New Internationalist

When people rise up…

Issue 441

As the ripples of rebellion spread, what's next for democracy?

Yannis Behrakis/ Reuters
Capturing the moment when protestors at Tahrir Square learned that Mubarak was finally standing down. Yannis Behrakis/ Reuters

No need to rehearse in detail the dramatic chain of events that began with a young Tunisian graduate Mohammed Bouazizi setting fire to himself after being hassled by police as he tried to earn a living selling vegetables.

In a world glued to 24-hour rolling news the ever-growing list of countries affected will suffice: Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Iran, Bahrain, Jordan, Oman, Iran, Djibouti, Algeria, Morocco, Sudan, Saudi Arabia…

Even much further afield, democracy-hungry people were touched by the contagious ‘spirit of Tahrir Square’. In Beijing and Shanghai protesters, outnumbered by police, took to the streets calling for ‘food, work, housing and fairness’ following an online call for a ‘Jasmine Revolution’.

In Zimbabwe 46 people were arrested and charged with treason for supporting the Egyptian revolution.

Suddenly, radical change is a real possibility. ‘Critical mass’ is more than an idea.

Imaginations have been set free – and for rulers that’s terrifying.

Rulers reveal themselves at such moments. Some reach for their wallets (in Saudi Arabia and Oman) others for their guns (in Libya and Bahrain). Britain’s David Cameron, displaying an almost royal talent for grubby opportunism, reached for an airline ticket to the Middle East in the company of no fewer than eight arms traders.

What now?

Foolish to predict, but here are a few pointers and insights from people who see more than most:

During the protests in Egypt and Tunisia, Israel – the usual bête noir of the Arab world – got barely a mention. ‘It was about us, not you!’ Egyptian writer and academic Mona Eltahawy told a meeting organized by the progressive Jewish American organization J-Street. She went on to say: ‘What’s happening in North Africa and the Middle East is a seismic shift; the people have woken up; it’s the people speaking. If you want peace, talk to the people, not to the men who have suffocated us for decades. Talk to the people about what freedom and dignity means to us and to the Palestinians. The hatred of Israel will not end until Israel lifts the siege of Gaza and treats Palestinian people as deserving of freedom and dignity. Egyptians and Tunisians managed to get rid of the un-riddable through a beautiful, non-violent revolution in which not one anti-Israeli or anti-US sentiment was expressed. It was the best of Martin Luther King and Gandhi combined. Now they are saying it is time to march for the freedom and dignity of our Palestinian brothers and sisters. So this is my challenge: make a call and say it’s time for the revolution of freedom and dignity of Palestinians. It’s what everyone in the region is thinking about. You have seen millions of Arabs non-violently dismantle dictatorships – reach out to them.’ Mona Eltahawy received a standing ovation.1

While most commentators were fixated on Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, Middle East expert Robert Fisk also had his sights on the quiet giant in the corner of the Arab world – Saudi Arabia:

We pay too little attention to this autocratic little band of robber princes,’ he warned in late February. ‘We laughed when King Abdullah offered to make up any fall in bailouts from Washington to the Mubarak regime, and we laugh now when the old king promises $36 billion to his citizens to keep their mouths shut. But this is no laughing matter… from Arabia came Wahhabism, the deep and inebriating potion… whose ghastly simplicity appealed to every would-be Islamist and suicide bomber in the Sunni Muslim world. The Saudis fostered Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Let us not even mention that they provided most of the 9/11 bombers… I have an unhappy suspicion that the destiny of this pageant in the Middle East unfolding before us will be decided in the kingdom of oil, holy places and corruption.’2

Unusually, the United Nations moved swiftly as Libya’s Muammar Qadafi killed his own people, referring him to the International Criminal Court. But as calls were being made for the imposition of a ‘no-fly zone’, Middle East expert Phyllis Bennis was one of the first to sound this warning:

As documented by the United Nations, enforcement of the no-fly zone in Iraq resulted in the deaths of several hundred Iraqi civilians. It is not clear that any country other than the US could carry out enforcement of a no-fly zone in Libya… But giving a Security Council imprimatur to the US (or NATO, which would still be relying on US air power) to define, impose, determine violations of, and carry out bombing raids in response to those violations of a Libyan no-fly zone, when it is unlikely actually to protect Libyan civilians but could well result in justifying a much longer-term US intervention than Council members anticipate, does not pass the legitimacy test.’

