This commentary was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 27/01/2011
The rapid stream of news in the Arab world today not only confuses people, but also causes them great frustration. Even Tunisia, whose spontaneous uprising was an inspiration to the Arab masses from the Ocean to the Gulf, now seems to fluctuate between falling into a security vacuum and chaos, and returning to the old regime once more, but with a new façade. The Tunisian masses are dissatisfied with the results of the change they demanded, a demand which they paid for with blood. They see attempts to abort their uprising, and circumvent their demands. The government reshuffle has been limited to replacing a few symbols of the past era, whilst the same old regime continues to dominate the transitional period. This is a phase which is supposed to prepare the country for new elections, to elevate it to a level of true pluralism, freedom of expression, and freedom of association.
In the Arab domain, some interpreted the Tunisian uprising as a movement focussing on improved living standards. Some believed that the main demand was for economic concessions, such as aborting the decision to increase the price of basic commodities. This was thought to satisfy the angry masses, and return them to their deep slumber. However, a correct interpretation of the current situation, and the mood on the streets of a number of Arab countries, would show that people do not only seek to alleviate the economic burdens they shoulder, but rather they seek better political conditions, wider political participation, and genuine freedoms. The numerous political suicides committed by young protestors in several Arab countries, inspired by the young Tunisian man named Mohamed Bouazizi, perhaps reflect a state of desperation and despair, as a result of deteriorating conditions, a prevailing sense of frustration, and the lack of change on the horizon. If there are no real breakthroughs, the Tunisian case, despite the uncertainty of its results so far, will be repeated in other countries. Some nations suffer from a state of congestion far greater than that experienced by the Tunisians, prior to their outburst.
The Arab citizen today no longer relies on the official press or official spokesmen, in order to be informed. There has been a credibility crisis regarding such sources, which dates back to Ahmed Saeed and Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf. The internet and social networks have become sources where people acquire information and exchange news. It is worth noting that in this arena, rumours are sometimes incorporated into the news, by those seeking disturbance rather than change, or destruction rather than reform.
Frustrated by the state of affairs, the Arab citizen is filled with suppressed rage at the deplorable situation, and also at failing to make his voice heard. He feels defeated by the state of weakness and submission that has caused the Arabs to feel powerless and humiliated, in view of the prevailing state of fragmentation, rivalry and tension. There is a lack of Arab consensus, a lack of confidence, as well as a notable, rising sectarian tone.
Official statements can no longer convince people that the situation has improved, whereas bad news is always competing to be at the forefront of our media. Anyone who follows a news bulletin on our screens will find a daily account of the number of victims of Iraqi bombings, a country ravaged by sectarian strife, or the death toll resulting from militia wars in Somalia, which have been a constant sight for nearly 20 years. There is also news about the Arabia Felix [Latin term for modern Yemen, lit. ‘Happy Arabia’] region, which unfortunately is no longer ‘happy’. Internal wars have broken out, and al-Qaeda has managed to infiltrate its body, having fled from the Tora Bora caves [in Afghanistan] in search of a new sanctuary where it can spread destruction, in the region and across the world. On the other hand, Sudan has shown the Arabs what can happen when a government fails to establish the principle of citizenship, and translate this into a reality on the ground. While the heart [Khartoum] drowns in a maze of politics, the other organs of the body feel marginalized and abused, which prompts them to bear arms, and seek secession.
Sudan failed to achieve peaceful coexistence, and thus paid a heavy price, namely its unity. It may continue to pay even more if the situation does not change. Yet Lebanon is another example of how politicians fail to understand the need for tolerance and peaceful coexistence between ethnic or religious components, to maintain the unity of a country, and end the bloodshed of its people. Today the Lebanese seem to behave like the Bourbon Kings of France - "they neither forget anything nor learn anything". They are repeating the same mistakes that caused their small country to bleed, driving it towards civil war and a series of failed truces and constant quarrels, which are often followed by armed clashes. Lebanese politicians could not fortify their country and so they sought assistance from abroad, thus opening the door for years of foreign interference. The country became subject to external considerations and quarrels, making Lebanon a mere piece on the Middle East's complex chessboard. Lebanon proved impossible for all mediators, and frustrated all those who cared for it. Today it is heading towards a new phase that could prompt an unprecedented conflict.
Palestine is in a continuous loop of frustration and fragmentation, between Gaza and Ramallah. There is no hope for the stalled negotiations, as detailed in the recent damaging leaks. While the helpless Palestinian citizen suffers, numerous reconciliation efforts take place, and leaderships dispute over a state that is yet to be born.
This is a glimpse of the Arab vision that may help us understand why Bouazizi’s suicide has been an inspiration to some young Arabs. We must listen to the voice of the masses and find a way out of this situation, before frustration wreaks havoc on everything.