Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Let Us Savor This Hopeful Middle Eastern Moment

By Rami G. Khouri 

Here’s historic news from the Middle East: the civilian government in Turkey this week is naming all the new commanders of the armed forces, following a century of military-led or -dominated rule.

This is not an isolated incident, in terms of civilians asserting greater power vis-à-vis their military establishments. In the entire Middle East today, we may be witnessing an extraordinary phenomenon that only occurs occasionally. The whole region – most Arab states, Iran, Turkey and Israel – is in the midst of national corrections and, in some cases, reconfigurations in the exercise of power, as citizens come to grips with the weaknesses, failures and inequities of their past ways.

The signs of this are the half a dozen major citizen rebellions and another half dozen milder ones across the Arab world; the symbolic triumph of civilian over military rule in Turkey with the resignation of all the armed forces heads last week and the new appointments by the Supreme Military Council headed by the elected prime minister; the growing populist demonstrations in Israel that even emulate Arab “tent protest city” encampments; and, the ongoing tensions within the ruling establishment in Iran while the reform-minded forces throughout the country continue to ponder how they can succeed in challenging and softening the hard rule of the militant rightist clerics.
The fact that all four key actors in the Middle East are simultaneously experiencing major citizen-driven change or activism means that the status quo is unsustainable. If a common denominator broadly cuts across them all, even if national specificities and differences exist, it must that military- and security-dominated rule by increasingly intolerant and unaccountable elites is unacceptable to the majorities of citizens, who have used different tactics to make their feelings known and demand significant reforms.

The nature of protest and the pace and likelihood of change are all very different across the region. The transformation in Turkey has been going on for two decades, through consistently democratic means interrupted now and then by military self-assertion, including three coups. The Iranians had a revolution in 1979 that overthrew the shah, but new populist stirrings for change have asserted themselves again during the past decade, without much success. The Israeli state’s emphasis on security- and colonization-driven governance for decades has reached the point where many citizens feel that their basic economic and social needs are being ignored; and, the various Arab revolts all demand real constitutional change that includes an affirmation of civil rights for all citizens, alongside civilian, rather than military, control of state policymaking.
The history of these four main players – Arabs, Iranians, Turks and Israelis – is very different. Some suffered terrible colonial subjugation and exploitation. A few enjoy ancient national identities that have been useful in modern state-building. Many were new creations that reflected European strategic interests rather than the will of their own citizens. Some suffered terrible wars at the hands of their own people, hostile neighbors or invading foreign armies.

A lucky few – the non-Arabs mainly – experienced credible democracy in some periods and to some extent, while the Arab majority never did. These states do not share a common narrative or legacy, yet they do share the current reality of simultaneously passing through a moment of profound structural change that will succeed if it reflects the will of the majority of citizens in all of them.

The entire Middle East moving together is not unprecedented. During the past three decades or so, all four quarters of the Middle East shifted to the right and became more militant and religious in their public life, for various different reasons. Now, having experienced the shortcomings of their ways, Arabs, Iranians, Turks and Israelis all seem to be moving back toward the democratic political center, where citizenries are more comfortable and feel better served.
Were this trend to continue and succeed, the future implications for the region and the whole world would be enormous – and all positive. For the Middle East as a whole to transform itself from an unnatural condition – a wretched swamp in some countries – where gunmen rule and thieve at will, to a more normal place where majorities rule and minorities are equal and protected by law, opens the door to massive opportunity, wealth and stability, as Turkey has best demonstrated. Democratic neighbors, as modern Europe and East Asia suggest, are more likely to keep the peace and generate better lives for their people than thug-ruled authoritarian fiefdoms.

This historical correction will certainly redress some of the past century’s distortions and excesses, which broadly prevented the emergence of democratic states that also enjoyed sound economic management and a sense of social justice. It is exciting enough when one country moves from authoritarianism or militarism to democratic rule; it is an exhilarating and a truly historic moment to be savored when an entire region like today’s Middle East does so.
This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 03/08/2011

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