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The Head of State vs. The Man on the Street

Mohammed Bouazizi was an educated young man, from Sidi Abu Zeid, a small town in Tunisia, who entered the job market that had no jobs. To support his mother and sister, he undertook, without a license, to sell vegetables on the street. When the authorities confiscated his vegetable cart, insulted him, and refused to hear his grievances, he proceeded to set himself on fire, and in due course, to set the entire Middle East ablaze.

What does Mohammed’s act of self-immolation mean? It means that a young man, such as Mohammed, needs to find a way to earn a living, and needs as well the freedom that makes his life worth living. It means that the model that has been put in place in the Middle East, with its corruption, and its oppression, and its denial of human rights and basic freedoms, is out of step with the aspirations of the people. It means that in the hyper-connectivity of today’s world, one man’s rage is another man’s call to arms. And it also means as well that there is an opportunity now to build a new Middle East from the ashes of the old.

But how do we go about building a new Middle East? We begin by looking at two key players in particular: the head of state, and the man on the street. To a great extent, the future of the Middle East depends on the interplay between these two. What does the man on the street want? As was the case with Mohammed Bouazizi, the man on the street wants a job, and the freedom to live his life. And what does the head of state want? He wants, above all, security from within, and without. He wants to know that his rule will not be undermined by dissent from within, or by aggression from without. The head of state, therefore, has no choice but to do what he can to grow the economy, as a way of creating the jobs which will placate the citizenry, and as a way of obtaining the resources to fend off aggression from other countries and other groups.

If we look at what motivates the head of state, on the one hand, and the man on the street, on the other, we can see hints of the grand bargain that could be struck, and the prospects that are now out there for a new Middle East. The man on the street wants freedom and jobs. The head of state wants internal and external security, and a growing economy that fulfills the needs and aspirations of the people. Both of these players, therefore, should be able to agree that economic growth and job creation are at the heart of what needs to be done. And both may also agree to close the deal as follows: We will work together to grow the economy and to bestow freedom to the people, in exchange for the people agreeing to respect the rule of law, and to maintain an orderly transition to freedom and democracy.

In the past, other mechanisms were put in place to maintain some semblance of stability on the street. Those measures will no longer work. The old model is out. Something new must take its place. The new model will be about freedom and jobs. Those are the causes for which Mohammed Bouazizi died. They are also the causes on which a grand bargain can be struck in the Middle East between the head of state and the man on the street. In the midst of the American Revolution, Patrick Henry famously said, “Give me liberty, or give me death.” In this new revolution, the one we see unfolding before our eyes, the new formulation might go something like this, “Give me freedom, and give me a job, and I will agree to your rule, for as long as you stay true to the dream we can both share.”


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