Friday, July 8, 2011
Arab Citizens And Social Justice
By Rami G. Khouri
The resurgence of public demonstrations in Egypt during the past week should surprise no one who has correctly grasped the underlying dynamics of the citizen revolts across the Arab world, which comprise a veritable Arab awakening. This is because the return of thousands of Egyptians to the street to challenge government decisions - or government inaction - represents an important core component of this awakening: the birth of the Arab citizen.
The Arab world now witnesses the advent of a citizen who is able to perform important functions that the modern Arab political order has long denied him or her: to express one’s views without fear and engage in healthy public debate; to participate in governance systems through voting and other means that allow citizens to shape public policies and national values; to hold accountable those who wield public power and force them to pursue certain policies.
Egypt pioneered the concept of statehood and nationhood in the modern Arab world, and now defines what it means to be an Arab citizen. The initial burst of mass populist energy that forced the resignation of Hosni Mubarak and his government last February has been followed by a series of recurring boosters to the concept of an empowered citizenry. These include street demonstrations and ongoing political consultations that are historic for shaping government decisions on the basis of citizen input.
The most recent cases of resurgent demonstrations in Cairo and Suez, in particular, were due to public anger at the state’s lassitude in prosecuting police officers who have been accused of killing some of the 850 or so Egyptian demonstrators who died during the uprising against Mubarak.
The importance of this dynamic is not that citizens want revenge, but rather that they seek justice. Egyptians do not want to see their fellow countrymen and women killed in their hundreds without anyone being held accountable. This is what Arab regimes routinely did in the recent past; it is also what Israel has done in Palestine and Lebanon, and what the United States armed forces did in Iraq in recent years.
It is not surprising that these three are the main targets of Arab anger and indignity, because a central message of the Arab awakening is that there should be no abuse of power or death with impunity. Behind this lurks an even more important concept that is central to the spirit and demands of the Arab awakening: the idea of social justice.
If the newborn Arab citizen is the most important political development of the past six months, the demand for social justice is the most important philosophical and value-driven underpinning of the new Arab citizenry.
Social justice is not about making all people equal in their material quality-of-life standards. It is mainly about removing structures that abuse, subjugate or exploit citizens and turn them into powerless victims of their state oligarchies and autocracies, and, instead, ensuring that public authorities reflect the values, and serve the needs and rights of, the citizen.
When citizen rights are ignored by an arrogant or negligent state, the citizen has the right to protest to demand that justice be done. This is what is happening in Egypt on a recurring basis these days, as angry citizens take to the street to demand that their military-dominated government seriously address and ultimately fulfil the basic promises of the January Revolution, as it is now called.
The 18-member Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), headed by Field Marshall Mohammad Hussein Tantawi, holds ultimate authority in Egypt during the current transitional phase to new parliamentary and presidential governance. As reporter Evan Hill outlined succinctly in a fine analysis on Al Jazeera website a few days ago, in the past five months, the military has met some of the revolution’s most important demands, but key issues remain unresolved. This has prompted some protesters to adjust their well-known refrain to reflect their new target, he says. “The people want to bring down the regime” has become “The people want to bring down the field marshal.”
The new regime swiftly assuaged key grievances through moves to arrest, investigate and try former regime officials; dissolve parliament and outlaw Mubarak’s National Democratic Party; suspend the constitution and write a new one subject to public approval. Little or no progress has been made, though, on lifting the state of emergency, holding free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections, protecting protesters and holding police accountable for killing demonstrators, reforming the security forces, limiting executive authority and improving economic conditions for ordinary Egyptians.
As long as this rights-based list of citizen demands remains half unmet, the streets of Egypt will remain intermittently filled with that refreshing new phenomenon of this Arab awakening: activist citizens who demand - and get - political accountability from their government.
This commentary was published in The Jordan Times on 08/07/2011