Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Arab world and the taste of freedom

Revolution leads to Islamic fundamentalism. This is the argument wielded by authoritarian Arab leaders against proponents of democracy. But the argument has been proven wrong in Tunisia, according to many pundits: so far, radical Muslims have had no significant role in the uprising.

The spectacular overthrow of the dictatorial regime of Zein el-Abedeen Ben Ali in Tunisia has sent shock waves throughout the Arab world and beyond. Nobody imagined that the government of Ben Ali, former political security officer and Tunisia’s president for 23 years, would collapse as suddenly as it did.
The immediate reactions from the ailing authoritarian Arab regimes and their long oppressed people were in stark contrast.
For the frustrated, unemployed, impoverished urban youth of Arab countries, the Jasmine Revolution unleashed a tidal wave of hope and inspired renewed agitation for badly needed change.
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in almost all Arab capitals to express support for the Tunisian revolution - or to try and bring down their own dictators. A newly-energised civil society has been given fresh courage to challenge the absolute authority of governments.
For the ageing Arab regimes it was an alarming moment of truth; change is inevitable and sooner or later it will come.

Short-term remedies

Many Arab countries scrabbled to offer short-term remedies. Protesters have been allowed to blow off steam, hasty economic concessions were made and pre-emptive security has been put in place to control the situation. But that control is unlikely to last long.
However, it seems unrealistic to me to expect a domino effect to sweep away the stagnant authoritarian Arab governments in the weeks or months to come. There are formidable local, regional and international obstacles to any such rapid change in the region.

Berlin Wall

What happened in Tunisia can better be compared to the Gdansk Solidarity Strike in Poland, which began a decade-long process that eventually toppled the communist state, rather than the abrupt and dramatic fall of the Berlin Wall.
The most significant aspect of the Tunisian revolution is that Islamists did not play a prominent role in fomenting and leading a popular uprising - and nor are they expected to be particularly influential in the near future. This despite the fact that former president Ben Ali capitalised on scaring the West for 20 years with warnings that the only alternative to his corrupt regime were radical Islamists.
The legacy of 55 years of rigorous secularism leave little room for a sudden lurch to fundamentalist Islam in the widely westernised Tunisia. Its relatively healthy economy (despite the crippling corruption of the Ben Ali Family), well-organised labour movement and small, professional, non-politicised army are also good omens for a smooth transition.

The case may be very different in other key Arab countries like Egypt and Syria. Any upheavals that bring down the despotic regimes in those two countries will make the Muslim Brothers the most likely alternative as the most active and best-organised political grouping. And their vast oil revenues make the conservative semi-Islamic/paternalist regimes in the Gulf States more stable for the time being.

Fear of Islamists

The important lesson to learn from the Tunisian revolution, for both Arabs and the West, is that holding back change for fear of Islamists will only blow wind into the sails of the most radical and fuel chaos and violence.
The fact that new and traditional media played a decisive role in the Jasmine Revolution is compelling evidence that there is a limit to the effectiveness of suppression, isolation and turning away from the rest of the world - and that modernity is not an option we Arabs can simply ignore.

Decades of social, political and cultural stagnation have eroded the legitimacy of both traditional and secular dictatorships in Arab countries beyond repair.
There is a widespread belief in the Middle East that the West is protecting and maintaining dictatorial regimes in the region. Whether that is true or not, it is undoubtedly in the interest of the West to take an active role in working together with Arab countries to sketch a workable route for the inevitable tide of history: the tide of freedom.

Day Opening - January 26

taking a picture...