Arabic Awakening: Human Dignity and Democracy in Question
Author: Patrick Mugo Mugo
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on 07/01/2011
The Arabic uprising has been inspiring and breathtaking to say the least. In the hearts of the Arabic people, it was a moment they had yearned for, decade in and decade out. As with traditions, uprisings or revolutions, unlike elections, are never planned for; surprise and unpredictability is their potent weapon.
A major question for uprisings or revolutions is why they tend to come as a surprise. They always do. There have been over 60 democratic uprisings since Portugal in 1974 (323 revolutions since 1900), and we are always surprised (Kinsman, 2011). Kinsman equates the surprise that the world is expressing regarding the Arabic uprising to over-investment in the status quo, which people associate with ‘security and stability’. If anything, the perception of realities in the Middle East has been obscured by the global appetite for oil, counter-terrorism and business deals to the extent of painting a picture of the Arabic wider population as dispensable.
Popular uprisings are created over time, observes Clay Shirky, and they emerge when a closed society’s open secrets become “public truths.” Examples in Tunisia of what Shirky terms “shared awareness” show not that Tunisia was in a state of grinding poverty, but rather that education resulted in lack of professional fulfillment. This explains why 26-year old Mohamed Bouzazi from Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia, despite being a university graduate, wasn’t professionally happy, but had to contend with the realities of being a street vendor in effort to provide for his family, only for him to be harassed by the omnipresent police over his lack of trade license.
In the view of Amr Abdalla, despite the proliferation of education and higher degrees, various governments across the Middle East had, over time, fallen short of societal expectations; that is, of providing employment and basic services. Instead, argues Abdalla, the tumbling or besieged Arabic regimes depended upon repressive laws for survival, alienating themselves from the Arabic youth in the process.
Felling excluded, disposed of and defeated, Bouzazi’s breaking point had arrived on December 17, 2010, after being slapped twice across the face by a female police officer for being unable to pay the bribe she demanded, leading to the confiscation of his goods. The humiliation that the slap inflicted was more painful than the actual pain, leaving him with few options, if any at all, other than that of setting himself ablaze, leading to his death within two weeks. Even the omnipresent Tunisian police could not deal with Bouzazi in his newfound freedom of expression. The rest of what has happened since then is what we are calling either ‘Awakening’ or ‘Uprising’ or ‘Revolution’. As Mohamed Bouzazi’s name and deeds become immortalized, the key question is why his action has ignited a ‘fire’ across the Arabic world that shows no letting up, and what is the solution?
Rageh Omar, a journalist and writer, while crediting the social media for its triumph over the Tunisian government’s complete censorship of information sharing, and for spreading the news about Mohamed Bouzazi’s actions. Omar notes that on the same day that Mohamed Bouzazi set himself on fire, hundreds, and then thousands, saw stark evidence of the brutality of the regime under which they had lived for two decades; a reflection of their own sense of despair.
In the days that have followed, social media has not only made the Arabic world’s ‘hidden truths’ public, but has also created a shared responsibility among the Arabic youth, thereby lifting them from their humiliating isolation from the wider world and from the political scene. In spite of their diversity, divisions and complexity, the Arabic awakening can be encapsulated in one very expressive and politically charged concept that has been absent from the Arabic political arena for too long: “the people” (Atassi: 2011).
Mahmoud Hamid, Assistant Professor at University for Peace, while giving credit to the social media for enabling Arabic youth to mobilize and depose autocratic regimes, he regrets that the Arabic middle class’ belief in the power of social media has, to a certain degree, taken them away from the real issues that triggered the uprising. While Arabic youth might not be crystal-clear about what kind of future they want, the older generation portend that events and circumstances are evolving too fast to make sense out of them. This sort of demographic disconnect is best captured by Dr. Mahmoud Hamid, who terms the Arabic revolution as a 21st Century revolution in a 15th Century society.
In other words, while the demographic equation across the Arabic world is in favour of the youth, it is worth noting that within the same Arabic societies, critical decisions are made by the older generations, and if need be, altered with their blessings. This explains why white-haired men and seasoned bald-headed bureaucrats are still being trusted by the same youth to make sense out of their frustrations with the cascading old orders, from Tunisia to Yemen.
In trying to make sense out of these underlying divergent positions, one does find that the issues under consideration have a different meaning for the various parties involved. But when borrowing insight from Dean and Sung Hee (2004, pp. 20), one can say that although there appears to be disagreement among the parties, there is no fundamental opposition in what they are really asking for – dignity, recognition, socioeconomic wellbeing, and freedom.
One would be right to ask why a region rich in oil and perceived as ‘stable and secure’ over time would have some ‘hidden truths’. Amr Abdalla (UPEACE’s Africa Peace and Conflict Journal) says that root of the problem stems from the race to accumulate wealth, which has happened at the expense of development and services to the poor. In the view of Abdalla, while the (Arabic) elites were becoming rich at unprecedented levels, more people lived below poverty levels, and lacked access to basic services, such as housing and health, or basic commodities, such as bread.
