia and Palestine. In East Timor he suffered his worst ever moment when he was attacked by militia at a polling station as he tried to protect local officials and the ballot boxes.
Nevertheless, he describes the year he has spent in Egypt as "the most difficult of my entire career" for a variety of reasons: the volatile situation on the ground; JICA's relatively new exposure to such issues; the extreme sensitivity and delicacy of working in one of the world's proudest and most ancient of civilizations, unstitching centuries of domestic rules, regulations and administration and combining the best of those parts with modern democratic procedures; and avoiding any perception of ‘imposing’ solutions on Egypt's more than 83 million people.
"There have been bumps in the road in the last year," he said. "But the most important part of the election process has been completed. Operationally it has been a success."
And whither goes Egypt, other parts of the Middle East will follow. "Whatever is achieved in Egypt will greatly influence other countries in the area," the democracy expert said as he concluded a year's work in the region.
Achieving the diverse aims of an often frustrated, young population–the Arab populace has doubled in three decades to around 360 million and half that population is under 25--requires an equally diverse approach.
International experts have often disagreed on what development areas to prioritize at any particular point in the cycle–large scale economic projects, infrastructure, social projects? Developing countries themselves rarely have the resources to adequately tackle individual problem spots let alone a series of crises.
In the Middle East as elsewhere JICA supports a judicious mix of large and small projects covering a spectrum of problem areas. A 2008 international conference hosted by Japan called The Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD IV) recognized the importance of building a strong basic infrastructure–roads, ports, water systems, bridges, hospitals and schools–which would act as a springboard to tackling other issues.
A strong infrastructure should underpin sustainable economic growth which in turn will produce more and better jobs, and a stronger human safety net for entire populations–health, education, gender equality and the elimination of other social disparities. The 2015 U.N. Millennium Development Goals, strongly supported by JICA, is a comprehensive roadmap toward resolving those kind of issues.
Between 2005-2009 JICA allocated nearly US$9 billion in outright grant aid, a further US$6 billion in loan assistance and US$608 million to implement technical projects to Arab countries.
It dispatched its own staff, senior and junior volunteers and experts throughout the region to help implement projects, provide invaluable direct expertise and to improve the skills of thousands of local officials both at home and in Japan and in so-called third-country training sessions.
Tokiko Sato, JICA's senior advisor on population, reproductive health and community health, for instance, has been active in the Middle East since the 1990s and was recently touring poor Jordanian villages to liaise with local health educators promoting family planning.
Dr. Shinji Naruo is advisor to Egyptian Planning Minister Fayza Aboulnaga helping to shape a radically new master plan which will "nudge Egypt towards a broad market economy", restructuring nationwide subsidies, international support, reliance on dwindling natural resources and strengthening private enterprise. Several other Japanese experts are helping to overhaul the country's national accounts system.
Bridge over troubled waters
Throughout the region, JICA has been heavily involved in water and waste management projects. In Morocco water programs have benefitted an estimated 7.1 million people, in Tunisia 8 million people and in Syria 1.7 million.
A 1990s' scheme doubled the supply of water to the Jordanian capital, Amman, and a current project is helping to train water personnel, build reservoirs, make more efficient use of agricultural water and transform the very way water is delivered to homes and businesses.
JICA experts for years have worked with Egyptian officials to more effectively harness the waters of the Nile River rehabilitating major regulators, or dams, and most recently upgrading farm irrigation systems and strengthening both government and local associations known as Water Users Organizations (WUO) to more effectively utilize limited water supplies.
Power plants built with Japanese expertise and financial backing provide countries such as Syria and Jordan with much of their power needs. Japanese funds and experts helped establish the largest wind farm in Africa at Zafarana on Egypt's Red Sea coast with some 500 massive turbines. Similar future projects are under review.
The Mediterranean seaport of Alexandria is one of the most romantic and historic of the world's ancient wonders once boasting the greatest library known to man and a Queen, Cleopatra, who became a modern Hollywood legend. To help revive the economic fortunes of Alexandria and the surrounding Nile Delta JICA supported the construction of a new international airport and the training of staff at the nearby city of Borg el Arab.
A graceful bridge built with Japanese assistance arches over the Suez Canal linking mainland Egypt with its Sinai region. Mighty aircraft carriers and majestic liners such as the Queen Elizabeth glide below through the desert.
