Change Arabs can believe in

Maha Ghalwash , Wednesday 2 Mar 2011

The popular uprisings across the region will likely have a lasting and positive impact, largely due to their nature and origin

The wondrous events in Tunisia and Egypt have prompted Arabs from every part of the region to ask themselves whether the new sun of freedom will rise in their country too.

They yearn to establish the kind of political system that would do more than pay lip-service to important universal values like human rights, civil liberties, social justice, and freedom of speech and assembly. Analysts are excited as they witness the revolutionary fervour sweeping the region and speak about the “domino effect.”

This is not the first time analysts of the modern Arab world have talked of the “domino effect”; the idea arose twice before in the region’s recent history.

Both times, though, meaningful change failed to take place; and Arabs experienced disappointment.

Yet I believe this time will prove different; indeed, I believe we are currently witnessing a time of change in the Arab world which will ultimately improve the lives of its people. To explain my position, I highlight certain features of two important periods in recent Arab history.

The first roughly covers 1958-1967, when pan-Arab nationalism was in its heyday. This political ideology emphasized the fact that Arabs shared a common history, culture, language and (regarding the majority) religion.

It glorified the Arab past, while deploring its present: once united and strong, the Arab nation had fragmented into weak states easily controlled by Western powers.

There was only one way to clean up this mess: the reunification of the Arab people into one state. When Egypt’s charismatic leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, assumed leadership of this movement, ordinary people from every corner of the Arab world embraced its aims; their hearts seemed to beat as one.

The world watched when Egypt entered into a union with Syria in 1958, and held its breath when, a few months later, an invitation to join was extended to the new military rulers of Iraq.

This Arab leadership seemed on the brink of delivering on its promises of unity, strength and prosperity. Soon, however, the dream soured; the Iraqi leaders refused to integrate into Nasser’s union and the Syrians seceded in 1962. Then in 1967 Israel defeated its neighbours in a six-day war, prompting Arab peoples to condemn Arab nationalism as a failed ideology.

Henceforth, Arab leaders focused on the consolidation of their governments; primarily aiming to maintain themselves in power, largely unmindful of the welfare of their people.

The second period concerns the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Its supporters hoped that the downfall of Saddam Hussein and the establishment of democracy in Iraq would have spill-over effects in the region. While the first was rather easily accomplished, the latter has been a tortuous process.

Moreover the democratic government has largely failed to provide basic services or ensure security; and if this continues much longer Iraqis might conclude that “democracy does not work.” Populations of neighboring Arab countries hardly wished to emulate the Iraqi experience; they did not envy them their new-found “democracy.”

Whenever I asked Egyptian college students if they preferred to live in “free” Iraq or in Mubarak’s police state, they invariably chose the second. Thus Iraq’s experience did nothing to loosen the grip of Arab dictators on power; as a consequence the majority of Arabs became ever more resigned to repression, corruption and economic deterioration.

The events currently unfolding in the Arab world differ from those mentioned in two important respects.

One, these events were not engineered and executed by small elite groups that proposed to lead their compatriots; for this time the “Arab street”, without the benefit of leaders, chose to impose its terms on unwilling dictators.

Two, the uprisings were home-grown movements that told of pent-up frustrations and longings and dreams; these movements were not the work of foreign meddlers.

Since December 2010, we have watched popular uprisings take place in most countries of the region – Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, Morocco, Algeria, and latterly in Oman. In the same vein, thinkers in Saudi Arabia call for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy.

We cannot yet tell if the outcome of these movements will be the transition to democratic government. But one thing is certain: the Arab world has changed; Arab populations all over the region have found their voice; and they will never again be silenced.

Henceforth, Arabs will no longer allow their governments to treat them as “subjects”, but will insist on being recognized as citizens with rights.

The writer is an Egyptian historian and a lecturer at the British University in Egypt

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