Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1177, (19 December 2013 - 1 January 2014)
Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Issue 1177, (19 December 2013 - 1 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Hopes for the future

In the clash between a past that refuses to be past and a present that has yet fully to come into being, we must all reaffirm the essential values of the Arab Spring, writes Galal Nassar

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Al-Ahram Weekly

‘Violence is not only impractical but immoral’
— Martin Luther King Jr


When the young Tunisian fruit-seller Mohamed Bou Azizi immolated himself in the town of Sidi Abu Zeid on 17 December 2010, the Arab dream of change seemed to be out of reach. However, Bou Azizi’s desperate act sparked a flame and that flame leapt from village to town to city and across national boundaries. Change was now at hand amidst all the confusing tumult. Its momentum built up so rapidly that in some places it seemed as though a curtain had fallen on a play that had dragged on too long and then had risen again to reveal a totally different set and a new cast of characters.
Regimes that had once seemed to be invulnerable had crumbled and because of their structural weaknesses had quickly collapsed. Even the few that had put up a fight only succeeded in plunging their respective countries into protracted strife, the outcome of which was determined in advance and the costs of which were exorbitant, especially in terms of stability and security and not to mention the heavy human toll.
Had the rulers of these regimes read some history, their peoples could have been spared much tragedy. Sadly, these rulers were just as poor at reading the present as they were the past, which was the reason why they had become so detached from their societies and had grown so isolated that they were now girding themselves in their isolation behind the barricades of authoritarian power and self-delusion.
As necessary as change was and regardless of the form it took, it was inevitable that it would generate various forms of violence and unrest. Such is the nature of all major political changes, especially after the collapse of an existing form of legitimacy, bolstered by its security agencies, entrenched bureaucracy, legal edifice and vested interest groups resistant to any form of change.
Violence and anarchy are all the more likely in the absence of a national consensus over a new form of legitimacy and against the backdrop of the array of accumulated socio-political ills bequeathed by the former regimes that require extended periods of time to remedy them. These in turn complicate the periods of transition necessary to establish and give root to a new legitimacy.
Following the mass uprisings that started at the outset of 2011, the Arab world experienced a revolutionary movement with new dynamics in which young people played a fundamental and critical role. The process was far from painless. There were security breakdowns, social rifts, breaches of the rule of law, abuses of public assets, and spikes in violence and corruption. But what was certain was that the past needed to be definitively consigned to history and that the way forward was to pursue the aims and aspirations of the Arab movements for change, as epitomised in the revolutionary chants calling for freedom, dignity and social justice.
It was equally clear that a new legitimacy, antithetical to that which had prevailed under and sustained the former regimes, was what was needed in order to translate these principles into realities on the ground. The cornerstones of the new legitimacy were democratic transformation, the rule of law, the institutionalised state, the principles of full and equal citizenship and social and political plurality and diversity, and the rotation of power through periodic free-and-fair elections in which the people vote for their legislative and executive representatives.
Yet, as straightforward as this may seem in theory, realities on the ground pose huge challenges. Among these are the obstacles created by remnants of the former regimes in order to undermine the revolutionary drive and sap the resolve of the new forces of change. Another problem is the internal squabbling and divisions among the latter, which sometimes degenerate into verbal and even physical violence.
In general, however, the current situation could be described as a clash between a past that refuses to be past and a present that has yet to come into being. For the moment, it appears that the forces opposed to democratic change are more cohesive and more harmonious, while the forces of change are more disunited and acrimonious. This adds up to a precarious situation for the new legitimacy, especially in view of the alliances that exist between certain old and new forces.
As a result, in sharp contrast to the rosy visions that prevailed at the outset of the Arab Spring revolutions, the movements for change have been drawn into a gruelling battle against the background of an eruption of repressed rancour and resentments, intransigent vested interests and entrenched patterns of corruption, and sectarian tensions, all of them part of the legacy of the autocratic past, combined with an explosion of conflicting political and ideological views and ambitions and vying economic interests and opportunisms in the vacuum created by the fall of previous regimes.
