Let me begin by thanking our gracious host and co-chair, Kuwait. It is fitting that, in this transformative year, the Forum takes place in a country with a vibrant civil society, and that has been a pioneer of participatory democracy for all of its citizens.
I would also like to thank France for its leadership of the G8—and especially for launching the new Deauville Partnership to respond to the wave of historic change across the region.
Nearly one year ago, Secretary Clinton spoke with urgency to the ministers gathered at the Forum for the Future in Doha. She warned that, unless governments undertook reforms to meet the aspirations of their people, the region’s foundations risked “sinking into the sand.” We recall this with humility, because anyone who had read the Arab Human Development Reports over the past decade could see the structural problems that were accumulating. None of us knew how quickly change was coming, or what form these changes would take.
And yet, one year later, we find ourselves at a new moment—one of enormous promise for citizens demanding more freedom, more opportunity and more dignity, and also one of uncertainty and risk for the entire region. The question of this moment is no longer whether or when or how fast the region needs to undertake political and economic reforms. Today, the question is how we can mobilize to support successful democratic transitions for people and societies who will no longer accept an untenable status quo.
Today, our hearts are with Egypt and its brave people, who have sacrificed so much for their freedom. We grieve the loss of life and injuries there. Egyptians will determine their own future. But it seems clear that Egypt will only achieve stability through completing its transition to civilian rule, and we hope they can achieve this goal as quickly as possible.
The truth is that the stability and prosperity that we all seek across the region will only flow from a process of sustained, meaningful democratic and economic reform—one that redefines the relationship between rulers and ruled.
Secretary Clinton has described representative government, economic opportunity and vibrant civil society as three legs of a stool that, together, lift and support nations as they reach for long-sought progress and prosperity. I would like to talk briefly about all three—with a special emphasis on civil society, which is at the heart of the BMENA initiative.
I. Civil Society
Civil society gives voice to peoples’ aspirations, needs, interests and concerns. It helps us create a functioning marketplace of ideas. Governments and civil society should work together as partners – not competitors – to ensure sustainable, legitimate, inclusive reform. Governments that draw on the talents and creativity of civil society are better at identifying and solving problems.
Creating a mutually beneficial relationship between government and civil society starts with dialogue, but cannot end there. Talk of reform must be translated into concrete action that delivers tangible improvements in people’s lives – the only way to bring the long-term stability that all of us seek for the region. We’ve heard today the voices in civil society demanding a focus on accountability and follow-up. And we share your commitment to deliver results.
Partnership with civil society must extend to the public square—to bloggers who criticize public officials; to peaceful protestors; to those advocating for equality and inclusion for all, including women and religious minorities. America strongly supports the rights of all individuals to join together in associations, to speak freely and to work with government and with each other to build a better future.
That is what is happening in Tunisia, which held the first truly democratic elections in its history last month—thanks in no small part to close cooperation between government and civil society in organizing elections and educating voters.
Today we are very pleased to join Tunisia as our BMENA co-chair for 2012. Tunisia has led the region into a new era of personal, political, and economic freedom. We are proud that Tunisia will take on this important leadership role over the coming year.
During our G-8 presidency, we intend to take a pragmatic, results-oriented approach and focus on the priorities identified by citizens across the region – issues like rule of law, anti-corruption, expanding educational opportunity, and strengthening our civil societies. Toward that end, I am pleased to announce that the U.S. during our G-8 presidency will make available $1 million in grants specifically for civil society groups participating in the Forum process. Our focus on civil society reinforces our efforts to achieve progress on the other two legs of the stool I described earlier: democratic freedoms and economic opportunity.
II. Supporting Political Openness and Democratic Transitions
When it comes to supporting democratic freedoms, our position is clear. Where countries are attempting transitions to democracy, we will support them. And when we see groups attempting to subvert democracy, we will work to safeguard hard-won rights and freedoms. Where countries are moving more slowly, we will urge leaders and citizens to stay ahead of the wave of demand for democratic change. And where leaders attempt to hold back the future at the point of a gun, these regimes will face increasing pressure and isolation.
Nowhere is this more clear than Syria, where the United States and most of you here today have condemned the atrocities committed by the Syrian regime and made abundantly clear that its brutality will no longer be tolerated. And nowhere is the disconnect between rulers and ruled greater than it is today in Iran.
III. Economic Opportunity
Finally, let me briefly address the third leg of the stool. Political transitions cannot succeed without confidence in a better economic future. It is essential, for all of us, to nurture economic systems where talent is cultivated and rewarded, where entrepreneurs and innovators are unleashed to enrich their societies, where nations can trade with their neighbors and compete in the global economy.
I urge all of us in this room to think creatively and ambitiously about the path ahead. Conventional foreign assistance will not be enough. Nor will a short-term approach. We must work together to empower individual citizens to make their own economic as well as political choices, to build their own businesses, and to grow a real middle class. And we know that economic liberalization that fails to achieve inclusive growth is a false path to prosperity.
This kind of genuine economic reform will require that leaders have visions compelling enough to drive what will be tough and sometimes unpopular choices. Those of us who are here from the G8 must think, and act, more ambitiously to open up trade and investment across the region. Through the Deauville Partnership, we are mobilizing the world’s leading economies and international lending institutions to support the transitions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, as well as the major reforms underway in Jordan and Morocco. As G8 President next year, we will keep high-level attention on these transitions, and also on the imperative of regional economic integration across the Middle East and North Africa.
It is a fact that the Middle East is a place where pessimists rarely lack for either company or validation. And it is a fact that the future of the region holds more than its share of problems and uncertainties. But it is also filled with much promise, and hopes and possibilities that were hard to imagine when we last met at this Forum one year ago. I urge those of us gathered today—governments, civil society, partners and friends—to treat a time of uncertainty as a moment of opportunity, and to work together to bend the arc of history toward peace, dignity and a better future. Thank you.