The Arab uprisings, three years on

Rami G. Khouri writes: I have learned in life that when you have a problem to ponder or stress to overcome, you should resort to one of three options: take a nap, listen to music, or just wait and let some time pass. The last option is particularly helpful when you are trying to understand the significance of political developments of the day, such as this week’s third anniversary of the initiation of the current Arab uprisings by Mohammad Bouazizi’s self-immolation. The passage of three years allows us to better understand what is going on across the Arab region in a way that was not so clear in December 2010.

When the fruit and vegetables peddler Mohammad Bouazizi set himself on fire in the rural Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid on December 17, 2010, his spontaneous act comprised a combination of protest, self-assertion and defiance that resonated instantly and widely across the entire Arab world. It launched a series of rolling protests and revolutions that have morphed into wars and chaotic conditions in some countries, and slow constitutional transformations in others.

Dramatic and unpredictable developments almost certainly await us in the years ahead. For now, though, here is my assessment of how to appreciate what has been going on across the Arab world during the last three years.

1. The initial sense that we experienced spontaneous popular revolutions to overthrow dictators and replace them with more democratic governance systems was certainly correct for those heady days in early 2011. The slow and erratic progress to that end in different Arab countries indicates that this remains a goal across most countries, but also that we are dealing with much bigger processes and deeper forces than merely linear democratic governance transitions, such as were experienced more smoothly, for example, in post-Franco Spain or post-military junta Greece.

2. It seems clear now that democratization is only one technical aspect of a much wider historical transformation that is playing itself out in different ways across the region, and that relates much more powerfully to the two foundational elements of national and personal life—the concepts of modern Arab statehood and citizenship. Neither statehood nor citizenship were ever defined by the collective will of free Arab men and women, but now we witness some Arab countries grappling with these issues for the first time ever, and in most cases this is occurring in a very messy and inconsistent way. That is the historical norm across the world, and Arabs finally are resuming their place in world history, after a century of absence due to colonial or homegrown dictatorships.

Rather than dealing mainly with democratic revolutions, as was the perception three years ago, it now appears clearer with hindsight that we are dealing with far more complex issues related to how individual men and women shape and ensure their rights as citizens within the larger units of their own ethnic, tribal and sectarian identities and their own sovereign state. All of these levels are being defined and anchored at the same time. [Continue reading…]

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