The broadening religious and sectarian divides, the acrimonious factionalism, and the rampant violence and destruction that have swept Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen in the post-revolutionary periods and that have been perhaps at their most virulent in Syria since 15 March 2011, have been aggravated by foreign intervention of various forms and degrees. For many people, such factors now define the regional map, and as they contemplate this landscape, seeing the apparent destruction of the state and the deterioration of security, they may begin to ask which is the lesser of the two evils.
Certainly, the magnitude and rapidity of events, the ferocity of the tensions, the ambiguities of the present and the hovering uncertainties of the past are cause for concern and they demand closer attention on the part of the press. It is for this reason that Al-Ahram Weekly has devoted this special end-of-the-year edition to an assessment of the questions facing the movements for change in the countries of the Arab Spring, which appear torn between a new legitimacy that has only taken its first steps following the overthrow of the old regimes and the old legitimacy that has found a new ally in its battle, not so much to restore the old, since that is impossible, but to undermine the new legitimacy and to fuel sectarian hatred and disseminate a climate of violence and counter-violence.
Foremost among the questions that concern the movements for change in the Arab region is the relationship between the state and society. After decades of the almost systematic destruction of civil society in the interest of augmenting the power of a ruling clique and at the expense of the integral cohesion of the state, it is perhaps little wonder that once those regimes were gone the processes of disintegration would set in.
As a result, we find that Libya today is staring at the prospect of three separate, near state-like entities, that in Tunisia there is a broadening gulf between the wealthy coastal regions and the impoverished inland areas, that in Egypt there are tensions of unprecedented proportions between Muslims and Copts, and that in Yemen the Houthi insurgency has gripped the north while a secessionist drive has reared its head again in the south and in the centre some are speaking of a return to the old order. In Syria, entire arsenals of ethnic, religious, sectarian, doctrinal and regional divides, resentments and hatreds have been unleashed.
Clearly, while it is essential to rebuild and re-establish the prestige of the institutions of the state after the collapse of the regimes and attempts to dismantle the states, it is equally essential to re-cement the societies. It is also clear that the means towards this end, especially after a period of authoritarian and exclusivist rule and the prevalence of groups that claim superiority over others or a monopoly on absolute truth, is to build a civil society endowed with robust institutions that both complement and act as a check on the institutions of the state and that embody and promote the principles of plurality and diversity.
On the ground, this means a broad array of community associations, NGOs, unions and other civil-society organisations that are backed by a legal system that ensures their greatest possible scope of freedom and a free and open media. To pave the way for this, we need a dynamic and holistic programme of democratic transformation that engages a range of innovative processes or methods.
Naturally, as with any transitional process, there will be tensions and conflicts. However, with sufficient will combined with a genuinely consensus-seeking spirit, it should be possible to devise a feasible and universally acceptable programme for transition that would simultaneously permit political competition, as is only consistent with the concept of democracy.
To frame this in another way, what the movements for non-violent change need to focus on now is the creation of a new social contract that goes beyond the drafting of new constitutions. While constitutions lay essential foundations in societies in which old social contracts have frayed and crumbled, it is also necessary to reconcile diverse and even antagonistic groups. In societies that are caught between the forces of modernity and traditionalism and that are reeling under the strains of the accumulated ills of decades of dictatorship, underdevelopment and poverty, reconciliation must entail addressing a full gamut of issues.
These include issues from the philosophy of the state and government (separation between religion and the state, the rule of law, the institutionalised state, the concept of citizenship and its bearing on the principles of dignity, freedom and other human rights) to processes (establishing and identifying the roles of government and civil-society institutions, setting time frames and goals for transitional processes, arranging elections, setting social and economic development priorities, developing frameworks to ensure economic justice), to very down-to-earth issues (restoring the civil peace in the framework of the rule of law, educational and health care services, and unemployment reduction and job creation) and remedying the legacy of the past (prosecuting those guilty of human-rights abuses, corruption, the abuse of public moneys, the nature of the laws or other instruments needed to prevent the recurrence of such practices, and the development of a culture inimical to them).
