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Cultural values, not dictators like Libya's Qaddafi, are chief obstacle to Arab progress

If Arabs want significantly greater freedom and economic development, they and their leaders must be fully committed to making it so.

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Relentless revolt against repression has been upending much of the Arab world. Tunisia is already into its second new leader in two months. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak has fled, Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi is killing for his life, and often bloody protests have hit Yemen, Bahrain, Algeria, Jordan, and other countries. The speed, intensity, and effectiveness of the demonstrations have authoritarian leaders scrambling as far away as China.

The demands for freedom, democracy, and better lives for poor and often repressed peoples are compelling, but these outcomes are unlikely unless basic challenges are clearly recognized before inevitable frustration settles in. Real progressive change requires time and patient commitment.

To be sure, a rapid transition to some form of democracy would be a source of pride and accomplishment. But would it aid Arabs in confronting the deeper obstacles that have for so long prevented their political and economic development? The fever of revolution has not encouraged enough sober thought about the morning (and the decades) after.

However bad an individual dictator or self-serving elite may be in Africa, the Middle East, or elsewhere, rulers there are much more symptoms than primary causes of national woes. It was not decades of Mubarak, Qaddafi, or others that created so many systems that historically failed to serve the basic needs of the majority of their people.

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