Friday, September 30, 2011

Engage the Arab Spring -- a blog by National Foreign Trade Council Vice President Dan O'Flaherty

We’ve been here before. That was in 1992 when the Soviet Union had collapsed and Congress passed the "Freedom for Russia and Emerging Eurasian Democracies and Open Markets Support Act." The law embodied the transition of the region from hostile adversary to partner and substituted a policy of engagement for that of military defense and confrontation. The law authorized aid programs and set performance criteria for traditional AID-style government-to-government programs.

But it went farther. It established a platform for private sector engagement by creating American Business Centers that connected U.S. companies to commercial opportunities that would in turn stimulate the growth needed to legitimate the successor regimes.

In 2011 we need a Middle East North Africa Freedom Support Act. At 23%, the MENA region has the highest unemployment of any region in the world. Post-revolutionary unemployment in Tunisia is about 18%. In Egypt, where 32% of the people are under 15, unemployment is 16%. Combined with rising food prices, the economic crisis could easily undermine the prospects for democracy.

Last week the G-8 committed $80 billion to five countries in the region over two years. This will provide desperately needed budget support to transitional governments. But it will not create jobs. ?

This week the Tunisian finance minister told a Washington audience that his country wants to become a knowledge-based economy and called for business-to-business linkages, especially in IT. This is the challenge of true engagement to which the American public and private sectors must once again rise.

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