JICA has provided funds to upgrade parts of an envisaged grand road network which eventually will link the Moroccan Atlantic port of Agadir with Cairo via Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, as well as rural roads in Morocco. In Cairo itself a yen loan is helping in the construction of the city's Metro Line No. 4, which will link the downtown to Giza–site of one of the most exciting projects in the entire Middle East.
There, JICA has provided a US$450 million loan to help build the officially titled Grand Egyptian Museum. When it opens its doors in 2015 some eight million tourists annually are expected to visit what will reputedly be the world's largest archaeological museum housing some 100,000 of its most precious treasures including 5,000 items from the tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun. The new museum will stand in the virtual shadow of the Giza Pyramids, including that of Khufu (Cheops), one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
JICA views such work as not only preserving a country's cultural heritage but also promoting potentially lucrative tourism industries. Jordan and the neighboring Palestinian territories, natural resource deprived regions, nevertheless boast wonderful attractions such as the Dead Sea, Petra (The rose red city half as old as time), and Jericho, reputedly the world's oldest city. Japanese experts are promoting tourism in Jericho and have helped establish Jordan's first museum system in Amman, Salt, the crusader town of Kerak and the Dead Sea region.
Following the end of the conflict in Iraq, Japan in 2003 pledged a total of US$5 billion for its reconstruction, second only to the United States. Nearly one-third of that went for immediate emergency assistance such as medical equipment, ambulances and police cars but longer term reconstruction is now underway to train personnel in key fields, rehabilitate the vital oil industry, revitalize the agricultural sector and bolster other basic industries such as water supply.
Helping the region's most vulnerable groups
The Middle East is one of the most volatile regions on earth. In one unusual project JICA is seeking not only to improve the lives of poor farmers but also to increase cooperation in the Jordan Valley between hostile neighbors Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians.
The project was officially launched by the Japanese government in 2006 and is known as the Corridor of Peace and Prosperity. The ‘jewel in the crown’ is an agro-industrial park on the outskirts of Jericho and when it begins operations later this year it will process and can the rich bounty of fruits and vegetables grown in the surrounding flatlands for export.
Local communities will benefit not only via new agro industries but by other businesses such as steel, plastic and beverage plants which are already being attracted to the region.
A series of related programs are intended to boost the overall impact of the project. They include building access infrastructure, training thousands of local farmers and officials, improving farming techniques and irrigation systems, constructing schools and clinics, encouraging the exchange of ideas and expertise between the three groups and assisting particularly vulnerable groups such as women and children.
Eliminating inequality, poverty and unequal opportunity is a key objective of other JICA projects. Palestinian mothers and their children are vulnerable because of the many Israeli military checkpoints and barriers throughout the territories and JICA is training nurses and doctors and has helped develop a handbook to give them easier access to assistance.
JICA experts and volunteers work in centers in several countries catering directly to mentally or physically disabled people who cannot receive adequate care from their families or communities.
There are some 1.4 million long-time Palestinian refugees living in official camps (as well as recent influxes of Iraqis from the war there) who need assistance and JICA has helped to provide teachers and launched small micro-finance projects in places such as the Baqa refugee camp near Amman.
The agency also supports regional vocational training centers teaching such skills as welding, plumbing and auto mechanics and is encouraging the management to collaborate more closely with business and industry on the type of ‘graduates’ they need, particularly in areas where unemployment rates reach 25%.
At the other extreme of the education ladder, the Egypt-Japan University of Science and Technology (E-JUST) was launched in 2010. The joint effort is meant to be a ‘different’ center of higher learning than other regional universities.
"Egypt suffers a severe brain drain," says University President Ahmed B. Khairy. "This university will encourage our best and brightest to stay at home or return from abroad" by offering innovative courses and research opportunities in such fields as nano science.
Eventually, he said, he hoped to establish E-JUST as one of the 500 best universities in the world, offering opportunities not only to Egyptian but also to Middle Eastern and African students.
That is a goal worthy of the lofty ideals of the Arab Spring.
Recently retired JICA President Mrs. Sadako Ogata attended the formal inauguration of the university but in a recent interview she also warned of continuing perils ahead. "The Arab Spring was potentially a massive event," she said. "We have to be very careful and we must be realistic. Things can move up and things can go down and right now things are touch and go. But we have to remain optimistic."