Arabs are learning to solve their own problems. For the first time in more than 500 years, the convulsions rippling across the Arab world cannot be blamed on Ottoman conquest, European imperialism, American hegemony, or Israeli bullying. As unpredictable as the current situations in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and other Arab states remain, we must remember that having had perhaps the worst possible leaders, their societies will very likely be better off in the medium and long term because their governance is for the first time becoming an inclusive arena -- both nationally and regionally. The smartest thing the West can do is to help them help themselves.
From the time that Gamal Abdel Nasser took hold of Egypt in 1954 to Muammar al-Qaddafi's charismatic coup in Libya in 1969, a generation of leaders came to power riding the wave of anti-colonial Arab sentiment. But decades of post-colonial entropy and decay have culminated in collapse. The Arab world is now graduating from anti-colonial to anti-authoritarian revolutions.
Beyond the toppling of corrupt regimes and the formation of new political orders, a new Arabism is coalescing, one that is truly pan-Arab in that it has little need for the insecure nationalism of the Nasserite era. It derives its strength instead from genuinely trans-Arab phenomena such as satellite television channels and the younger generation's demand for more accountable governance. These movements are truly borderless, with Al Jazeera largely equal opportunity in its shaming of Arab autocrats -- with the notable exception of Bahrain's -- and young activists training together across the region to successfully foment the current uprisings. As Al Jazeera director-general Wadah Khanfar declared at the recent TED conference in California, "The youth … are guarding the transformation.… These people are much more wiser than not only the political elite, [but] even the intellectual elite.… The youth in the Arab world are much more wiser and capable of creating the change than the old -- including the political and cultural and ideological old regimes." Indeed, Al Jazeera, long shunned in the West, is finally being acknowledged as a force for openness, debate, and progress. American households are demanding, and getting, the channel via DirecTV.
The Arab League's backing of a no-fly zone in Libya and its ongoing consideration of peacekeeping forces for Palestine and Lebanon are striking examples of a meaningful transnational Arab political sphere coming into being. Even ruthless intrusions like Saudi Arabia's sending of forces into Bahrain to suppress the swelling street protests are evidence that Arabs cannot continue simply to rejoice in their neighbors' suffering and instead see their collective stability on the line.
The next great step toward a new Arab renaissance will come through physically overcoming the region's arbitrary political borders, most of which derive from European colonial callousness. As the European Union itself demonstrates, the only way to achieve genuine collective security and a political-economic order greater than the sum of its parts is to physically build it.
The Arab realm's last period of borderless coexistence was under Ottoman suzerainty, but despite their inchoate rule the Ottomans also built vital infrastructural linkages such as the Hejaz Railway, which traveled from Istanbul to Medina and even had an offshoot to Haifa on the Mediterranean Sea. Today, the Hejaz rail line lies in tatters due to lack of investment and rigid border policies.
Yet no greater step could be taken to alleviate Arabs' economic and political woes than investment in cross-border infrastructure. A new pan-Arab rail network could connect Tripoli to Cairo to Amman to Baghdad, and Damascus to Dubai. Remember that the stunningly massive granite columns and marble baths of the majestic Roman port city of Leptis Magna (just east of Tripoli in present-day Libya) were largely imported overland on roads all the way from Aswan in ancient Egypt. (There was, then, something sensible to Qaddafi's symbolic bulldozing of Libya's border fence with Egypt in 1974.) More pipelines and canals could connect oil-rich and low-population states with poor, heavily populated ones. Where borders are straight and arbitrary, these fluid and deliberately curvy lines -- railways, pipelines, and water channels -- will be the necessary and natural consequence of the opening of Arab societies to the logic of globalization.
The recent launch of the New Palestine Party -- whose explicit platform is to implement the Rand Corporation's proposal for an infrastructure "Arc" to unite the West Bank and Gaza into a viable and independent state -- is a visceral reminder of how fundamental territorial realignments must be made to overcome political division and economic stagnation. Independence without infrastructure is futile.