When the United Nations sought solutions for war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan, they turned to Lakhdar Brahimi. The former Algerian freedom fighter was a longtime negotiator for the UN, and now is a retired envoy for the international body. He has found other roles in academia and governance, currently a visiting professor at Cornell University and also chairing an independent panel for the Arab League.

Speaking to Arabic Knowledge at Wharton, Brahimi says the Arab Spring is not finished yet. Brahimi notes that the protesters have defeated dictators, but governance in many Arab countries has also been a casualty. Brahimi is most optimistic about Tunisia, remarking that it has provided the best model so far for transition to democracy.

Questions remain about how will Islamists govern in these countries, Brahimi adds, and if free elections would continue. Only a functioning democracy will sustain the reform impulse, he says. Speaking about Syria, Brahimi worries that it teeters on the edge of civil war, and wonders what sort of impact the Arab League can make there.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What are the current projects you're involved in?

Lakhdar Brahimi: I've started to chair an independent panel for the Arab League on how to energize the organization. During these last few years, the Arab League hasn't been performing very well. It's a very courageous effort. The relations between Arab countries have been difficult. The organization, for practical purposes, has been paralyzed. We don't know yet what our plans will be.

Recently, the Arab League took on two initiatives that surprised people. First of all, they declared a no-fly zone over Libya. Unfortunately, the initiative stopped there. They didn't do anything to enforce the no-fly zone or they left the enforcement to others. NATO did intervene. There have been a lot of discussions about how right or how legal it was.

Secondly, they've taken the initiative on Syria. Is the Arab League going to be more active and have a more hands-on role in the future? We want to break from the passive attitudes in the past, to see whether they'll be making an impact or not. The Arab League will have a presence on the ground. They've sent observers onto the ground in Syria. (The interview was conducted before Gulf countries pulled their support of the Arab League observer mission inside Syria.) How much of an impact they make remains to be seen. Essentially, they're trying to do something.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Why do you think the Arab Spring happened when it did?

Brahimi: I wish I knew. Everybody said how unexpected and how surprising all these developments were. One needs to qualify that. That Arabs are unhappy and want change is not a surprise. That's extremely well known. The Arab situation was not satisfactory. People in every single country wanted change. What was surprising was it happened when it did and what it did for the countries.

In 2008, I advised my own daughter-in-law, who is Egyptian, that it will all go bad in Egypt. I told her it wasn't safe, that the government wasn't going to last. [I am surprised] the act by this young man in a small town in Tunisia started this fire. Other people have committed suicide in the same manner before, but they didn't reach a similar base in Tunisia and the furor didn't spread elsewhere. That is a subject that sociologists and political scientists will be studying for a very long time. Why that particular act on that particular day provoked that chain reaction is surprising.

The other thing that was surprising is the young people in Tunisia and Egypt were stubbornly pacifist. They were provoked, but they didn't resort to violence. They remained peaceful and as a matter of fact, one of the slogans was peaceful, peaceful, peaceful!

The third surprising thing about Tunisia and Egypt was the army didn't participate in the suppression. They didn't follow the orders of the commander-in-chief for different reasons. The army refused to join in the suppression of the people. That precipitated the fall of both presidents. These are all new things — virtual mass action without violence.

The fourth surprising thing that was characteristic in Tunisia and Egypt was there were no programs and no leadership to these movements. It was brilliant because the simpler the slogan, the more people you can mobilize. If you have leaders, they will compete with each other. Everyone is equal. That worked extremely well.

There is a hitch to their great achievement. A very simple objective they had was to see the fall of the president. The protestors did that, but they have to decide what you are going to do with the government after that? That's when you need leaders and [an organized] government. That's what they've lost. They've won the war and lost the pieces. They need to have an organized group of professional politicians to come forward and take over.

The final characteristic in these protests is that the Islamist opposition groups in both countries have been organized and they have support from the people. People didn't know they had such support in these countries, and the support has been overwhelming in Egypt and Tunisia. All these are new elements need to be studied and understood. Journalists, intellectuals and academics will have a field day in the end.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: How successful has the movement been?

Brahimi: [Tunisia has] shown the way, and very convincingly. They've used simple slogans. The army didn't suppress the protests. The first election was very well organized. A fairly free election has taken place. They have a road map. Everyone has agreed on the road map. They are implementing the road map. Of course, there are tensions, hiccups, along the way, but it is moving forward. We cannot take this away from Tunisia.

The big question is whether the Islamists will be allowed to do their [political] experiment, instead of what happened in Algeria in 1991. [Civil war raged for several years when Islamists gained popularity among citizens and the opposing party cancelled free elections to prevent the Islamists from taking power.] Now they've won their election, they're going to have a seat on the table. Of course, there are questions. How are they going to govern? How effective are they going to govern? When they go to a second election, will this be a lasting phenomenon. Or people are going to be disappointed and turn away from them?

