While most of us working on development issues in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, will probably know at least a couple of examples of renowned social enterprises or ventures in the region, I am not sure we have all truly come to know the real magnitude and potential impact of this sector in general. Looking through the pretty widespread literature and case studies on social entrepreneurship, MENA is sadly under-represented. Why, one wonders.
Khaled Said was not the first Egyptian whom police allegedly beat to death. But his death sparked a virtual revolution that in retrospect was a perfect rehearsal for the real revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule in 18 days. Said, a 28-year-old Egyptian businessman, was brutally beaten, his family and activists say, by two plainclothes police officers in June 2010. An Interior Ministry autopsy claimed that he suffocated after swallowing a bag of drugs. But a photograph of a shattered body, his family confirmed was his, started circulating online. His family said he was targeted after posting a video online allegedly showing police sharing profits of a drug bust.
With the Arab spring bringing into sharper focus the long-standing challenges of inequality and unemployment in the Arab world, the question is what to do. It is clear that in the medium term only a dynamic market-based economy can generate good jobs for the unemployed and, importantly, the underemployed. It might seem tempting in the face of popular pressures to expand the public sectors further, but it is not feasible and not desirable. That said: "In the medium term we are all dead" (this was a famous Keynes statement and he actually said it about that favorite economist phrase "in the long run" but it suits me here).
Among the saddest iconic stories to come out of MENA’s rapidly changing political landscape was the first: the dramatic self-immolation of a fruit vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, and how his act was a response to government officials trying to confiscate the fruit he was selling, taking away from this young man the sole means he had found to support his family.
The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have celebrated the values of freedom, justice and human dignity. They have reignited hope in the ability of communities to work together to bring change. They encourage taking risk coupled with a learning spirit.
The challenge now is to sustain citizen engagement and grow the culture of holding each other accountable. Community action cannot be from revolution to revolution. I love how one of Egypt's Shabab AlThawra said to his people: “Now that you have woken up, don’t go back to sleep”. The other challenge is to make sure that the energy does not become manipulated by various players with contradicting values or derailed by certain media stunts.
The Arab world is all too often in the headlines for geo-political tensions and cross border conflicts. Today it is in the grip of a peoples' uprising that is demanding change in political regimes, respect for citizens' rights, governance and quality of life.
The breadth and force of this peoples' voice has caught the world and the most politically astute of analysts by surprise. The Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia lent confidence in turn to regime change in Egypt, the largest population in the region. These events have been further motivation across the Middle East and North Africa.
The democratic movements sprouting all over the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are arousing high optimism for greater voice and inclusiveness. Democracies are about sharing power, and about reflecting the will of the people through peaceful processes at the ballot box. But, will the will of the people and people power usher in greater gender equality and women’s empowerment, particularly as women fought shoulder to shoulder with men for change?
The Arab world was a center of intellectual fervor and scientific discovery when my forefathers in Northern Europe were a rather backward people raiding neighbors and toiling for the King. Over time the tables turned and the last several decades in the Arab world were a period of political control, few basic freedoms and widespread exclusion.
Meanwhile people in other parts of the world enjoyed increasing freedoms and an information and media revolution making information accessible to more and more people. Now, almost overnight, millions of Arab citizens have joined this global table of exchange and openness. Twitters, facebook posts and blogs are buzzing around the Arab world with new-found freedom and excitement.