FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Monday, March 14, 2005

What "Baghdad Spring" Can Teach Futurists

Time and again, the so-called "Arab street" has surprised the pundits. In the wake of 9/11, the conventional wisdom was that the Arab street would explode if the US invaded Afghanistan or any other Muslim nation. When that didn't happen (due to a combination of police action and no great love for the Taliban), it took the world by surprise. Next, we were told that average Iraqis would greet US troops with open arms once they toppled Saddam. That didn't happen either. Then, almost overnight, countries throughout the Middle East seemed to embrace the wave of democracy that was started by the January elections in Iraq... once again startling many.

The phenomenon of the Arab street has a lot to teach those who attempt to gauge the future. The primary lesson is that we in the West -- even those who profess to be experts -- have a generally poor understanding of what's really going on in these countries, and therefore lack context to understand what may be coming. Our government officials are exposed largely to their Arab counterparts, who are ususally out of touch with the common man and woman. Even native observers are typically middle class expatriats and not entirely tuned in to what's going on at street level. Combine that with our overall poor understanding of Arab culture and Islam (the two go hand in hand), as well as not knowing the language, and one soon understands how hard it is to forceast anything meaningful.

Thomas Friedman of The New York Times has named the recent Mideast democratic outbreak "Baghdad Spring." He illustrates, among other things, that like elsewhere in the world, economic interests will trump political and ideological ones ("It's the economy, stupid!"), citing an economic agreement between Israel, Egypt and the US that is wildly popular among Egyptian merchants. He also uses the 1989-91 wave of democracy that toppled Soviet communism as a template to forecast what might become of Arab states in flux:

This "Baghdad spring" will not blossom into sustainable democracy in any of these Arab states without a broader middle class and civil society institutions to support it. For too long, U.S. foreign policy was based on buying stability in the Arab world by supporting dictators, who destroyed all the independent press, political parties, unions, real private sector and civil society in their countries - everything except the mosque. Iraq is the starkest example of this, which is why democratization there will take time.

Looking at Eastern Europe on the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall, said Emanuele Ottolenghi, a lecturer on the Middle East at Oxford, "we could have predicted which countries would have an easy transition to democracy and which ones not." Countries like Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and the Baltic states, which had a history of liberal institutions and free markets that had been suppressed by communism, quickly flourished. Others farther east, which did not have such institutions in their past and were starting from scratch - Bulgaria, Romania and the former Soviet republics - have struggled since the fall of the wall.

Global political upheavals don't happen every day, so predicting their outcomes is tough even in the best of circumstances; obviously, there are stark differences between Eastern Europe in 1989 and the Middle East today. But whether we're looking at politics, technology or business -- especially in a situation that we don't fully understand -- learning about history and culture, along with juxtaposing a situation with similar events, is necessary for giving us the insights to build scenarios.

RELATED: Publius Pundit is blogging the anti-Syrian protests in Lebanon, complete with news reports, on-scene interviews, photos, audio, video and other surprises.