It is amidst this dynamic that one finds the ugly capitalist hand, where the policies that were meant to empower the poor ended up disempowering them, precipitating their exclusion. In other words, privatization policies were dictated by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which increased the levels of unemployment and accelerated the pace of corruption, as state-owned economic institutions were being sold in shady deals, observes Abdalla. Relegated to the back-burner was the question of what really would have worked well for the majority, and not just for the elites. What Sauder (2005) terms as the need to conceptualise democracy as freedom that empowers a society and individuals way beyond freedom from fear and want toward a freedom that enables them to access opportunities, coupled with choices and a dignified life.
Quest for Freedom
As democracy advocate and theorist Thomas Carothers has explained, democracy’s breakout and transition has two initial chapters. Chapter one involves throwing off a dictator. Chapter two is sometimes the more daunting job of building the new democratic form of governance and making it deliver what people need in the way of livelihood and security in addition to rights and justice.
While it is too early to tell how well democracy will flourish across the Arabic region, Kinsman says a different trend line has been set for human political aspirations. Shehadi (2011) argues that the Arab democratic revolution, if that is what it proves to be, is spreading. The experiences of protest and change in Tunisia and Egypt, Bahrain and Morocco, Libya and Yemen may vary substantially, notes Shehadi, yet they also seem to be components of a great collective shift, which will have reverberations far beyond the region.
But Abdalla (UPEACE’s Africa Peace and Conflict Journal) does remind everyone that past experiences show that succeeding in toppling a dictatorial regime and introducing reforms, and even building democratic institutions, are no guarantee for introducing democratic reforms, and that even building democratic institutions is no guarantee for development and prosperity
In the view of Hussein Yaakoub (2011), democracy is not just a matter of institutions; it is also a culture. In the Arab world, notes Yaakoub, democratic institutions were established before democratic thinking – unlike the Western experience, where modern thinking paved the way for the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, which led to the establishment of democratic systems. In his view, it is here that Arabic people will find the contrast between the prevailing mass culture, which is religiously fundamental, militantly revolutionary, autocratic or dictatorial, on the one hand, and a democratic culture, on the other. Yet, we all know that, more so from Eastern Europe, that democracy can’t be exported or imported, but it has to emerge from the people in question.
Across the Arabic world, they often say that whichever course Egypt takes, the rest of the region tends to follow. Taking a closer look at the most populous and critical Arabic nation, Egypt, Fareed Zakaria (on his talk show, GPS) says that the great struggle taking place in Egypt is over whether the democratic elements of the new system have the power and skill to erode the strength of the dictatorial elements of the old system, largely housed in the military. The silver lining here is that the protesters’ democratic elements have evolved into a power of their own, and the equation seems to be in their favour.
Zakaria opines that Egypt’s ideal model should be Turkey while the realistic goal is Indonesia, and that efforts must be made to avoid the Pakistan option, where the military has allowed a lot of democratic processes, which turns out to be a Kabuki Theater – behind the curtain, the military actually runs everything. When one analyses the various simultaneously moving parts across the Arabic world at the moment, one question comes into mind: will the cascading old order allow genuine political changes that will disempower them and empower a new crop of leaders?
In the view of Abdalla, similar experiences (democratic uprisings) in the Philippines and Bangladesh, reveal that after their successful struggle for democracy in 1986 in the Philippines and 1991 in Bangladesh, they did not necessarily bring about improvement in people’s lives. He notes that poverty is still rampant, democracy is dysfunctional, to say the least, and development has not progressed to the level of expectations that people had at the time of the revolutions.
If anything, Bangladesh and Pakistan are representative of the a reality into which the Arabic world must avoid being trapped, while the story of Iran reminds us that it is possible for a popular uprising to result in the unexpected. Turkey might be ideally possible, but it has taken Turkey several decades to be what it is today, and we all know that those driving the Arabic awakening are too impatient. Joschka Fischer, the former German vice-chancellor observes that success will be expensive — very expensive – and that a democracy that does not translate into regular dinners on the table, is a democracy that is bound to fail. Fischer calls for economic aid and the opening of the EU and US markets if the West wants to contribute to the success of the Middle East’s democratic awakening.
In effort to regain ground, the US, in partnership with other G8 countries, has opted for the old tactic of extending financial aid, even after burning their fingers for giving priority to ‘stability and security’ at the altar of human security. Underway are plans for a $40bn aid package (announced at the May 2011 G8 Summit in France) “to stabilise and modernise” the regional economies under the banner of “trade integration”. Critics say this might drown Arabic economies deeper in debt, as it does not aid in the search for human security, but rather is conditioned on adoption of the Western neoliberal economic model in the name of reform and modernisation. Yes, the region does need all the help it can get. Across the Middle East there are 140,000 million people living under the poverty line.
In a comparative aspect, Eastern Europe, after the collapse of Communism, looked to the US for inspiration in its liberation struggle. When it comes to the Arabic world, says Robert Fist, the US is a force of occupation draped in a thin cloak of democracy and human rights. Yaakoub (2011) argues that the challenge for the Arabic world in the coming days is the absence of an Arab model for democratic governance that can be referred to and used as a source of inspiration. Yaakoub cautions that this affects the present as it affected the past, despite attempts by some to create a commonality between the notion of the Islamic shura and democracy.
