08 May 2011

Arab Spring: Really?

Ever since I read in high school history books that the French Revolution occurred because of the subversive ideas of Jean Jacques Rousseau and other luminaries, I developed a healthy suspicion, not to say aversion, towards such simplistic explanations.

I never understood why people think that ideas, by themselves, are such a formidable force. Ideas are meaningless outside of a specific context which makes them intelligible to the members of that society. I could scream Marxist ideals all day long in South Bronx, where presumably poor people should be receptive to such subversive notions, and I doubt that my efforts to propagate revolutionary ideas will get me more than an occasional insult or quite possibly a nice beating.

Or to use a little less vulgar example, the idea and principles of steam engine were known in Medieval Europe but they did not lead to the Industrial Revolution. It was only when these societies were transformed profoundly from an agrarian feudal economy to capitalism that the idea of a steam engine became meaningful and people realized that it could be used literally as the engine of industrialization.

Ideas are great but they need a specific context to achieve meaning and to become operational.

Hence my all-consuming preoccupation with context and my overriding axiom that there is no meaning without context.

In that sense, I am puzzled by commentators who state as self-evident truism that Arab societies had such yearning for freedom and democracy that the tragic case of Mohamed Bouazizi provided the necessary spark to start a revolution, the so called Arab Spring.

I don't mean to take anything away from the hundreds of people who died in these movements and the limited success achieved by their sacrifice. But if we focus on the context (instead of the power of ideas) we easily see that there are several obvious questions that undermine this facile explanation.

1) How come the same ideas and yearning for freedom which existed for centuries had no effect on Arab societies previously?

Is it even possible to discuss this without sounding patronizing? They never heard of freedom? Really? Unless we start with the premise that there is a western monopoly on ideas of liberty, this is an insultingly silly proposition.

2) If the yearning existed and if they obviously knew of these ideas, how come they never attempted this before?

As someone who is very familiar with the meta narratives in this region, to me, it is extremely simplistic to suggest that the suicide of a young man led to radical uprisings. And we are not talking about minor disturbances but rather major uprisings powerful enough to overthrow two (possibly three if we count Yemen) previously unchallenged and notoriously ironfisted regimes. This is a region where violent acts in general and suicides in particular are not infrequently occurring events. Nor are they taboo subjects so removed from the mainstream discourse that they would have a terrifying effect on national psyche when they surface abruptly.

In all these countries, countless people died in police custody, ruthlessly tortured and oppressed and suppressed in every imaginable way and  committed suicide to make a point to their family, their tribe or their community. Yet somehow the suicide of a young man was more relevant and effective than any other previous violent incidents. I find that very hard to believe.

The reality is that, members of these societies knew from past experience that any time they tried to register the slightest protest they risked prolonged incarceration and death.

So a follow up question should be "what was different this time around?"

3) How come of the three Maghreb countries the revolution began in the most open one?

After the fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia much ink was spilled to qualify posthumously his regime as corrupt and authoritarian and there is some truth to that. But it is also undeniable that compared to its neighbors Morocco and Algeria, Tunisia had certain attributes that made it more open and progressive.

Let me explain: Usually, when people talk about liberties, they mean freedom of x, y, z of men. If in a society such freedoms are given to men but women are prevented either by custom or by law from exercising these rights, the overall judgement about that society does not change and people qualify them as open and democratic. Iraq after Saddam is a good example of what is considered a nominally free society even though half of the population are now unable to enjoy those freedoms. There is a reason why the Beijing Declaration's most poignant battle cry "women's rights are human rights" is still being ignored studiously.

In the case of Tunisia, most liberties were tightly controlled by the state but Tunisia was unique among Arab countries in accepting gender equality by law (signatory to CEDAW), in allowing women to work, own property and travel without their husbands' permission and in actively promoting women's political representation. Moreover, they had a decent health care system accessible to 80% of the population and also reasonable welfare and social security arrangements. Freedom of the press was not much to talk about but it was certainly no worse than any other Arab nation.

By contrast, take the example of Algeria: the military backed government brutally suppressed a previous yearning for freedom (which, ironically, did not draw much support from the West due to its Islamist emphasis) and killed hundreds of thousand people.

Tellingly, no real protest took place in Algeria during the Arab Spring. Which begs the question: if ideas were that powerful and effective by themselves, why nothing happened in Algeria? And if Ben Ali regime was that authoritarian how did it go down so easily in a matter of days?

4) How was it possible that these "spontaneous" uprisings succeeded when earlier and much better organized Islamist revolts failed miserably?

Both Ben Ali and Mubarak successfully crushed any Islamist opposition to their regimes. In the case of the latter, Muslim Brotherhood was one of the oldest and better organized socio-religious movements in both Maghreb and Mashreq . How come, while he managed to destroy them without breaking a sweat, he was completely helpless when challenged by tweeting young kids with empty plastic bottles taped to their body?

When people tell me, these events show the power of ideas, I can only mutter incredulously: Really?

Which got me thinking: what if there was another way of looking at these events and tie them to a larger picture?

What if, indeed... 

No comments:

Post a Comment