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Sunday, March 06, 2011

An Emerging Arab Social Contract

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A commentary published in

Energy and Geopolitical Risk
Volume 2 No. 2 February 2011

Muhammad Buazizi, a Tunisian youth, member of the mass of poor and unemployed Arabs, set himself on fire on 17 December, 2010, protesting the harassment and humiliation infl icted on him by a municipal inspecter. The reaction to the incident has been unprecedented across the Arab world. Within a month, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali abdicated power and fl ed Tunisia.

Tunisia’s uprising was followed by an unanticipated chain of popular uprisings in Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and Libya. A Democratic ‘Tsunami’ may be a fi tting metaphor to describe the euphoric atmosphere that engulfed the Middle East region since the fall of Ben Ali.

The peaceful uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain, led by young people, excited the imagination of other Arabs in Jordan, Morocco and Oman. The people recognized the phenomenon that Arab regimes share several common features and could face the same destiny. It is a mere coincidence that the Arab democratic Tsunami started in Tunisia.

Power in Arab countries, be they republics or monarchies, rests in the hands of a central fi gure surrounded by a small clique. Usually, this small elite core comprises senior members of the ruling family and the armed forces, or both. However, in spite of their demonstrated omnipotence, Arab regimes suffer from recurring crises of legitimacy.

Instead of seeking a legitimacy based on popular approval, Arab regimes have invariably resorted to encouraging rentseeking behavior by supporters and, simultaneously, directing state capacities to repress the people. Corruption became not just a reward but a rationale for elite recruitment. And, repression moved from being a punishment for acts committed into deterrent measures applied indiscriminately on the population.

Crises of Arab regimes, chronic as they have been , could not possibly have ended without dismantling them in order to re-start the processes of modern state-building in the region. That may explain that a common feature in the Arab democratic Tsunami is the slogan ‘We want the fall of the regime”. Tunisian, Egyptian, Bahrain and Yemeni protesters have not raised banners demanding ‘ bread and butter’ or justice and freedom, but went to the heart of the matter, to get rid of the regimes themselves. While they vary in details all of the uprisings have been directed towards the regimes’ fundamental weakness – their illegitimacy.

It is too early to speculate on the long term consequences of each of the Arab uprisings. However, one thing is certain. Developments witnessed by the region since December 17, 2010, have provided Arabists with ample empirical evidence for discarding two sets of enduring fallacies.

The first are those claims suggesting that Arab rulers have engaged their people in a golden bargain, where the people trade off their citizenship entitlements and democratic rights in exchange for the rulers providing welfare, safeguard national integrity, and/or stability. Unfortunately, no Arab ruler lived up to his side of the golden bargain.

That is probably why both Ben Ali and Mubarak failed to convince their protesting youth with the warning that chaos will follow their fall. With decades in power, both have been so detached from reality and could not see their countries survive without them at the helm. Neither was the king of Bahrain successful in his attempts to dissuade his opponents from going ahead with their day of rage on February 14. The royal decree issued a week earlier giving a royal makrama (benevolence)of one thousand Bahraini dinars to every Bahraini family, sounded pathetic to the people seeking dignity,not handouts.

The second are the assertions on ‘Arab exceptionalism’. According to this notion, strongly entrenched within Western Academia, Arabs are culturally incapable of adjusting to the prerequisites and implications of modern statebuilding.

Furthermore, Arab culture is inherently opposed to fundamental ideals of modernity and prerequisites, such as democracy, universal equality and human rights. Arab cultural traditions, including Islam, are the solid grounds on which rest the legitimacy of autocratic patrimonial regimes.

Arabs, similar to people globally, are not enslaved by cultural constructs that condemn them to endure opression, violence and autocracy. In fact, the current revolts have been brought forth by their foremost common cultural denominators, Arabic language and cultural symbols. These factors have facilitated the protests from Tunis to Manama.

Events in Libya, Yemen and elsewhere in the region may prove that the Arab Tsunami has signaled a new era in modern Arab history, one that may facilitate the rise of a new and modern Social Contract in the region. An era created by popular will and sacrifice.

Read more  in the same issue:
The Arab Democratic Revolution,  by David Hirst

Mobilization Of The Egyptian Youth, By Ghanem Bibi

The Threat of Popular Protests in Iraq, by Raad Alkadiri


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