NDN Middle East/North Africa initiative director Bradley Bosserman: Visa-free travel points to progress toward a more open Middle East

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s selection of a rather staid and technocratic Cabinet has overshadowed an important development in the region’s democratic process. The three flagship transition countries in North Africa recently came together in support of a proposal for visa-free travel between Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. This so-called “Cairo Declaration” not only has the potential to substantively boost regional economic growth, but also represents a strikingly positive move toward openness and liberalization of a sort that would have been inconceivable just two years ago.

As critics highlight setbacks in the region, it is important for policymakers to maintain perspective and build on economic and non-political reforms that will lay the foundation for liberal, free and prosperous societies in the long term. The question that Americans need to be asking is how to best support these countries and integrate them more fully into the global system. Fortunately, this playbook has been around for ages: build civil society, boost trade, incentivize innovation and reform and forge long-term partnerships.

Eliminating cross-border visa entry has long been a staple of regional integration and has been deployed throughout Europe as an important tool to increase economic opportunity, investment, cultural exchange and tourism exports. While unemployment remains frustratingly high throughout the Middle East — especially among the young and educated — eliminating travel barriers can play a big role in consolidating the hard-fought political gains that were won in the streets of Tunis, Cairo and Tripoli. 

Chuck Dittrich, executive director of the U.S-.Libya Business Association, explains that “in addition to the benefits that will accrue to local business leaders, visa-free travel among the three countries will spur U.S. and other international investors to take notice ... which could spur the creation of regional supply chains and unleash the economic rewards of regional cooperation.” This is in addition to the psychological benefits of families and friends being able to easily visit each other across borders after decades of confinement by autocratic regimes. This freedom of movement is a fundamental component of democratic life.

Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), who served as an election observer on the ground in Cairo, recognizes the need to build on this trend toward integration, and has called for the negotiation of a U.S.-Egypt Free Trade Agreement. He argues, correctly, that cries to distance ourselves from moderate Islamist governments are short-sighted. 

“[T]he Brotherhood has at least taken some of the responsibility of righting the economy and providing opportunity for 85 million Egyptians,” Dreier said on the House floor last week, “[and] it will face enormous pressure to pursue a reform agenda, engage appropriately with the West, and eschew regional conflict.”

As important as political and electoral reforms are, it is nearly impossible to conceive of a path toward a democratic Middle East that does not include much more robust economic growth and a regional integration strategy for the region. The International Labor Organization reports that youth unemployment in North Africa has spiked since the Arab Spring to nearly 30 percent. ILO Executive Director José Manuel Salazar-Xirinachs observes that this crisis “can be beaten but only if job creation for young people becomes a key priority in policymaking and private sector investment picks up significantly.” These are the types of gains that history tells us are most effectively achieved by increased trade, integration and liberalization. That is why this latest push for visa-free travel and deeper regional and international cooperation is so important.

Speaking in Africa this week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that “[s]ome people back home say we shouldn’t bother. That we should just focus on America’s immediate economic or security interests and not worry so much about the slow, hard work of building democracy elsewhere.” But this is clearly not a strategic or forward-looking approach to the U.S. relationship with the region and the world, Clinton said. She concluded: “It’s also in our interest to have strong and stable partners in the world. And democracies are by far the strongest and most stable partners. So this isn’t altruism. This is a strategic commitment to shared prosperity, to common security.” 

While it is certainly prudent to pressure these nascent governments to pursue a broad agenda of political and social liberalization, it is essential for policymakers to also recognize the important non-political advances being made, and build stronger partnerships around them.

Bosserman is director of the Middle East and North Africa Initiative at NDN, formerly the New Democrat Network, a Washington-based think tank.