Peace and Stability Question
In this regard, those seeking to shield the millions of Arabic people from further upheavals and uncertainty might have to think of how to expand the pie if they are to meet the aspirations of the unemployed and economically excluded, whose departure from the previous regime was not their ultimate goal. They are demanding that the emerging leadership or order should exploit their natural resources in a more prudent matter; that beyond just investing in healthcare and education, efforts be made to turn the by-product of that, which is the pool of educated professionals, into a viable social resource by availing the essential opportunities that a majority, if not all, can benefit from. There are those who will argue that it might not be advisible to address such needs because they pose opportunity costs. Borrowing ideas from Dean and Sung Hee (2004, pp. 192), integrative solutions might work magic; however, such magic will entail the development of novel alternatives that call for creativity and imagination, and if need be, third party involvement. In the end, the guiding question along this line of thinking will be: how can parties get what they are asking for in the near and possible future?
Of all, the most difficult road ahead for the Middle East will be Yemen, uncertain if anything. It’s a hard case. Outside the capital, Sana’a, it is basically anarchy; unemployment is officially at 37 percent, and everyone has at least a gun or two (Kinsman: 2011). Those who have a better understanding of Yemen say that the possibility of total anarchy setting-in looms large should President Saleh and his cronies refuse to hand over power. But they discount fears that Yemen’s threats are from extremist groups, like al-Qaeda, on the grounds that both Saleh’s regime and al-Qaeda groups feed off each other for survival.
What is now gaining currency, and even more so after the attempted assassination of Yemen’s President Saleh, is that Yemenis would be better placed to contemplate their future when President Saleh is out of the scene. In such a climate, they contend, the various actors in Yemen can think of de-escalating and avoid future escalations through a ceasefire agreement coupled with an agreement to establish a hotline between the parties to talk over the issues, as argued by Dean and Sung Hee (pp. 172, 2004). Due to the undisciplined nature of the various parties to Yemen’s escalating conflict when it comes to respecting any ceasefire, it might be time for the UN Security Council to rethink its hands-off approach to the matter.
Contrary to wider world opinion, Leigh Nolam (2011) argues that oil does not render the Saudi Arabian regime immune to popular discontent. While unrest still remains limited to small pockets for the near future, due to largely co-opted elites, divided opposition movements, and the popularity of King Abdullah, Nolam observes that many of the underlying factors for instability are growing more evident, and if not addressed could conflagrate with a catalyzing event—such as a succession crisis. Failure to move ahead of the masses will not be different from acts of shortsighted ruling elites threatening the survival of a Kingdom.
In the case of Libya, the NATO bombing will not make the country peaceful and developed in the end. All the Libyans involved, irrespective of their allegiance, will need to talk to each other and not at each other. The Libya conflict, in the end, might depend upon the development of integrative solutions, in which all parties’ major concerns are addressed (Thomas: 1976).
The more one thinks about Libya’s future, one cannot fail to wonder why there is such indifference when it comes to the Syrian people. While the world was quick to evoke the ‘Responsibility to Protect’, indifference seems to be the case when it comes to Syria. The death toll of pro-democratic protestors stands at 1,300 and counting. Yet, when Muammar Gaddafi turned against his people, we all know how quick the Western world was in justifying its ongoing operation. If anything, the way forward chosen by both Muammar Gaddafi (Libya) and Bashar al-Assad (Syria) cannot be their way back. The litmus test for peace across the two countries will be when the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ is evoked in equal measure in the UN Security Council; when the interest of the protection of lives is not a camouflaged interest.
On the right side, argues Abdalla (UPEACE’s Africa Peace and Conflict Journal) the example of South Korea, in terms of successful development and institutionalization of effective democracy after the 1987 popular movement, provides hope to the Arabic revolutions. A country that, after 1987, apart from exploiting her natural resources also invested heavily in her social resources. If anything, the two Koreas are a complete contrast of one another, with North Korea having opted for national security at great cost to her population.
In South Korea, primary school teachers are often perceived with high regard, and the name set aside for them is ‘nation builders’, while in the rest of the world, words like nation builder are reserved for the political class. The usage of the word ‘nation builders’ does tell more about South Korea’s thinking when it comes to issues of human security, maybe more than any other nation in the world. Despite living under possible annihilation from North Korea, South Korea’s priority has never been and is never guided by a national security mentality.
It is during evolution from authoritarianism to democracy when all the help that can be accorded is most needed. It is a critical moment when people power alone cannot secure change in the right direction without some supplements. Such a moment is now; a present reality from North Africa to the Middle East. It is the hope of everyone that the remaining authoritarian regimes are not only listening, but also hearing what their people want. One thing is certain: that the blowing wind across the Arabic world will not stop soon; what might vary is its speed and course.
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Bio: Patrick Mugo Mugo is a Multimedia Senior Researcher from Kenya and a Masters student in Media, Peace and Conflict Studies at the UN-mandated University for Peace, Costa Rica. He can be reached at email@example.com.