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Reflections on an Arab Spring in Peril

Posted on Sunday, May 13th, 2012 at 5:14 am

Author: Nasser Ali Khasawneh

In 2010, I co-wrote an article in which we questioned whether we were on the verge of an Arab renaissance. We never imagined how time will prove us so right…. and so fast!  In fact, at the time, we were mocked and derided by friends and foes alike. People literally thought we were on something. But somehow, we got a slight whiff of that extraordinary spirit that was spreading, imperceptibly and well below any radar, in that much fabled Arab street.

But even us, the optimists that we are, were taken aback by the depth and maturity of the so-called Generation 2.0 that brought about change in Cairo and Tunis in early 2011. And it is always worth pausing to analyse and consider that great moment, especially at this time in which so many counter-revolutionary forces are either attempting to reap the benefits of that moment or derail it completely. The Arab revolutionaries were expressing their demands in witty, profound slogans that echoed the aspirations of some the most noble revolutions in history. While most analysts believed, pre-2011, that Arab youth were beholden to the extreme notions of political Islam or were simply too lethargic to do anything meaningful, we all woke up in February 2011 to find ourselves surrounded by hordes of young Thomas Jeffersons in Tahrir square. This is the greatest revelation of the Arab spring – a youth enlightened beyond our best hopes.

But some people won’t recognize a revolution even if it hits them in the face! The conspiracy theorists, pseudo intellectuals and plotters of the Arab World united from day one to warn the masses of the chaos and disorder that any change to the miserable status quo will create. Ridiculous statements mourning the independence of the regimes and lamenting over the potential intervention of the east and the west emerged from every corner.

Egypt is not Tunisia, Libya is not Egypt, Yemen is not Libya and Syria is not Yemen. Despite panic-stricken cries of those who fear any type of change, Arab springers marvelled at the domino effect triggered by a generation who dared to break eternally the mythical wall of fear.

The cynics and the veteran conspiracy theorists are simply missing the point. And the point could not be simpler or grander. Arab youth, driven by ideals of freedom and justice, have removed tyrants from power by the sheer force of their persistence and determination. This is a fact. And an absolute first in Arab history. Imagining extravagant ulterior motives or over-analysing context or consequences does not detract for a second from the magnitude of this achievement.

And this is what we must always pause and remember. Of course, a revolution unleashes a maddening rush of internal and external forces that will do everything in their power to manipulate the course of the rebellion. What we are seeing in Egypt is nothing but a blatant attempt by the Muslim brotherhood and the military to hijack the revolution that was caused almost entirely by liberal forces. A revolution that surprised the brotherhood as much as it surprised Mubarak.

The only thing worth doing is to engage with this cataclysmic moment. It is now about all of us and how we react. If all of this doesn’t move you to do or say something constructive, then perhaps you should remain silent forever.

Now is the time to see what can be done to rescue the revolution in favor of those who instigated it. The performance of the liberal forces who literally made the revolution out of nothing has been nothing short of disastrous ever since the toppling of Mubarak. The failure of liberals in Egypt to coalesce behind a leader still astonishes me to this day. In fact, I would say that the failure of the Tahrir activists to produce a leader may singlehandedly delay the democratic project in the Arab world for a generation. We now find ourselves in the absolutely extraordinary position in which not one of the main presidential candidates in this month’s election in Egypt was involved in the revolution. In fact all indications are that those who caused the revolution can only muster single digit numbers in terms of electoral weight. Sadly, it seems that liberals who went out on the street to change a regime are not interested in government. And that is naive at best, almost suicidal at worst. You cannot simply continue the revolution on twitter and Facebook and leave the big boys to run the show. This risks a return to the dictatorships of the past or worse, a cultural and social backwardness towards which some so-called Islamist parties are working at a fervent pace.

We should also consider a fact which is still amazingly overlooked by most analysts: the pan Arab nature of this spring. How can we explain the fact that Tunisia inspired Egypt, Egypt inspired Yemen and on and on. Is this a mere coincidence? Anyone who thinks that is not a realist or pragmatist, as all those intellectuals who attack pan-Arabism like to think of themselves. Denying the common Arab element of these revolutions is either silly or an attempt to contrive the facts in a way to fit a prejudicial analytical bias.

There is no easy recipe for what can be done to save our spring. One thing is for sure: If Arab liberals retreat into that old comfortable cocoon of cynicism, then they will leave the road wide open for either the forces of “Islamist” regression or those harking back to the status quo to take over. This is no time for lethargic fatalist reflection. It is time to make a difference.

I believe that it is time for liberals to work towards defining an Arab liberal agenda. The Islamists have succeeded, for better or for worse, to define a clear message that the Arab street can easily grasp and understand. What is the message of the liberals? What do we stand for? There has been no concrete attempt to define our vision in a way that translates well amongst the Arab masses who are new to the spectre of competing political ideologies in a democratic context. It is my view that this Arab liberal agenda should focus on a number of principles, including:

  1. Freedom with responsibility. Our focus should be on an unflinching belief in all fundamental political and economic freedoms including freedom of expression and assembly;
  2. A democratic system of government.
  3. A bill of rights. It is my view that this is where the liberal forces have failed most spectacularly so far. We must work towards defining a fundamental set of rights from which there can be no derogation. The problem in Tunisia and Egypt now is that the process of constitution drafting has been left at the mercy of short term electoral politics. We must push for a set of fundamental rights that cannot be changed easily at every election cycle. We must think long and hard as to what inalienable rights must be championed. If this puts the liberal forces in conflict with “Islamist” forces, then so be it.
  4. A pan-Arab project. This is a very important element in the liberal agenda and this is the “Vision Thing” behind which many Arabs will unite. As mentioned above, there is no doubt that the Arab spring has proven that there is a pervasive sense of Arab identity and unity amongst all Arab peoples. We must work towards defining a unifying project that would serve the economic and political interests of all Arabs.

There will be much more to debate as to what would constitute a fundamental Arab liberal agenda. But the point is clear: If Arab liberals want to triumph in electoral politics over the Islamists and the old guard, then they must all come together. We cannot persist as we are now, with liberals disorganized, fragmented in hundreds of parties.
I believe that in this first phase of democracy in the Arab world, we will not be divided along traditional lines of political and economic principle, conservative vs. labour, capitalist vs. socialist. It is early for that. The political divide is between Islamists, status quo protagonists and liberals. In the current political map, the liberals, despite their outstanding role in leading the Arab revolutions, come as a distant third.

But this all can change. Even though it is early days in Arab democratic transformation, I trust in the basic common sense of the Arab masses. If presented with a clear vision based on hope rather than fear, progress than regression, rights rather than restraints, moderation rather than extremes, I am confident that the majority of Arabs will respond positively. It is now down to all of us liberals to formulate that vision.

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  1. My belief is that poverty, unemployment, and disenfranchisement are the main motives behind the Arab street. The people’s security was and still is in peril. These are the basic needs of humans, while self-representation and democracy reside on the higher echelons of this pyramid of needs (click on the link). When one takes this into consideration then one may realize that nothing has been derailed or hijacked, and that the progression towards the areas of belonging, esteem, and self-actualization is a necessary journey that will be filled with barriers and opposed by any entity that stands to gain. Unfortunately, this spells the word “slow”. But, at the end of it all, the cycle has started and some groups will prevail in the short term but unless they deliver on the needs of the masses, their demise is inevitable. The Muslim Brotherhood is a place people have turned to because they have controlled the rhetoric yet never tested by the people and dictators whom they opposed. Nonetheless, they will still have to deliver or else face the masses. The Arab street is going to have to go through these experiences to reach the renaissance you wrote about.

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