May 25th, 2011
07:00 PM GMT
Like the royal wedding that preceded it, the visit of President Barack Obama to Britain has been orchestrated well. Beyond discussions of the essential relationship, the U.S. president went out of his way both in his speech before both chambers of the British parliament and in his news conference with Prime Minister David Cameron to support what he calls the emerging democracies of the Middle East.
At the front of the queue are the two countries that sparked the uprisings, one of the least populated, Tunisia, and the most populated in the region, Egypt. There has been criticism from many camps that the U.S. president has been dragging his feet in supporting the North African states who overthrew Zine El Abedine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak.
The president’s speech was, in part, an effort to reverse that view, backed up by real money from the U.S., the World Bank and others to follow. Last week, the U.S. said it will earmark $2 billion for Egypt –- half in debt relief and the other half for financing infrastructure. Another $2 billion will go into a broader package to support investment into small and medium-sized enterprises, with the hope of tackling youth unemployment. After all, we should not forget that what sparked the uprisings was a lack of economic opportunity and the inability to have a voice in the political arena.
That has all changed, but taking the example of the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is important to manage expectations on the ground. As former White House adviser Laura D’Andrea Tyson rightly notes there is “now a huge expectation that the transition will immediately lead to success and of course the process itself has made it more difficult.” In the German example, there was unification and a cash surplus nation in West Germany that could step in immediately. That is not the case in North Africa.
Tourism arrivals according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization were down 44 percent and 45 percent in Tunisia and Egypt in the first quarter. So foreign exchange earnings are down sharply.
What President Obama seems to be after here in London is momentum building, which is in the spirit of the U.S. leading from behind. The president is suggesting that the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) has the expertise in a post-Soviet environment to expand its reach to the Mediterranean. The European Commission is reportedly looking at adding another $3.5 billion to the effort as part of its new neighborhood policy.
While western expertise and limited funding are always useful, strategists like Tyson suggest leading players from the wealthy Gulf States can provide the essential funding in a targeted way. There is early talk that the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council will come to the table with substantial sums. It did so earlier this year for Bahrain and Oman and sources are indicating more is on the way.
This may very well be the case of the U.S. leading by example and building a late but vital consensus for these emerging democracies.
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