Wednesday, June 15, 2011

That Noise Is Of The Arab Order Breaking

By Rami G. Khouri  

Do you hear all that noise out here in the Middle East this week – government coalitions, refugee flows, parliamentary elections, constitutional changes, and everywhere people demanding their rights?

Listen carefully, because what you hear is the beautiful racket of citizens trying to create stable and responsive governance systems all across the region, and the process is both noisy and messy – and also slow by nature. The important thing is that nearly a century after the false birth of nominally sovereign Arab states after World War I, the people of the Middle East are now working in earnest to establish governance systems that respond to their rights and needs more efficiently than has been the case to date.
Just look at these main events in our region this week, which reflect political life that is in the midst of deep transitions, with both positive and negative signs for the way ahead. In Lebanon Prime Minister Najib Mikati finally formed a government, following five months of intense political horse-trading after being mandated to do so by a parliamentary majority aligned with Hezbollah and its allies.

In Syria, thousands of residents of the northern town of Jisr al-Shoughour have streamed across the Turkish border seeking refuge from a state-run military operation in response to a growing nationwide citizen rebellion.
Turkey has held parliamentary elections that have ushered in a third consecutive victory for the ruling Justice and Development Party, marking another milestone on that country’s steady transition from military rule to civilian democracy. And in Jordan, King Abdullah announced that he would institute citizen demands that the prime minister be named or dismissed solely according to the wishes of the majority in the elected lower house of Parliament.

Egypt, Palestine, Iraq and other Arab lands are in the midst of their own political transitions, grappling with coalitions, constitutional changes, elections and other aspects of the business of creating stable, decent governance systems to replace the security-dominated abominations that have defined the Arab world for half a century.
A messy and drawn-out process of change is to be expected. The people and governments of the Middle East are grappling simultaneously with several major sources of stress that have badly distorted their countries, economies and psyches. These include political authoritarianism, severe economic disparities and social injustices, regional and domestic wars, and constant interference by foreign powers. The wholesale transformation of an entire and diverse region whose 500 million citizens largely have had no say in how their governments operate during the past half-century opens up new spaces in society that will be filled by many pretenders to power, including sincere democrats and old-style military dictators.

The most important changes under way in the Middle East these days remain those taking place in Tunisia and Egypt, where entire populations have thrown out dictators and are now working to forge both a new social contract and political governance systems anchored in constitutional guarantees. The elections later this year in both countries will provide interesting insights into current mindsets. However, the really hard transformational work will start in the years after the new parliaments are elected and the complete infrastructure of political governance is forged according to the will of the majority.
Turkey reached its current impressive political state after decades of movement forward and backward, with Islamists, military officers, nationalists and others continuously battling for control of political space. The surge toward a stable, civilian-dominated democratic and constitutional system in Turkey passed through years that look a lot like what Egyptians are experiencing today.

In the meantime, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Syria are the dominant archetypes of politics and power in the Middle East, with their mixture of brute force, parliamentary voting, heavy-handed coercion, byzantine bargaining, and, ultimately, the striking of deals that bring on a few years of quiet until the next crisis arrives and the political machinery of war, negotiations, and deal-making kicks into high gear once more.
These immensely complex political landscapes today, with a variety of power structures and political dynamics, encapsulate the entire history of human political life – from the most advanced constitutional democracies to the most vicious and ugly of police states. Each country provides a different model of how power is wielded and how citizens seek to make their voice heard.

The important thing is that at last they are all in the midst of historic changes, after decades of stagnation. It is certain that this process that has been unleashed will go on for years, and we should expect it to advance and regress, perhaps akin to the slow but steady progress of European democracy from World War I to the end of the Soviet Empire. Unrealistic and hasty expectations are among the most dangerous hurdles facing the transformation of the Middle East today.
This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 15/06/2011

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