Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sudan Vote Makes Modern Arab History

By Rami G. Khouri
This commentary was published in the Daily Star on Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A remarkable development will take place in Sudan in January which strikes me as among the most significant in the modern history of the Arab world: referendums by which the people of Southern Sudan will determine if they wish to remain part of Sudan or secede and become an independent country. This is remarkable because it may be the only explicit and credible case of Arab people exercising the opportunity to define their country’s shape and its ideological orientation. Who knows whether the Southern Sudan referendums will trigger spillover effects in other parts of the Arab world, but it is obvious nevertheless that the structural stresses that have plagued Sudan and led to these referendums are not unique to that country.

Sudan and the rest of the modern Arab world continue to be the world’s only collectively and chronically non-democratic region in large part because of the flawed configuration of statehood. In various ways, we are still dealing with the consequences of the post-colonial manufacturing of modern Arab statehood at the hands of retreating European powers. They left behind a patchwork of independent Arab states that often did not coincide very neatly with the demographic, tribal, ethnic and other realities of the indigenous people who became the citizens of these new countries.
Sudan is a glaring example of Arab countries that should be wealthy and stable, but in fact remain wracked by internal ideological and ethnic strife, under-achievement, recurring autocracy, and large-scale violence. In Sudan’s case, this reached the point where the International Criminal Court last year indicted President Omar al-Bashir for genocide and war crimes. The structural problems of Arab countries that suffer chronic internal stress are obvious throughout the region. Among other glaring examples are Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and Lebanon, where ethnic, sectarian and tribal differences among major constituent groups have led to, variously, recurring bouts of fighting, large-scale state repression and violence against its own citizens, or chronic fragmentation and instability.

These are the most glaring cases, but similar stresses plague almost every other Arab country, where tensions are often less anchored in ethnic or sectarian differences and more a consequence of the fact that many ordinary citizens do not feel that they have a stake or a say in how their government operates. The deeper problem – largely unspoken in a modern Arab world that prefers to hide its weaknesses under the rug – is that most of our countries were not defined or created by the collective will of their own citizenry. In other words, the people of the Arab world and its 22 member countries of the Arab League largely have not had the opportunity to exercise the right of self-determination that is a fundamental requirement of rational statehood, stable good governance, and sustained national development. We have independence and sovereignty, but no track record of collective self-determination.

The referendum in Southern Sudan and the parallel one in oil-rich Abyei governorate are a historic first in this context because they are the result of a negotiated agreement among the Sudanese central government and the southern provinces in question, and because they include the explicit question of whether the voters want to remain part of Sudan or become independent. Many structural and political problems remain to be resolved before the referendums in early January, and it is possible that the results will be messy and lead to renewed fighting. The significant thing is that citizens of an Arab state are exercising a rare opportunity to decide for themselves who they are and how they want to translate their collective identity into a configuration of sovereign statehood – a fundamental collective human right that has been determined for all Arabs in the past 100 years by European colonial powers or their own army officers who seize power and wield it without the hindrances of democracy, popular participation or political accountability.

The Arab world widely needs such processes that can translate into reality the basic need for human beings to feel that their voices are heard on such fundamental matters as the definition of statehood and the political ideology of the ruling government of the day. The modern Arab state has been transformed heavily into a security apparatus and a facilitator of shopping malls and real estate investments because the alternative route to national stability and sustained, equitable development – democratic participation and the consent of the governed – have never been attempted on a serious basis.
Sudan and the referendums in the south are potentially a historic development that could reverberate in other parts of the Arab world, where large ethnic minorities and ordinary citizens who form the majority alike can ask why they, too, do not have the chance to define their state, validate their governance systems, shape their national policies, and, most importantly, hold accountable those who wield power in their name.

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