In Davos, examining the Arab Spring's mixed bag

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The convulsions of the Arab world are taking center stage at this year's World Economic Forum gathering in Davos, where leaders and experts are much preoccupied with the region's bewildering combination of high hopes, deep disappointments and grave dangers that threaten to spill over borders.

Along the way, a divide seems to be emerging between those fundamentally impressed with the startling presence of once-unimaginable people power in long-repressive countries - and others more troubled by the poverty and corruption that persists, the instability that has resulted, and the rise of both political Islam and jihadi insurgencies.

Asked whether democracy was prevailing in his native Egypt, former Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa hedged, saying democracy “is not only the ballot box. It is the respect of human rights, for rights of women, separation of powers, independence of the judiciary.”

“This meaning of democracy we have not yet achieved,” said Moussa, who ran unsuccessfully for president of Egypt last year.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, speaking on the same BBC-sponsored panel, saw the glass half full.

“If we had this meeting two years ago in Davos, no one would imagine there would be elected presidents in Cairo, in Tunisia, in Libya, in Yemen,” he said. “So we have to be fair to these societies. In two years they achieved a lot of things.”

Indeed, such intense focus on the Middle East was a far cry from the situation here two years ago, when the Arab Spring was just beginning and the region barely registered at a forum still focused on the global financial crisis. This week, as Egyptians prepare to mark on Friday the anniversary of the start of the revolution that swept aside Hosni Mubarak, the issue seems to come up at every panel that even tangentially touches on politics or strategy.

For many of the speakers, there is much to be disappointed about. The uprisings that first began in Tunisia in December 2010 did bring down dictators in Tunisia, Yemen, Libya and Egypt. But now Islamists and liberals wrangle over power, with the former mostly on top, democracy is far from certain, and economies are crumbling.

Moussa and Davutoglu agreed that a key accomplishment from the past two years was the casting aside of the notion that Arabs are condemned to autocratic rule, a belief long accepted even by elites in the Arab world itself.

More Arabs are politically engaged than ever before, demanding to be heard. They're learning what it means to question everything and everyone after decades under heavy autocracies where discussion, innovation and public participation were discouraged - or crushed.

But it can be a double-edged sword, breeding instability and even violence when expectations cannot be met.

“On the one hand we have a political process which has really gone into uncharted waters (and) has proven to be much more difficult (and) much more divisive” than expected, said Tunisian economist Mustapha Kamel Nabli. Especially worrisome is the economic situation in which many countries are suffering low growth, high unemployment and fiscal difficulties, and yet “expectations have never been so high” among a newly empowered public, he said.

“People want things now. People want jobs now. People want increased wages now,” he said. At the same time, political players are not necessarily responsible or capable enough to respond, he said. “This is not sustainable.”

Addressing the issue at a news conference at Davos, Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Kandil admitted that “economic challenges are clear in terms of high poverty rate and unemployment and budget deficits” - but added that “we also consider that the potential of the Egyptian economy is huge.”

Troubling in a different way is Syria - a hemorrhaging wound, with death and destruction mounting in a civil war that the U.N. says has killed 60,000. Neither the regime of Bashar Assad nor the rebels seeking to oust him seem able to win, sectarian hatreds are burning ever stronger and the conflict threatens to destabilize Syria's neighbors.

Perhaps most worryingly for the West, armed Islamic militants, some with al-Qaida links, have emerged emboldened in Syria and elsewhere in the region, and they are better armed, with weapons from Libya's civil war now smuggled freely from country to country.

“The dog that didn't bark during the Arab Spring was al-Qaida,” Vali Nasr, dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, told a panel devoted to “The Global Security Context.” Now al-Qaida “is finding very important pockets in Syria, in the Sinai Peninsula, across North Africa in an arc from northern Nigeria through Mali and into northern Somalia.”

Indeed, the presence of jihadis in the Syrian rebellion has certainly been a major reason for the world community's reluctance to arm the rebels or back then in a way that goes much beyond the rhetorical.

More complex is the rise of political Islam, which seems to prevail wherever free elections are held. The question on many minds is which way the Arab version of this movement will go: toward a reasonably modern and liberal model, like Turkey's, or toward the repression of the Islamic Republic of Iran? Even Saudi Arabia, a staunch ally of the West, is essentially a discomfiting model - a place with no free elections, where women may not drive and must be accompanied by male escorts for some of the most routine actions.

Thus the new Islamist rulers in the region are constantly under scrutiny.

The main case in point is Egypt, where Islamist President Mohammed Mursi narrowly won a June 2012 vote. Despite promises of inclusiveness, he has kept policy-making and the choice of appointments almost entirely within the Muslim Brotherhood.

Last month saw deadly riots over the contentious Egyptian constitution, which critics say subtly but disturbingly opens the door to theocracy. Islamists finalized the draft in a rushed, all-night meeting, throwing in amendments to fit their needs, then pushed it through a swift referendum in which only a third of voters participated. The result is a document that could bring a much stricter implementation of Shariah, or Islamic law, than modern Egypt has ever seen.

Opponents worry the group is virtually stepping into the shoes of Mubarak's former ruling party. The opposition has called for mass protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square and in major cities around Egypt on Friday to mark the Jan. 25 anniversary of the anti-Mubarak uprising's start. This time, the aim is to show the extent of public anger against Mursi.

Is there a contradiction between Islam and democracy?

No, insisted Moussa, the former Arab League chief. “Most of us hate what al-Qaida is doing. Islamic society has nothing to do with this, and (Islam) does not contradict democracy,” he said.

There remains the question of whether the spirit of revolt will eventually reach the Arab monarchies of the Gulf. They have largely remained untouched so far, with the exception of Bahrain, where Saudi Arabia and its allies have helped put down an uprising by disenfranchised Shiites.

Qatar has emerged as perhaps the biggest winner of the Arab Spring, using its oil and natural gas wealth to spread its influence by helping rebels in Libya and Syria and propping up Mursi's government in Egypt with financial aid.

Saudi Arabia has felt more vulnerable. It has its own restive Shiite population and, despite its oil riches, unemployment is high among its burgeoning youth population.

Saudi Prince Turki Al Faisal, a former Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to the United States, sounded a skeptical note about Western-style democracy.

“A heard a lot here about democracy,” he told one panel. “When I hear of something becoming a model or a mold or a fashion like democracy is today, immediately I cringe. I think those who think of democracy as a Viagra pill that could solve their dysfunction ... are not on the right path.

“You need to have your own solutions,” Faisal said, to laughter and applause from many fellow Arabs in the audience.

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