The dramatic changes that continue to sweep through the Middle East, described variously as the “Arab Awakening”, the “Arab Spring” and the “Jasmine Revolution”, have shown the true depth of democratic sentiments in a region commonly associated with authoritarianism and limited civil liberties.
The speed and coordination with which dictators have been brought to their knees is the result of a unique confluence of factors: a crisis of raised expectations caused by increased economic opportunities (without concomitant political rights); access to information and the organising power of social networks, and; schisms within the dominant elites in these countries.
However, with the current crises in Libya, Syria and Yemen, the continuation of this trend has become progressively bloodier and more disorderly. It is therefore sobering to remember where it all started - in Tunisia and Egypt - where the genesis of the Awakening was both peaceful and profoundly democratic.
In a recent forum held at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS), journalists and analysts sought to explore the origins, future implications and multiplier effects of these two upheavals.
Academic and activist, Naeem Jeenah chose to reference Vladimir Lenin in his address, whose words he believed aptly reflected the contemporary situation: “There are decades when nothing happens and weeks when decades happen,” Jeenah quoted.
“All of us should feel privileged to live in these weeks when decades are happening," Jeenah said, "when we are seeing lifetimes unfold in front of us in the course of a few months.”
Jeenah was also of the view that too much credit had been given to the mobilization of the middle classes through the internet and social networking tools, and not enough on the role of existing trade union structures, which he claimed were also used as platforms to organise politically.
“In Egypt, we knew that the writing was on the wall for [Hosni] Mubarak and the state when workers in some of the defence industry companies came out on strike,” he said. These movements, he argued, have renewed the belief in the power of people’s mass action to affect meaningful change.
Jean Jacques Cornish
EWN reporter, Jean Jacques Cornish commented on the Tunisian “contagion effect” that had spread from Tunisia to Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Algeria, Morocco, Djibouti, Sudan, Jordan and of course, Libya.
Speaking about the lack of adequate forecasting before these events took place, Cornish remarked: “I’ve just come back from Paris where an official driving African policy gave one of those charming Gallic shrugs and admitted, ‘We simply had no idea.’”
This, as information came to light of the French government’s offer to train Tunisian riot police in crowd control tactics as the uprising unfolded. Cornish observed that the French have made an art form of the notion that in international relations a country doesn’t have friends, it has interests.
Not only had Western powers failed to predict the changes in Tunisia, he argued, but had also tacitly tolerated Ben Ali’s authoritarianism for the sake of stability - while preaching democracy elsewhere.
On this point Naeem Jeenah was also scathing, pointing out that both Tunisia and Egypt, with their high growth rates and relatively open economies, were regarded as model states by the IMF and the World Bank before 2011. Even the Mo Ibrahim Index of good governance ranked Tunisia and Egypt eighth and ninth respectively. “I really think we should chuck that list out the window right now,” Jeenah scoffed.
Looking at the sustainability of democracy after the uprisings, former South African ambassador Tom Wheeler observed that many have questioned whether democracy is indeed possible in the Muslim world. He cited two examples where this is most definitely the case: Indonesia and Turkey.
Looking specifically at Turkey, which was an authoritarian state for most of the time that he was posted there (1997-2001), Wheeler noted that under the mildly Islamist government elected in 2002 there have been several significant steps taken towards democratic consolidation.
For one, the role of the military in state affairs has been drastically reduced. Moreover, in its attempt to join the European Union, the Turkish government has also had to conform more rigorously to international human rights standards and move away from the authoritarian secularism so similar to Ben Ali’s Tunisia and Mubarak’s Egypt.
“Although you have this Islamist government it is also more democratic, it is more responsive to the people, it is trying to deal with the Kurdish issue, and so on,” he said.
“So there is a role model in the Middle East for the countries that are now going through this enormous process of change,” he said.
An uncertain but exciting future awaits these two catalysts of the revolutionary epidemic in the Middle East. Both Tunisia and Egypt have entered an exciting and dynamic period, but their future rests on the establishment of transparent, robust institutions and the rule of law. Only this combination will ensure a lasting social contract for the new order.
Photos: David Ansara