By Brian Whitaker, Monday 14 March 2011 12.09 GMT
“The Arab world’s much-heralded collective push toward democracy is now in jeopardy,” an article for McClatchy newspapers in the US informed its readers at the weekend.
The fact that autocratic regimes in Libya, Bahrain and Yemen are fighting back with lethal force should surprise no one. The more surprising thing is that Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt – two leaders previously regarded as firmly entrenched – were toppled after such a short struggle.
Nor does the fightback mean, as the article’s headline suggests, that the outlook for democracy is dimming across much of the Middle East. Looking at the region as a whole, the prospects have never been brighter.
But there is another – far bigger – problem with this revolution-in-jeopardy analysis. By focusing on “democracy” and the ousting of dictators, it ignores a large part of what the Arab revolt is about. It’s the same mistake that George Bush made with his calls for democracy and “regime change” in the Middle East – calls that were directed mainly against the regimes deemed hostile towards the US and paid little attention to the desires of ordinary Arabs.
Arabs don’t talk much about democracy as such, and they tend to be cynical about elections. They do talk increasingly about “freedom”, though what they mean by it is not quite what Bush meant. They want freedom from corruption and political cronyism, and the freedom to make their own choices – an end to repression and government attempts to control the minutiae of people’s lives.
Democracy may be one way of working towards that but it is rarely seen as a goal in itself, and while regime change is certainly an important part of the revolt, its younger activists (at least) have their eyes set on changing whole systems, not just the political leaders.
The wave of insurrection that broke out in December was sudden but not totally unexpected; the signs of discontent were there for anyone to see and they had been developing for more than a decade.
The process actually began in the 1990s when the arrival of satellite television, and especially al-Jazeera, opened the first serious cracks in regimes’ monopoly on ideas and information – and that accelerated later with the explosion of the internet.
In addition to the problems this more open discourse has created for the regimes, the desire for large families in the Arab countries has caused a youth bulge: the proportion of people aged below 15, for example, is often two or more times what it is in western Europe. Having glimpsed more attractive lifestyles elsewhere, through TV, travel or the internet, their aspirations are higher than in the past; at the same time, their chances of finding a job when they leave school are diminishing.
Meanwhile, as the ruling elites have grown old and clung greedily to power, the gap between governments and the governed has widened. It is partly a generational gap but the political elite has also been increasingly regarded as a privileged class whose members were in it purely for themselves and to whom the normal rules, including the rule of law, did not apply.
While resentment was growing steadily, the outlets to express it continued to be severely limited. Opposition parties (where allowed) were generally no less discredited than the parties of government and where street protests were feasible, as in Egypt, holding them became a constant cat-and-mouse game with the security forces. The resistance, such as it was, often took the form of isolated – sometimes individual – struggles against authority and its bureaucracy.
Along with this resentment and small-scale activism came a sense of hopelessness, a feeling that nothing was ever going to change. But in Tunisia last December the dam finally burst, altering the picture dramatically. Two new elements came into play: an awareness of possibilities and a sense of empowerment. Tunisia signalled that change is possible after all if sufficient numbers of people get together and organise themselves.
There are two ways that regimes can respond to this: by cracking down harder (as in Libya), which merely postpones the day of reckoning and may make it worse in the end, or by offering concessions (Morocco, Jordan, Oman), which in due course will lead to further demands. Either way, it’s a no-win situation for them.
Even if Gaddafi does succeed in quelling the Libyan uprising, it will be no more than a temporary setback for the wider Arab revolution: battles are being fought in too many places and on too many different fronts for anyone to stop it now.
An important factor in this is Arabs’ sense of a common identity: they are aware of what is happening in neighbouring countries and draw inspiration from it with regard to their own situation. The sight of grandees from the old regimes in Tunisia and Egypt being arrested on sundry charges of corruption, money laundering and murder gives them hope and encouragement. Similarly, the opening up of free media in those countries is having an effect elsewhere: in Jordan last week, 600 journalists demonstrated against government interference and censorship. This kind of cross-fertilisation (or infection, as the regimes see it) is happening in many areas.
Toppling two of the Middle East’s tyrants in little more than two months is no mean achievement, and all the other regimes have been severely shaken – even those that claim to be secure. Initially, that raised hopes extraordinarily high and the regimes’ fightback has injected a dose of realism. It does not mean the revolution is failing or fizzling out but it does show that many people were expecting too much too soon.
The far-reaching changes that the Arab countries need are social as much as political – and that will take time. Even in Tunisia and Egypt there are protracted struggles ahead. But the old regimes cannot survive indefinitely. A few years from now most of them will be gone or transformed beyond recognition.