[Viewpoint] Now comes the hard part

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[Viewpoint] Now comes the hard part

South Korea has many fans in Egypt and Tunisia - where all the action and media attention are these days. The people there approach Koreans with a thumbs up and say how much they like our country. South Korea is no longer a land from the distant, mystic Far East with made-in-Korea mobile phones, electronic home appliances, and cars now widely accessible across the Middle East.

The tech-savvy and highly resourceful young population - acknowledged for their role in the history-making revolutionary movements spread by new technologies and social media networks - also are well in tune with Korean entertainers and TV dramas. A college student amidst the crowd of protestors in Tahrir Squre in Cairo recited the names of Korean songs and singers to show how big a fan she is of K-pop. A 52-year-old Tunisian man said his high-school daughter’s dream is to visit South Korea one day.

Saad Hagras, managing editor of the Cairo-based Al-Alam Al-Youm newspaper, cited high education standards and democratization as what he envies most about South Korea. “I respect South Koreans for accomplishing an economic miracle in such a short period by nurturing human resources through education and raising transparency through democratization,” he said.

He said Egypt also needs to be democratized in order to advance its economy, adding that most countries in the Arab League are underdeveloped and poor because their economies remained stagnant under autocratic governments over many decades. The money that should have gone into improving the lives of ordinary Egyptians was instead funneled into overseas personal accounts of the ousted President Hosni Mubarak, which grew to as much as $70 billion due to the lack of an oversight system. Social transparency is a prerequisite in assuring solid economic growth and, above all, the freedom of the press and of expression must be upheld.

Tunisians and Egyptians are exhilarated with a sense of pride, self-empowerment, and liberation, having “changed the world with their own hands” by bringing down a decades-old dictatorship. Tunisians take pride in being the birthplace of the latest anti-government democracy movement to sweep across the Arab world. Without the precedent of the Jasmine Revolution - the 21st century Twitter-enabled revolution in which the people kicked out their leader for the first time in Arab history - the 30-year-old regime of Mubarak could not have crumbled.

But Tunisia, now in its first months of a democratic experiment, is also a worrying harbinger. Voices of frustration have been unleashed from various shades of society, oscillating the country along a path of uncertainty. Workers of government, public and corporate entities are on the streets chanting for wage hikes, better work conditions and an improved environment. The transitional government, however, is disastrously lacking in leadership and administrative competence to address those demands. Newly appointed governors are kicked out of office by public rioters and replaced by untested youths.

“Depenalisation” - a French coinage referring to eradicating the legacy of former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali - is racing out of control. Anyone who benefited from the past government is in danger of losing their position in society. Sports writers at newspapers are now covering politics because their colleagues have been demoted for having played along with the autocratic government.

Pain and struggle are inevitable by-products of the democratization process. But without self-restraint and patience, Tunisians may jeopardize their hard-won democracy. If social instability is coupled with economic hardship, the country may drift into the abyss.

Egypt has been the center of Arab history. A monumental change in Egypt can produce a strong resonance throughout the entire Arab community.

This historical movement may have started in Tunisia and Egypt, but it won’t likely end there. Mubarak’s exit is a new beginning, not the end for the Egyptians and other Arabs. If they want it all to end well, they must exercise understanding and patience because their journey will be a hard and long one.

Selling products and winning construction projects should not be our sole business in the Arab world. We must applaud and support their courageous path toward democratization. It is a duty demanded of a country that has been there. And we owe the valuable gift of compassion and appreciation toward a fan.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Bae Myung-bok
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