Monday, February 14, 2011

To Grab An Opportunity

By Nermeen Murad
This commentary was published in The Jordan Times on 14/02/2011
Every single Arab citizen must have wondered whether the protests in Egypt and Tunisia could be replicated in their country, thought of the opportunity that comes with such a transformative change as well as feared the risks that accompany the chaos and the lack of structure.

Democracy in the region has been denied to the people under the guise of protecting the world from one of three region-specific bogymen: instability of oil prices affecting supplies to the West; threats to the Arab-Israeli “peaceful” status quo and the expansion of the threat of Islamic fundamentalism.

Yet developments over the past month in the region have shown that these superpower priorities no longer excuse the denial of basic political rights to millions of Arab citizens and that when the masses took to the street with their list of priorities, it was clear those were more inward looking. Arab youth wanted to see an end to official corruption, greater opportunity for employment, based on equity and equal opportunity, and fair, free and transparent political participation. They basically demanded ownership of their countries, their resources and opportunities.

The minute-by-minute reporting from Tunis and Cairo over the past month and the extensive analysis that accompanied the reporting put the citizens - and leaderships - of the Arab world through an intensive course that combined principles of well-articulated political governance, the power of collective leadership based on collective intelligence and the incredible force of peaceful resistance.

If the Arab world has been hypnotised into submissive stupor over the past few decades of autocratic rule, then this intensive training - delivered online and via satellite - has just filled the gaps in their knowledge of their rights and the tools to achieve them.

The overthrow of the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt has rekindled Arab dreams of change. Some forward-thinking leaders in the region have signalled that they are aware of the need to embrace change as a priority for progress and regional stability.

These have already started taking real steps towards openness of their political systems and embracing economic and social reform that aims to bring opportunity to an educated yet disenfranchised Arab youth.

There is no need to mince too many words in adding that we in Jordan feel a real concern about the escalation of the sporadic demonstrations into full-scale uproar and that this concern has already produced the change in government that we witnessed only two weeks ago. The government, in turn, has pledged to introduce a full suite of political reform measures, including the much-coveted teachers union, easing of restrictions on public meetings, a more inclusive elections law and other measures designed to institutionalise a participatory political system.

We are happy that Jordan has had the unique sensitivity towards its citizens to understand and embrace their demands. But I believe there is a consensus that it is not enough and that we need to rapidly adopt a pace of movement that is fast enough to preempt demonstrations rather than respond to them.

“Too little too late” became the clich√© remark of commentators on former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s sluggish response to people’s demands. A Jordan that is lucky enough to have a young leadership should therefore grab the “opportunity” afforded by these regional changes to lead the way and produce a model of comprehensive socio-economic and political reform that can be emulated by other nations of the region.

There have been two regional models of grabbing power from leaders through youth-led protest. We are watching several other countries trying to placate their public through temporary financial handouts. More worryingly, we are witnessing some countries tighten their iron grip on their populations in a bid to choke protest before it spreads.

Jordan would do well to provide a regional model that utilises and builds upon the unique relationship between the people and the leadership by engaging its youth as well as its official, political and civil society forces in a transparent exercise of collective leadership.

A lady I met only recently said we should not create ceilings for people’s expectations, not be an obstacle to the people’s evolution, become pro-active together to regain our collective dignity and identity. How true!

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