The other question people will have is, "Will Islamists allow other elections to take place?" After all, in Turkey, you have a party that is part of the Muslim Brotherhood. They have done extremely well. They have preserved democracy. They have been very successful in their government. The economy has made more progress under their party's leadership than in the last 50 years. They have been elected three times, which means they have been re-elected twice. Whether we're going to have the same thing in Tunisia or Egypt or it will be something different, we will find out.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What factors will help sustain the democratic movements in the Arab Spring countries?

Brahimi: It'll definitely not be the intervention of Europeans and Americans. The best thing to do is to let the countries do their thing and show a bit of patience. Egypt desperately needs economic aid but there's definitely no need for anyone to write their constitution or interfere with their political system. They have to make their own mistakes and learn from their own mistakes. That would be very useful.

What will sustain the movement is building a definite democracy. You need to maintain a stable situation where progress is being made. People need to feel better off materially, and also respected. They need the development of citizenship, equality, justice, and the rule of law. As far as I'm concerned, those things are more important than an election. It's not just about elections. The Egyptians had elections. What you need is dignity and respect for human life. This is what you need. That will take time.

Dignity is a beautiful word. If you're hungry, that will probably attack your dignity. If you have to beg or go hungry, these things will attack your dignity. The material aspects of these things are paramount. How are they going to organize the economy and aid in a very complicated world is important. We're in the middle of an international financial crisis. In spite of beautiful statements here and there, the actual international environment is rather difficult and perhaps unfavorable. How are they going to do that? How are they going to organize something that involves cooperation across borders? How are the Egyptians and Libyans, Moroccans, Tunisians going to work together and cooperate? Is the Arab Spring also going to bring changes in those relationships? The jury is still out.

The novelty now is that the dictators are gone. It is an important mountain to climb. But once you've done it, you have more mountains to climb. What you really need to do is fine tune international, national organizations, and regional organizations. You need to have discussions to see who has the advantages to do work. The U.N. has a lot of experience in peacekeeping. UNICEF has marvelous experience [dealing] in health and education. The Arab League should benefit from that and work from that. Why should we replicate that? It's so much more complicated than it looks. But it's doable.

[Things have been shaken up] in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Now there is the business of putting things back in order. Yemen and Syria are not done yet. You are on an edge, really. In Yemen, [protesters] did their very best to preserve the peaceful nature of that movement. In Libya, it almost immediately became violent, and we ended up in a civil war with support from NATO. That's behind us now. In Syria, we are moving dangerously in the direction of a civil war. I hope people will stop just short of that. That's why we need a lot of creativity from the Arab League. What does it mean to observe things and people are not protected? Whether we like it or not, we have to work on solutions. If not, there will be violence.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: How important are women to the Arab Spring movement?

Brahimi: They are important. If you think of the Arab Spring, the demonstrations, the Yemeni woman who won the Nobel Prize [Tawakul Karman], and you say women are not important, you are barking up the wrong tree. Islamists are saying they want women to wear the hijab [head scarf], and that they don't care what role women played in the protests. We don't know how it's going to work.

In one university in Tunisia, there are serious confrontations. Veiled women should be allowed to go to university. Before, they were not. Now, they want all women to wear the hijab. There are strong confrontations in Tunisia Manouba University now. In Egypt, we have to wait and see how it's going to work.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: From your experience as a freedom fighter in Algeria, what are some of the lessons you can impart to modern Arab Spring protesters?

Brahimi: We were a totally different generation. Fifty years later, things have both improved and gotten worse. I'm really filled with pride that Tunisia and Egypt have been able to be so stubbornly pacifist. It's a really huge lesson. We were violent, very violent. After 130 years, perhaps we ran out of patience. It's great that people can make demands for their rights and strive furiously with some chance of achieving results through peaceful means. It's not a lesson they can learn from us. It's a lesson they're giving us.

There's a Haitian proverb: When you reach the top of the mountain, you find another mountain. F.W. de Klerk [the last State President of apartheid-era South Africa] said something similar after the first democratic election in South Africa. When you reach the first plateau, it's not going to last. You will have to continue to climb again. Every time you make a step forward, the next step is more complicated. This is a definite sign of progress. Civilization has been defined as the multiplication of needs and the difficulty of satisfying them. You make progress.

The initial problem of education is teaching someone to read and write. Once you have achieved it, how about secondary education, how about university? Then you need jobs. The satisfaction of needs will become more difficult. I hope they [in the Arab Spring countries] will understand that. They must ready themselves for the completion of [the tasks at hand] but at the same time, busy themselves preparing for the next step.