Just as we believe that we must affirm the specific character of our Arab societies, we must also simultaneously acknowledge that there exist general laws and principles that govern the process of democratic transformation. There is no need to apply these to the letter, but we do need to study them closely. In a similar spirit, we need to examine the transitional experiences of South Africa and the countries of Eastern Europe and Latin America, not in order to “clone” them in our region, but in order to draw on them in ways that ensure that our own processes of transition proceed with a minimum degree of violence and conflict, which is certainly the Arab peoples’ right after decades of tyranny and violence at the hands of authoritarian dictatorships.
Decades of totalitarian rule have made us suspicious of everything. We used to eye the person sitting next to us warily and keep our thoughts to ourselves for fear of being reported. Or, in many cases, those thoughts that were uttered were the ones intended to curry favour with the authorities or to win material gain. We may have emerged from dictatorship, but we have yet to emerge from its psychological and behavioural effects. Fear and mutual distrust are tyranny’s favourite instruments. They keep people apart and prevent them from cooperating. They also generate a form of hypocrisy: people will mouth the pieties of a dictatorial regime, while harbouring contrary ideas.
This brings us to the question of the counter-revolution, which can be defined as those actions or series of actions, or those groups or movements, that seek to wrest power from the people and place it in tyrannical hands and that resort to the instruments of violence and coercion, the dissemination of fear, and the incitement of hatred and mistrust to pursue their ends. Whether these groups or movements claim to act in the name of religion, as is the case with extremist or fundamentalist groups, or in the name of some metaphysical being or larger truth, the aim is the same: to deprive the people of their right to self-determination and to empower themselves instead with the right to dictate the people’s will.
For this writer, the bulk of the Islamist groups fall into this category. But so, too, do those that one might call “revolutionary selectivists” — in other words, those who support a revolution in one Arab country but not in another, even if it is waged for the same democratic and humanitarian principles. If the aim of the former is obvious — to impose their will, or more precisely the will of their political and clerical elites on their societies — the aim of the latter is also not that dissimilar, being to dictate a certain outlook or policy to another portion of the Arab people.
Both these groups ignore or choose to ignore the fact that the Arab Spring revolutions erupted at the same time because the Arab peoples shared the same grievances against the injustices perpetrated by the dictatorships and were now determined to right the ills that had plagued them for so long. The determination on the part of some groups or movements to fight this groundswell of popular resolve in order to impose their particular agendas is essentially a contest of wills and is the greatest source of violence and lawlessness at present.
It is also often the case that some elites or other “selectivists” may seize control of a revolution by virtue of the follies, violence or crimes perpetrated by counter-revolutionary forces and, wittingly or not, begin to slip into the same mistakes and modes of behaviour of the former regime in the name of the “fight against terrorism”. It is important to bear in mind that the “global war on terrorism” is in fact an imperialist war waged by the US and its western allies against the Arab peoples. A chief instrument in this war is the jihadist terrorist groups that it fosters and supports in order to punish the Arab peoples for asserting their will by unleashing waves of violence, murder and destruction and sowing chaos with the aim of undermining the revolutionary movements.
Clear examples of this campaign are to be found in the Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria and their counterparts in Egypt, whose elements were trained and funded by the West and/or by certain regimes in the Middle East.
The only way out of this trap is for the revolutionary movements to unequivocally voice their affiliation with the Arab people, insisting that these people are not an environment that breeds intolerance, terrorism, and violence, and that, indeed, they reject all schools of Political Islam, from the exclusivist to the terrorist. We must be clear that these peoples are fighting for their freedom and that they are working to fulfil their dreams on the ground by means of a roadmap to the future that can enhance the civil, democratic and inclusive nature of the state on the basis of a constitution that establishes the rule of law, ensures the effective separation of powers, safeguards essential human and civic rights and freedoms, upholds the principles of full and equal citizenship and social justice, and empowers the people through guarantees of free-and-fair democratic processes and by enabling the emergence of a robust civil society.
Are not these things, after all, the very means and instruments that will most effectively drive back the scourge of terrorism and violence until it vanishes entirely from the countries of the Arab Spring?

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