Saturday, January 29, 2011

The End of the Gap

By Ghassan Charbel
This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 29/01/2011

What Egypt has witnessed in the past days and what reached its peak yesterday is not restricted to Egypt alone. It was preceded by events that turned into a revolution in Tunisia and was accompanied by protests in Yemen and Jordan. It is obvious that we are faced with tremors that are not limited to a specific location.

Perhaps the region’s countries are paying the price for the delay of the governments in taking difficult decisions in the past years: bold decisions in the field of political and economic reform; decisions to listen to people instead of rushing to accuse them; decisions to open the window a little bit even if this might allow winds in. The governments were not mindful of the fact that allowing the winds in is better than providing the circumstances for the start of great storms. The region’s countries did not learn from what happened in other regions in the world. They were not aware that dealing with small tremors is better than entrenching themselves and waiting for the earthquake.

The most dangerous thing that can happen is to aggravate the gap between the government and the people, or a large part of them. It is for the ordinary citizen to feel that the horizon is blocked; that dialogue is absent and useless; that his voice is not getting through; and that his messages remain unanswered.

The most dangerous thing that can happen is the absence of hope and the absence of windows. It is for a young man to feel that his university degree is nothing but a membership card in the club of the unemployed; that a decent home is an unattainable dream; that things never change; that the change of governments does not concern him; that legislative elections widen the gap instead of bridging it; that participation is impossible; that he is marginalized; that talking about corruption is nothing but a way to absorb indignation; that the departure of a corrupted person offers another corrupted person the chance to replace him.

The most dangerous thing that can happen is for the citizen to decide not to believe the official media; to smile if the Minister of Information speaks; to frown if the Minister of the Interior speaks; to doubt so much that he doesn’t believe the figures of the development plan and of tourists, the extent of foreign investments, the anti-illiteracy plans, the results of municipal and legislative elections, the results of the baccalaureate exams, and even of blood tests.

It is a deep crisis of trust, a deep feeling of hopelessness, and feelings of wrath that are awaiting an opportunity to express themselves. All this happens in the absence of institutions that can make citizens participate in expressing their opinion and changing the way they live. The street becomes the option. In our countries, it is an option filled with hope at times and with dangers at others. Some of the practices that accompanied the protests in Egypt yesterday cause concern from the possibility of seeing them turn from the dream of change to the danger of falling into chaos.

We did not discover these feelings yesterday or during recent days. The Arab journalist can detect tensions in many Arab capitals despite the different circumstances. These feelings are not new, but the old world didn’t allow them to spread. The only source of information was the government. Regimes were able to shut off their countries and deal with protests by making them disappear and strictly punishing their perpetrators. What is new is that the world has changed. The communications revolution has killed the ability of the governments to conceal, prohibit, and repress. It has made millions of young men feel that they are able to raise their voice and change the reality they complain of.

It can be said that most of the Arab governments interpreted belatedly the transformations that took the world by storm around two decades ago. They considered the fall of the Berlin wall and the suicide of the Soviet Union to be remote events. They also miscalculated the effect of cable TV in Arab homes, and that of the millions who joined the army of Internet users and modern communications means. They also misread the awakening of the feelings of young people and their feeling of being entitled to demand bread, freedom, and dignity.

There is no other option than to listen to people. Security measures can prevent slipping towards chaos, but they are not enough for regaining stability. Protecting stability requires bold decisions that bridge the gap with the public – they are decisions that reopen the windows of dialogue and hope. It is an Egyptian and Arab necessity for Egypt to come out from its current situation.

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