Egyptians hold Tunisian national flags as they take part in a gathering of support for the latest developments in Tunisia, in Cairo, on Saturday. Image Credit: EPA

It is not hard to understand where everything went wrong; decades of colonisation followed by decades of (elite?) nationalism. Enter this brave new century. What do Tunisia and Sudan have in common? They have both governed their people unfairly and unequally. What do they not have in common? Sudan is big enough to survive as two or even three states. Tunisia can't.

For all its specific attributes — small size, educated population — the people of Tunisia are realising that they are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Former president Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali 's ruling party, the RCD, has two million members. Calls have been made to disband the party and cut ties with the past.

The RCD members form just under 20 per cent of Tunisia's population. What do you do when 20 per cent of your population were official members of a party that repressed the other 80 per cent? This is a hard question. Many other questions will emerge.

Ranked only two years ago as Africa's most competitive economy, its GDP per capita just over $9,000 (Dh33,030), a 14 per cent unemployment rate and 3.8 per cent of its population living under the poverty line, Tunisia can only be described as techno-feudalistic. Its trading partners are just as responsible as the RCD was.

Lebanese political theatrics are in loop again. How far 10,452 square kilometres can be sliced and diced has become beyond the capacity of cynics. Sa'ad Hariri is now caretaker prime minister and the new consortium of Hezbollah, Michel Aoun and Walid Junblatt are expected to ask veteran politician Omar Karami to form a new government. The theatrics are in such full and frustrating swing that the Saudi-Syrian talks have fallen apart prompting the Saudis to officially withdraw from any negotiations.

The Qataris and Turks launched a new round with the Syrians which has also failed, Iran has been shrewdly quiet and Arab League Secretary-General Amr Mousa has urged foreign parties not to intervene. No one knows what's going on. All bets are off.

Sudan has had the southern secession coming for so long that even President Omar Al Bashir knew better than to oppose the referendum. If anything, the Arabs don't deserve to rule the South. In many ways, the secession is probably the only good Arab story of 2011.

The latest developments in Tunisia, Lebanon and Sudan demonstrate the collective failure of the region to pursue prosperity. Ironically, the common term that can describe the current — and ongoing in the case of Lebanon — state of affairs in the three countries is ‘the rise of the south'.

The plush boulevards of Tunisia are only in the north and by the sea while most of the unemployed lie desolate in the south. Lebanon, annexed by the French, with the hope of creating a modern Arab state with a significant Christian majority has been demographically overwhelmed by the poorer Shiites of the south. Multi-ethnic Sudan, a common victim of ‘curiously' straight colonial borderlines, has acted as an Arab state and cared primarily for its northern Arab populace.

We are no longer delusional pan-Arabs, yet we are all neighbours and the historic cultural ties we share confirm that one's suffering is only a symptom of an existential threat which can easily be thought-borne to the rest of us; if not due to socio-economics then definitely due to socio-politics. Here's how:

Sudan: While the secession is surely confirmed, there is no reason why Qatar's relentless diplomatic efforts and the UAE's familiarity with Sudan's economic landscape shouldn't be used to develop political and economic ties with the, soon to be announced, state of South Sudan. An Arab broad GCC-driven relationship with South Sudan could ensure the north and the south develop more favourable ties in time.

Lebanon: Hezbollah played an important role maintaining security and social services during the war and its aftermath in the south of Lebanon. They have been right to mistrust the government but wrong to exaggerate that trust. Similar to their foreign policy, the Syrian-Iranian patronage of Hezbollah has not been positive. Saudi's frustration with the situation isn't either.

GCC focus

Earlier this month, UAE and Syria signed 25 Memorandums of Understanding and agreements relating to boosting trade and investment. Syrian GDP per capita is around $4,700, 12 per cent of its population live below the line of poverty and unemployment is just under 10 per cent. Moral of the story is that the GCC can invest their way into a better Syrian partner in the Lebanese crisis.

Tunisia: While many have called the Jasmine revolution a Tunisian affair, recently announced subsidies in some Arab states and televised speeches of leaders of others have shown this might not be the case. Again, GCC states, together with Tunisia's international partners, must play a more active role in ensuring the revolution brings in order to the state and work with the elected government on economic reform.

Such should be the case in Egypt, Algeria and Jordan too. Nasser may have failed and King Faisal may have won the battle of the Arab vs the Muslim but that doesn't mean that the GCC can afford to sit 2011 out. Further revolutions must be pre-empted with deep and immediate economic reform.

The GCC has a historic opportunity to succeed where the Arab league has failed. Failure to do so will usher in decades of populist political Islamic leadership in many Arab states who will surely look to extend their control over the Gulf states as well.

 

Mishaal Al Gergawi is an Emirati current affairs commentator.