The contagious spread of democracy in the Arab world in 2011 was truly amazing and heartening. It aroused a huge wave of hope and solidarity across the globe. So great indeed was the empathy, particularly with young Tunisians after the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in December 2010, and with the courageous Egyptians who went to rally at Cairo's Tahrir Square, that we almost forgot how long it takes to built a functioning, let alone a solid and resilient democracy.
At the outset, the surprise factor only enhanced the feeling that we were witnessing an epochal, seismic change: a historic breakthrough comparable to the "fall of the wall" in 1989. Egyptian and Tunisian friends told me later that only foreigners were surprised; locals, they said, had seen it coming.
This mordant comment on Europe's failure of political foresight also revealed how far we had been lulled by the clichés propagated by our unimaginative, security-obsessed politicians. Arabs, they intoned, "were not ready for democracy"; hence, "good governance" and "stability" were the real objectives the west should encourage. In this mindset, Ben Ali was regarded as an example of secular good governance and Mubarak as a key pillar of the middle-eastern architecture of peace!
The western official view is all too reminiscent of the scene in David Lean’s orientalist epic Lawrence of Arabia which shows the eponymous British adventurer (played by Peter O’Toole) striving to rouse indolent Arab tribes and to organise them against the Ottoman occupier. The film depicts Arabs as an inchoate horde, fatalist and powerless in the face of destiny. "Everything is written", a tribal elder says.
In this respect the still unfolding events of 2011 deliver two lessons. First, they are a sharp reminder of what revolutions can and cannot do; in particular, that the overthrow of an oppressor is but the first step (though, as Syria’s tragedy shows, itself far from the least demanding). The road will indeed be long and tortuous.
Second, they are a definitive challenge to the view of Arab peoples as fatalist. For empowered citizens across the Arab world have this year confirmed what wiser observers always knew: that here as elsewhere, human agency - expressed in a desire for justice, a sense of solidarity and a shared purpose - can move mountains. And if these three qualities are very much alive in the Arab world, so too are they in Latin America, in India, and in many other countries of the "global south" where people still engage in politics with passion and hope.
A force unconfined
The world, in sum, seems to have turned upside down: human agency is marching in the Arab world, whereas in Europe it seems largely moribund - at least among politicians rendered catatonic under the invigilating eye of new financial masters.
From the outside, Europe's wonderful democratic architecture looks much the same. It is, after all, a sophisticated edifice based on centuries of social struggles, difficult negotiations, mediated compromises, concessions, adaptations and incremental improvements - a masterpiece of social coexistence, researched, distilled, theorised and generously offered to others as a model!
Indeed, the façade is still shiny, the lights are on, the elevators are working. Europeans still vote governments in and out, and governments to a degree still listen to the voters - within the new reality both have managed to create. But it is only the great inertia of Europe's institutions that keeps them running, for the fuel has been long since exhausted.
The institutional nexus will continue to operate on autopilot until a critical mass of citizens realise that the king - "democratic government" itself, in the form it has arrived at - is naked, and then oblige it to stop running and expose its private parts. That will be a moment of truth for both sides, when they come to terms with a strange situation wherein governments had renounced the power that people had democratically bestowed upon them, yet only by managing to convince the voters that this is in their best interest.
This magician’s trick will be the subject of analysis for years to come. How did citizens in a democratic environment willingly give up their leverage with their elected representatives, and accept the transfer of their power to a headless, shapeless, capricious genie called the "global financial market"?
This genie is now out of the bottle. It must be obeyed, fed, pleased, propitiated. To gain its confidence is the primary task of governments, as all citizens are urged to understand. This means mature workers surrendering their pensions; parents paying more for their children’s health and forgetting about sending them to university; workers understanding that they are worth what the market says they are, and not a eurocent more. When the market says: "you are junk", please understand, there is nothing to be done - under this or any other government!
The genie is insatiable and invulnerable. Each time it is hit by modern laser-beam weaponry (austerity plans, European summits, IMF statements...), it is back in a microsecond - like the monster in the classic science-fiction movie Forbidden Planet - with the dreadful mantra: "I still have no confidence".
In that film, the thermonuclear reactors that conferred infinite force onto the monster were buried deep in the subconscious of a jealous father’s sick mind. Today's European equivalent is fed by the mind of powerful people who decided - and, again, managed to convince many among the powerless - that human society can thrive only if and when individual greed is satisfied instantly and at the maximum possible rate.
Taming that monster, rebottling that genie, is a precondition for democracy's survival. It is a task as critical as ending the single-party monopoly across the Soviet empire. Though we may not be ready to realise that in 2012. At least, not quite yet.