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Hichem Karoui: 12 Months of Spring
December 31, 2011
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

“May you live in interesting times,” says the old Chinese dictum. These times we are living in are probably a significant sample. 2011 has been certainly one of the most “interesting” years ever lived and witnessed in the Arab world. It was so breathtaking, so surprising, so full of an unexpected concatenation of events that it will go through history referred to as merely… a season… the best at all: the spring! Moreover, even if actually only a handful Arab states were concerned, the change was so striking that a new conviction has appeared among the youth: the change is still coming and it is overlapping, not to say overwhelming the entire Arab nation. This is for the introduction.

Now, what about the development? Should we say it might still take another dozen months to show whether these are true and genuine democratic changes or fake? What if 12 other months are not enough? How about 12 years or more, much more? Am I pessimistic? Not at all, but simply realistic. Indeed. The Arab world has lived long centuries under dark autistic leaders. Out of the blue, people angered and fed up took to the streets, and the heads of government started falling off. How did that happen so quickly? Is it a mood? Is it a true social metamorphosis? Is it going to last?

I am willing to believe that the communication boom and the new technologies conjugated with globalisation have literally atomised time and exploded the pace of change. Yet, I am not sure that these variables have also affected the mindset and the belief system of the Arabs in a non-return way. Not sure because of the infancy of the democratic revolution, the stammering of the experience in Tunisia, the looseness of politics in Libya, and the disorientation of people and the continuation of violence and chaos in Egypt, Yemen, and Syria.

The fight for democracy that has just started in the Arab world is not going to be easy, for both internal and external factors.

The internal factors: the Arabs may pursue their groping for democracy or its simulacrum in 2012, just as Plato’s chained people groped for the delusion of truth in their cave, or venture to go out and find the real light. The whole matter is about knowing the difference: where the delusion is and where the truth is!

They may as well put another half a century to understand that they were actually deluded and betrayed, as they did when they started understanding that the newly independent post-colonial states were another system of servitude. That’s why many are so sceptical about the newcomers, not only because they are complete novices with no experience in government, but also because of their political background as ultraconservative Salafists and other ex-militants of the right-wing Islamism (Nahda and Muslim Brotherhood). The test of government is particularly revelatory of the true nature and character of any person, any ideology. To defend democracy when you are in opposition or jailed or exiled is one thing. To fight for it when you are in power is another.

We have seen in the modern history of the Arab countries great heroes of the anti-colonial struggle and defenders of the rights of people to choose their own rulers, becoming merciless tyrants when they grabbed power. Therefore, if history has a sense, it would be this: do not believe them until they prove they are true democrats.

The external factors: revolution is contagious, everybody knows it. That’s why revolutions have always been fought by unsatisfied neighbours and outside powers allied to unsatisfied locals. The craving for freedom is a state of the mind. Yet, it is a dangerous one, not for the individual or his community, but for the rivals or the parties that are afraid of what it may bring onto them if it is allowed to prevail.

Much of the violence we see in Egypt, Yemen, and Syria is largely caused by anti-revolution reaction. It is understood that revolutions are seldom peaceful. They may even happen despite the governments being willing to reform. Sometimes reforms become part of the process that leads to revolution, either because they are incomplete or because they were sabotaged. Many cases suggest that collective violence is likely when discontented people are offered unfulfilled hopes that their discontent will be remedied.

Contagion is most feared by those who do not wish any change to happen, because it has been evidenced many times throughout history as the most efficient channel of regime change. A call to revolt seems less effective than news of its occurrence in the neighbourhood. The demonstration effect is apparent in the revolutionary contagion that spread across the Arab world since the success of the Tunisian revolt and the flight of the ex-president. This is not new. A similar effect has been shown in the revolutionary contagion that spread from the North American colonies to Western Europe to Hispanic America between 1776 and 1820; in the series of unsuccessful communist revolutions in Europe after 1918; in the infectious anticolonial nationalism of Africa and Asia after 1945; and in the wave of anti-communist revolutions that shook Central and East Europe in the wake of the Polish insurrection led by Solidarnosc in the 1980s.

Therefore, the assumption that the anti-revolutionary, anti-democratic forces in the Arab world have already mobilised, might not be inaccurate. If the fight for freedom is so uneasy in countries like Yemen, Syria, and Egypt, where people continue to die daily, as if it were a banality of life, it is not only because of the “solidity” of these regimes. Much more powerful regimes (like the former communist states of Europe and the USSR) have collapsed under the thrust of a determined population. It is because those Arab regimes are being supported (secretly or openly by different political manoeuvres from outside allies) that they are still standing against the free will of the people.

Last, but not least, 2011 has carried a hope to the Arabs everywhere. Let’s pray that 2012 will make that hope achievable at least in the countries where people suffered and sacrificed their lives for it.

The author an expert in US-Middle East relations at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (Doha Institute).


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