Wednesday, November 9, 2011
Arab Spring: A New Era
Senior Fellow, NYU's Center for Global Affairs
The Arab Spring: A New Era in a Transforming Globe
The Arab uprising must be seen as an integral part of a world in transformation. The technological and informational revolutions that have spurred (and continue to spur) globalization and interconnectedness between cultures make it impossible for tyrants to rule for the entirety of their lifetimes while mercilessly subjugating their peoples to lives of servitude with no prospect of ever tasting the true meaning of freedom.
There are many who suggest, including the notable scholar George Friedman that the Arab spring is some kind of mass delusion that amounts to, "just demonstration accompanied by slaughter and extraordinarily vacuous observers." When university graduate turned street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of a government building in Sid Bouzid, Tunisia he unleashed a torrent of long-repressed political expression in the Middle East. Through his brave self-immolation, he sent a clear message to his generation: die with dignity rather than continue to live and suffer the daily indignities that amount to an unfulfilled life. It is that message that empowered Egyptians, Yemenis, Libyans, Syrians and others to protest and die in the hope that their sacrifices would bring an end to their daily injustices.
To be sure, the ethos of protest began growing in the Arab world several years ago. In their 2007 National Interest article entitled, "Arab Spring Fever," Nathan J. Brown and Amr Hamzawy aptly observed that the unusual protests in the streets of the Middle East from 2005-2007 only indicated that, "dreams of democratic openings, competitive elections, the rule of law and wider political freedoms have captured the imagination of clear majorities in the Arab world."
This new generation of Arab youth is not the same youth of a generation ago as they have been exposed to the world at large, have risen against oppression, deprivation and stagnation, and no longer wish to live in submission to corrupt leaders and governments. To assume that the Arab youth will indefinitely remain subjugated to the whims of despots is nothing short of being oblivious to the advent of a new era of Arab countries in the midst of a global transformation that cannot (and will not) exclude the Arab youth from yearning for a meaningful life. No Arab government, however oppressive, will ever be in a position to completely shut down their youth's access to the outside world and stifle their hunger for freedom.
The 2011 uprisings were neither instigated by outside powers or criminal gangs (as some Arab leaders have alluded) nor did the revolutionaries need to blame outside entities for their problems. The Arab youth refused to ask for foreign intervention unless faced with regimes willing to commit massacres to maintain power such as Gaddafi's Libya or presently, Assad's Syria nor did this youth blame Israel or the United States for their country's failures. Rather their attention was turned to the failure of their own leaders, their own dictatorial governments.
The regimes of Mubarak, Assad, Gaddafi, and Saleh have typically attempted to portray the uprising as a foreign-instigated conspiracy. This has been done in vain, as the revolting youth refuse to be distracted by the old empty slogans and contrived excuses of those in power that suggest that chaos will dominate in their absence should they be ousted from power. Gone are the days when Arab leaders could ride the wave of public discontent by blaming Israel, the United States, or former colonial powers for their trying existence.
The uprisings of past and present have been organized via online social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, the resulting messages being televised, texted, and tweeted. Al-Jazeera Arabic channel, which gained popularity and credibility among the Arab populace throughout the previous decade, has marginalized state media coverage through its accessibility and perceived impartiality and delivered messages to individuals less savvy to the machinations of social media tools. Obviously, these networking and media technology tools did not make political revolutions happen. Rather, they have been the frontline of the revolutions, precluding the need for ideological leadership to direct the revolutions. Attempts by the regimes to cut off their populations from the rest of the world by shutting down telephone and internet services proved counterproductive as it only made blatant the fact that rulers were attempting to cover up their people's outrage and widely confirmed the regime's lack of responsibility towards its own people.
New media has enabled revolutions to spread domestically, as well as beyond national borders. Arab regimes have demonstrated an outstanding success to offset Iran's attempt to export its Islamic revolution but failed miserably to oppress the Arab Spring because, as F. Gregory Gause has argued, this, "very leaderless quality of the popular mobilization is what made them sources of inspiration." But it has also rendered the mobilization impervious to the security apparatus. That is why the protest that started over rampant unemployment and corruption in Tunisia, and the ousting of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, has led to protests throughout the Arab world -- from Algeria to Yemen -- with a united refrain to send their respective leaders to join Ben Ali in his forced exile to Saudi Arabia. The subsequent revolt which has gripped Egypt has echoed throughout the Middle East from Libya to Syria to Bahrain.
Contrary to what some commentators have said, the Arab uprisings are not a divorced phenomenon from the protests that have taken over many parts of the Western world due to the continuing economic crisis. Despite the unique characteristics of each country's situation, the common theme of the protests in the Arab world (as well as in the West) has been largely shaped by the continuing world economic crisis, expanding economic inequality and rising social injustices. Massive budget cuts and raised taxes have led to violent protests in Britain, Spain, Italy, Greece, and elsewhere in Europe.
The "Occupy Wall Street" movement sees the root cause of the social and economic inequality in corporate greed with ties to government officials and therefore targets its ire at financial institutions whose power and influence has caused the current crisis. Arabs, Europeans, Israelis, and Americans have all pointed their fingers at those they believe to be responsible for their problems.
European and American protests require a change in policies, not government. For the protestors, democracy and entrepreneurship have been exploited at the expense of the average person and the system simply is not working well. That is why the protesters are seeking reforms and even more drastic measures, including a complete overhaul of the current system. Conversely, the Arab youth, who similarly claim that they are representing the "99 percent", saw the root cause of their socioeconomic misery, lack of freedom and injustices to be the authoritarian governments that created and sustained the conditions for their misery. They have not experienced freedom and democracy and see no prospect of meaningful change from the current regimes and that is why they are seeking an "overthrow" of the system.
Regardless of how youth uprisings fluctuate in intensity, they are not a passing phenomenon. They will last for many years and will wind down only when new or current Arab regimes commit to, and deliver on, promises for constructive socio-economic and political reforms, regardless of how long that might take. The Arab states which have not as yet experienced a popular protest should take heed of what is bound to happen unless they begin now to act in earnest to address their public's deep and unsettling grievances.
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