Thursday, February 17, 2011
Biology Of The Second Arab Revolt
By Rami G. Khouri
This commentary was published in The Jordan Times on 18/02/2011
As the ripples from the Tunisian-Egyptian popular revolts work their way throughout 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 bookmarks at both ends of the process, they explain why the Arab region is erupting in revolts, and what needs to be done to satisfy people’s demands.
They explain what has long ailed 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 that have finally driven a few people to set themselves on fire in a desperate death cry so that their surviving family members might have a better life, and that have also driven many more people to rise up en masse against their prevailing political orders.
They also clarify the changes that must occur for the grievances to be redressed and normalcy to resume in these abnormal countries.
Humiliation is the consequence of combined material and intangible pressures on ordinary people, which include petty corruption, police brutality, abuse of power, favouritism, unemployment, poor wages, unequal opportunities, inefficient or non-existent public services, lack of freedom of expression and association, and state control of media, culture and education.
Ordinary men and women grow up in non-democratic societies feeling increasingly frustrated that they cannot achieve their human potential while, simultaneously, they witness 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 education and have more and more difficulty finding jobs that give them enough income to live decently, get married and start a family. 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 and may not speak in public.
This trajectory of events pushes them onto a path of sentiments that starts with irritation and inconvenience, grows to anger and resentment, and finally reaches desperation and degradation. The end result is humiliation so severe that it causes young Arab men and women, and their elders alike, to enter into a condition of dehumanisation.
Being treated as something less than human by their society, along with the pain caused by decades of invading foreign armies and Israeli colonisers and siege masters, these Arabs become less than human. They react instinctively to protect themselves and to regain their humanity.
The revolt we are witnessing across 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 - their right to use all 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 agree or disagree, to propose ideas, and then many other attributes of their stunted humanity.
“Legitimacy” in the public realm is the antidote to the humiliation that the state and 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 that young and adult Arabs now demand in their societies are anchored in a powerful need for legitimate governance structures that can replace the fraudulent and corrupt 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 also protecting the rights of minorities.
The two most critical elements of legitimate governance systems in the Arab-Islamic 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 if our societies are finally to leave the dark tunnel of the modern Arab security state and its stultifying, corrupting, mediocratising legacy.
Legitimacy leaves little room for humiliation, and opens the door to normalcy in both statehood and the daily life 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 reestablished at the core of institutions and power relations in an Arab region that craves normalcy once again.