She favoured, instead, humanitarian aid protected by UN peacekeepers.3

The issue of Libya’s oil wealth, and how attractive it is to foreign interests, prompted the following observation from Asli U Bali and Ziad Abu Rish from the Jadaliyya network of writers and academics:

Intervention in support of regime change in Libya presents the West with a window of opportunity to shape the transition of a relatively oil-rich North African country, potentially replacing an irritant with a new client. Where the emphasis of Western interests in the Tunisian and Egyptian cases has been on stability, in the Libyan case the goals will likely be rapid transformation. For instance, in a post-transition Libya, individuals with ties to the West or experience with energy markets might emerge as favoured interlocutors, identified with international approval as “moderate” and “appropriate”… Particularly in light of how little is known about the current political dynamics among opposition groups within Libya, international intervention may entail a particularly high risk that the narrative framing of events will be captured by external actors in ways that are adverse to local Libyan choices.’4

Ring any bells?

For others the rebellions present a golden opportunity not only to reinvent local politics but also to reinvent democracy. Brussels-based Egyptian writer Khaled Diab envisions a move away from party tyranny:

In democracies, perhaps the most acute example of such party tyranny is the first-past-the-post system. Egypt would be better served with a flexible, representative democracy in which individual candidates run, whether for parliament or the presidency, on their own merit and personal manifesto. This will provide individual politicians with the flexibility to vote according to their conscience and the will of their constituents, while organizing informally around certain issues of the day. For example, on certain key issues – such as youth unemployment, gender rights, social policy, trade and foreign policy – groups of politicians of similar conviction can form temporary, unofficial alliances, rather like the Egyptian opposition has already been doing for several years. Over and above this, politicians can be kept in check through a hybrid direct democracy in which the people are consulted directly on vital issues…’5

While Larbi Sadiki, who teaches Middle East Politics at Britain’s University of Exeter, sees an opportunity for the creation of an indigenous, Pan-Arab democracy:

Egypt and Tunisia can lead the way to the inception of a creative democratic workshop of benefit to the wider Arab world…

The following aphorism may be a cliché; nonetheless it is one worth restating here. Democracy does not land from Mars. Without exception, democracy is constructed locally.

What would contribute to a lively bottom-up activism is the formation of a joint senatus or majlis, a forum not only for the wisest of the wise to congregate, but also a shared space where youth, parliamentarians, journalists, academics, political parties, NGOs, politicians and leaders share ideas with humility towards co-learning… The pan-Arab community, which the military revolutions of the 1950s and 1960s failed to realize by decree or force, Arab citizenries can today construct through a democratic common sense of purpose.

It's also a time when new ways of thinking and doing can be born

What is certain is that Tahrir Square and Habib Bourguiba Avenue are not going away. The concerned Arab citizen in the role of the moral protester will time and time again take to the street to keep politicians honest and to unseat future tyrants.’6

Finally, New Internationalist’s blogger Sokari Ekine drew attention to two stories. One was the racism shown towards black Africans in Libya. The other was the story of a young Moroccan mother, Fadwa Laroui, who set fire to herself after being refused social housing because she was unmarried. Unlike Mohammed Bouazizi, Fadwa has not become a catalyst for a Moroccan uprising. Sokari wrote: ‘This got me thinking – will the freedoms being fought for include sexual minorities and single mothers like Fadwa? Will the freedoms include rights for migrants from south of the Sahara? Will countries like Egypt, Libya and Morocco begin to address racism? Some say the midst of a revolution is not the time to talk of these things. I say, exactly the opposite. This is the best time to talk of these things because it is in the height of revolutionary struggle that one should have the most empathy, the most love for others. It’s also a time when stripped bare, new ways of thinking and doing can be born.’7

Compiled by Vanessa Baird with thanks to Giedre Steikunaite and Dinyar Godrej.

  1. nin.tl/fa4QKW
  2. Robert Fisk, Independent 26 February 2011
  3. nin.tl/gF1eDw
  4. nin.tl/fZARjb
  5. nin.tl/fvVMqo
  6. nin.tl/gkgMWs
  7. www.newint.org

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