The second Arab revolt

2011-02-19 11:15

As the ripples from the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts work their way through the Arab world in the months and years ahead, we should keep in mind two pivotal words that capture every important dimension of the process under way: humiliation and legitimacy.

Like bookends on either side of the process, they explain why the Arab region is erupting, and what needs to be done to satisfy people’s demands.

They explain what has long upset hundreds of millions of Arabs who have been denied their birthright as human beings, their citizenship rights as nationals of sovereign countries, and their human rights as children of God and members of the human race.

They clarify the abuses, crimes, distortions and stresses of the recent past, which eventually drove a few people to set themselves alight.

This as a desperate death cry for their surviving family members to have better lives, and also as a cue for many more people to rise against their prevailing political orders.

They also clarify the changes that must occur for the grievances to be redressed and normality to resume in these abnormal countries.

Humiliation is the consequence of combined material and intangible pressures on ordinary people.

These pressures include petty corruption; police brutality; abuse of power; favouritism; unemployment; poor wages; unequal opportunities; inefficient or non-existent public services; lack of freedoms of expression and association; and state control of the media, culture and education.

Ordinary men and women grow up in non-democratic societies feeling increasingly frustrated that they cannot achieve their own human potential, while witnessing a small group of men and women in the ruling elite grow fabulously rich simply because of their connections rather than their abilities.

Young people in their 20s are especially prone to feeling humiliated because they obtain increasingly mediocre qualifications and have increasing difficulty finding jobs that give them enough income to live decently.

They see in front of them an entire lifetime of stunted opportunities and stolen rights.

When they try to speak out against the unfair and corrupt practices that define their societies, they are prevented from doing so by police and security agencies that tell them what they may or may not speak about in public.

This trajectory of events pushes them onto a path of sentiments that starts with irritation and inconvenience, which grows to anger and resentment, and finally reaches desperation and degradation.

The end result is humiliation so severe that it causes young Arabs, and their elders alike, to enter into a condition of dehumanisation.

Being treated as something less than human by their own society, along with the pain caused by decades of invading foreign armies and Israeli colonisers and siege masters, these Arabs become less than human.

Animal-like, they react instinctively to protect themselves and regain their humanity.

The revolt we are witnessing in the Arab world is not about ideology; it is about biology.

It is mostly about men and women who, so brutalised by their own and foreign powers, demand above all to assert their fundamental humanity – which includes the right to use their human senses and not to be denied any of them, to read real newspapers and magazines, to discuss issues in public, to express and hear a variety of views, to associate with whomever they wish, to make and enjoy music or poetry, to think freely, to debate, to propose new ideas, and to agree or disagree.

Legitimacy in the public realm is the antidote to the humiliation that the state, society and foreign powers have inflicted on ordinary Arab men and women who have been largely denied the substance of their humanity and their citizenship.

The changes Arabs now demand in their societies are anchored in a powerful need for legitimate governance structures to replace the fraudulent and corrupted ones that have reigned for many decades.

Legitimacy is a simple but overpowering concept that requires public governance institutions and decisions to reflect the will of the majority, while protecting the rights of minorities.

The two most critical elements of legitimate governance systems in the Islamic Arab lands are accountability and a sense of justice or equity.

These can find expression in many textures and shades, including, most importantly in Arab lands, the historical concepts of Arabism, tribalism and Islamism, among others that are more modern.

Constitutions, parliaments, electoral laws and many other such concepts can be devised in many forms, but they must be legitimate in the eyes of their people above all else.

This is vital for our societies to finally leave the dark tunnel of the modern Arab security state and its stultifying, corrupting and mediocratising legacy.

Legitimacy leaves little room for humiliation, and opens the door to normality in both statehood and the daily lives of ordinary citizens.

As this historic second Arab revolt works its way throughout the region and rattles one power system after another, keep in mind these two central concepts: the humiliation that drives people to reclaim their total humanity at any cost, and the elusive legitimacy that must be re-established at the core of institutions and power relations in an Arab region that craves normalcy once again. – Agence Global

»  Khouri is editor at large of The Daily Star and director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon 

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