The New Age of the Arab Citizen

Hassan I. Mneimneh, IjthadReason, 1/31/2011

It is a new age for the Arab citizen. Whether the Mubarak regime survives the current ordeal or succumbs to popular pressure, the face of the Middle East has already changed. Whether the desire for moderation and reform will win over the risks of chaos and radicalization is yet to be determined. Beyond governments and beyond the limited circle of stakeholders in the previous arrangement, the outcome yet to be shaped will certainly be influenced by the long overdue citizen-to-citizen engagement. It is a moment of opportunity not to be missed.

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Subject: Islam/West

More by: Hassan I. Mneimneh

The popular uprisings, first in Tunisia, and now in Egypt, expose the limitations of a political order that gave the illusion of providing stability and securing the interests of many stakeholders. It is an order based on the convergence of interests of local autocrats and global powers, both seeking to contain and reverse the rise of militant Islamism and neutralize the effects of the Palestinian question. The arrangement, in place for decades, provides that considerable political and material support is offered to local potentates in exchange for their cooperation in identifying and eliminating the threats to international stability. The fact that the citizenries of the countries in question were not part of the equation thus forged was lamented by some in Western academia, and accepted by many in policy circles as reflective of an unfortunate reality. In the midst of the momentous events in the Middle East today, previous calculations have to be revised.

Western governments may have hoped that through their policy of engagement with Arab governments a positive change in the direction of a more representative system would materialize. These hopes, however, had little foundation in reality. Instead, the steady relationship with world powers was leveraged by the Arab rulers for an image of global standing, local invincibility, and even impunity. While many of the West-leaning regimes of the Middle East deepened the grand corruption in which their ruling elites was already steeped, Western governments restricted themselves to sporadic vocal criticisms of the more blatant actions, with virtually no tangible consequences to back their objections. In a precarious world environment, and in a volatile region, such consequences may have been deemed counter-productive.

Even in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001, in the brief moment during which the proposition that a genuinely rooted democracy in the Middle East would serve the long-term interests of the United States and the West, the autocratic regimes of the Arab world had little to fear. More than ever, they were indispensable allies in the War on Terror, and in the United States decision to topple the Saddam Husayn tyranny. The United States seemed further willing to reach out to the even more oppressive rank of Arab dictatorships, such as Syria and Libya, in the pursuit of intelligence and further cooperation.

The ascendancy of the concern for democracy over the need for stability in US foreign policy was in any case short lived. The victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections was seen as a harbinger of the results of a campaign of "premature" democracy in an Arab world still dominated by ideological forces of rejectionism and radicalism. With the passing away of an actual US policy favoring democratization, Arab governments felt released of even the minor, often cosmetic, changes in which they were induced to engage. In Tunisia, Zine El-Abidine Bin Ali moved ahead in his evident desire to confirm himself president for life, with his entourage pursuing the open plundering of the nation's economic prospects, while in Egypt, which in 2005 had witnessed credible improvements in the quality of its electoral process, Husni Mubarak's ruling party opted in 2010 for a reversal of all steps that contributed to the relative fairness of the previous elections, and executed a blatant takeover of parliament through fraudulent elections.

The Mubarak regime seemed to be seeking two goals through its 2010 subversion of the elections. The first was to insure a smooth succession to the aging Husni Mubarak by eliminating any potential distractions in parliament. The second was to project and confirm the image of its irrevocable sovereignty over the nation. The regime was to be viewed as immune to challenges, foreign or domestic, irrespective of its actions. US and other international objections to the 2010 Egyptian elections fell in line with the regime: some form, through platitudes underlining the importance of reforms, with virtually no substance to back it up.

It took the desperate action of one young man in a Tunisian provincial town to set in course what is undoubtedly the gravest threat faced by the arrangement between autocrats and world powers. Denied the right to make a living through his makeshift vegetable cart, unemployed university graduate Mohamed Bou-Azizi set himself on fire in December of last year, as a final act of protest against deeply felt injustice. His fellow Tunisians reacted by mass protests that forced regime change in their homeland, and inspired others across the Arab world for action. The Arab citizen matters again.

Some parties, in the West and elsewhere, may engage in catch-up words and actions, stressing their continuous calls for reforms, positioning themselves in support for the protestors, and even taking credit for positive outcomes. In reality, these dramatic events are complex occurrences in which interlaced local interests – civilian, military, economic, social, and political – are at play. The roles of civil society, social media, and citizens' networks are yet to assessed. The catalyzing influence of Wikileaks, if indeed a factor, may need to be considered. What is undeniable, however, is that no pundit or strategist anticipated the turn of events that have already toppled one Arab autocracy, is seriously challenging another, and has put many others on notice. It is a new age for the Arab citizen. Whether the Mubarak regime survives the current ordeal or succumbs to popular pressure, the face of the Middle East has already changed. Whether the desire for moderation and reform will win over the risks of chaos and radicalization is yet to be determined. Beyond governments and beyond the limited circle of stakeholders in the previous arrangement, the outcome yet to be shaped will certainly be influenced by the long overdue citizen-to-citizen engagement. It is a moment of opportunity not to be missed.

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