These are uncertain times. The year 2011 like its predecessor began differently. Middle East – the region assumed by many to be safe, erupted like a volcano when streams of people came out on the streets, demanding change for a better life, for better conditions and for freedom. What began in Tunisia spread like contagion in various other parts of the Middle East. Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, Jordan, Algeria and Libya saw people rising against their own rulers and taking fate in their own hands. It is as if nations are awakened from a long sleep.
Many of us have read about revolutions only in history books. We know the accounts through the eyes of the witnesses present at the time, who wrote about the circumstances and the conditions that prevailed and the chaos that came.
But today the story is different. Although we are not directly present in the current uprisings in the Arab region, we are witnessing via satellite images, news and social media, accounts of hundreds and thousands of people who want change and are struggling to find their place in both national and international arena. We are observing a tremendous phenomenon in a region that for over a decade have been led by dictators, was thought to lack intellectual thoughts on concepts such as democracy, constitution, poverty and international relations and only knew how to subordinate to outside demands. That has changed.
The Center for Regional Studies, Georgetown – School of Foreign Service in Qatar presented the distinguished lecture on “The Arab Revolutions 2011” by Rashid Khalidi last night in Grand Hyatt, Doha, Qatar. Dr. Rashid Khalidi is the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University in New York and is also the editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies. He was an advisor to the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid and Washington Arab-Israeli peace negotiations from October 1991 until June 1993. He is author of many books such as Sowing Crisis: American Dominance and the Cold War in the Middle East (2009) and The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood (2006). Thus, the lecture was of critical importance due to both the timing and the changes taking place on a global scale.
The Arab Revolutions
What we are witnessing are tectonic changes and historic moments in the Middle East. Countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and more possibly Yemen saw despotic regimes crumbling before the very eyes of the world. Yet, this is not the first time that the region is witnessing such movements. For a decade, the Arab world has witnessed movements against various regimes such as Syrian Revolt in 1925-1926 and Libyan-Italian resistance movement in 1911 and onwards. In these movements, massive force was deployed by regimes to crush the uprising. History bears witness to massive air strikes against civilians that resulted in major causalities, which became a sombre human chapter. Thus, for Rashid Khalidi, the current uprising is not new at all.
However, for the first time, the revolutions throw some light on how Arabs were perceived by the world. Thought of as a region lacking intellectual thoughts on concepts such as democracy, constitution, political rights, freedom of speech, human rights, international relations and social justice, the revolutions have shown with crystal clarity that intellectual thoughts within the Arab world have always existed and it was only forgotten with time. There exists an immense dynamic in terms of intellectual discourse as the Arab youth is well aware of many ideas and knows how to delegate its thoughts. The Egyptian revolution organized through the use of social media is an example of how the youth today knows ways to achieve its goals and is aware of the global dynamics being played out. Rashid Khalidi argued that the ideas of constitutions and democracy are now new to the Arab world. They came from the Ottoman Empire. Yet, within the Arab world, they all faced failures simply because the self interest and other internal factors came into play. In addition to this, the European colonialism obstructed the democratic rule by undermining the democratic systems in these countries, which led to military driven corrupt regimes.
The revolutions were brought about by the amalgamation of several factors such as lack of social justice, poverty, lack of accountability, lack of transparency, unemployment and freedom of speech. But these factors were fueled in turn by the dogmatic neo-liberal policies of the Washington institutions such as IMF, World Bank and WTO. The uprisings, therefore, is also against the dogmatic policies which have brought nothing but misery and suffering. Privatization, shredding of safety nets such as subsidies, health care, increasing exports while lowering tariffs have only worsened the economic indicators. Income inequality, poverty, unemployment and inflation are just some of the on-the-side effects that the countries bore for following Washington institutions’ policies. The policies made international corporates fatter via super profits, while, the poor and local suffered. An example is that during Mubarak’s era, the real wages declined rather than increasing and people became poorer. Only 4% of the population the so called elite class received the benefits of the policies, while, the poor became poorer. Thus, the revolutions demanded ‘dignity’; dignity of individual and dignity of nation.
It cannot be denied that the autocratic regimes excessively infringed the rights of its people. Most of these countries were police driven states that used violence as means to quell the public and to ensure that the order of the day goes in their favor. The ‘social malaise’ infested itself in the form of sectarian violence, violence against women, social injustices and various other forms that tore apart the social and moral fabric of the society. The rulers had nothing but contempt of their own people by perceiving them as immature, incapable of handling democracy, disillusioned and have no respect in the world. And there is no doubt that these are the characteristics displayed by rulers such as Mubarak and Gaddafi in their speech.
On the other hand, it is unfortunate that within the Arab world, there is no real “Arab Power’ . Thus, the continuous infringement of dignity, repression and lack of economic development and growth, paved the way for a rebellion that broke all the barriers. The scenes from Tunisia and Egypt with thousands gathering, protesting and demanding the removal of autocratic regimes are a testament to the fact that at the end of the day, it is the people who rule and not the governments.
However, there are many challenges in various fields. The present Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab countries presently face a daunting task in terms of rebuilding democratic institutions to provide social justice and economic growth for increasing equal opportunities. Further, according to Rashid Khalidi, the task is complicated by the fact that in the globalized world we are living in today, the rebuilding of countries cannot alienate the West. Thus, with the uncertainty and the vacuum in the leadership, there is a possibility that the forces of the repression could be back should there be a failure in achieving the critical tasks. The oldest tool in the book of politics is sectarian and ethnic violence, that is, creating tensions between certain religious sects such as Christians and Muslims in Egypt. This very tool could pave a way of comeback of a repressive regime. However, should the fire and the energy of the youth remains alive,it would be difficult for such regime to take hold.
The Role of US and Europe
Rashid Khalidi stated that with the internal struggle going on in various countries, both US and Europe should refrain from preaching the young Arabs about democracy. This is because each Arab country is different and with the consequences of the dictated policies by world organizations, developed world should let the Arab people decide the course they want to take. For a long time, US has been torn in its Middle East foreign policy in terms of pointing out several abuses in the countries and protecting its own self interests. But with the US media covering the unrest in the Middle East in a fair manner, the public wants the people to take their decisions which is dictating the US policies for now. However, as soon as the public interests wanders, the US policy would be back to protecting its own self interests. Thus, the US should realize that the stagnant Arab world is now changing and that the decisions are now being taken on streets with the realization that the freedom is not free and sacrifices will be made to achieve it.
Food For Thought
Clearly, the future of the Arab countries remains uncertain. The dynamics are changing, but, where will they lead remains in question. There are developments that require both attention and thoughts. The latest development of Morocco and Jordan invited to join the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) has taken everyone by surprise. Why in the face of uprisings are these countries being invited to join the GCC? The development raises an eyebrow for it seems that the two countries are now seeking external support other than from US and Europe. The freezing of assets of Mubarak and Gaddafi by the developed world indicates that perhaps some level of distrust has now taken place. The situation of Bahrain with Saudi Arabia and UAE coming in for help could also be one reason why Morocco and Jordan could seek membership of the Council and certainly this can change the dynamics even further.
In the face of such change, the relations between the Arab world and US-Israel will be tested. Israel has lost a crucial ally in the Middle East with the fall of the Mubarak regime in Egypt. It will be interesting to observe the relations between the two regions over time and over the global scale.
Unprecedented changes are taking place and only time will reveal the results.