The Arab Spring is tearing down barriers; no longer are citizens afraid of repression. Many Arab streets are imagining new futures for themselves. Societies in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria are moving in tandem processes of self-rediscovery; the pace is slow and unsteady, but moving nonetheless. Alongside, the identity narratives of these societies are equally undergoing transformative processes.
Any group tells itself a storyline that defines its identity. These narratives include stories about the group’s history, ideas about their future goals and aspirations, their place in the world; they also include symbols that they identify with (geographic location, emblem, or dress code). They also help to define its enemies and friends. The narrative is malleable and its contents change over time - some are discredited or seen as outdated while new ones issue forth when the group decides to adopt them; yet a narrative is generally stable and changes slowly. This identity narrative contains historical experiences which the group generally agrees they have passed through, regardless of their accuracy, experiences which weave themselves into current events. Narratives are transmitted through oral exchange, the arts, literary works, music, and newspapers; they are also transmitted through state-run and influential institutions such as schools and history books. The governing regime, which controls state institutions and presides over a society, has an important input into the pool of national ideas making up the identity narrative. Moreover, a regime is supposed to develop goals and policies in pursuit of the society’s aspirations and to ensure these conform to its values; it is, after all, the executive body looking after that group/society.
Today evidence is accumulating to suggest that ruling regimes and their societies hold different ideas about who they are, what they want from their existence, and how they plan to get there. For decades, most Arab regimes denied their societies’ intellectual self confidence and originality by limiting the space for open debate and critical thinking. Indeed, many Arab intellectuals have seriously questioned the ability of the Arab mind to think critically and constructively, given this lack of space for such pursuits. As these regimes had discovered however, controlling a population does not always require force. Destroying a society’s sense of self worth can be achieved by manipulating the arts, newspaper editorials, published literature, and other mediums that help disseminate ideas. In the Arab world, cultural and ideational manipulation over time superseded policing and prisons as effective means of social control. In essence, exclusionary Arab regimes dominated their citizens by actively manipulating the contents of their society’s identity narratives.
In the midst of these current great social and ideational transformations, the question arises: who can help Arab societies develop clearer perceptions of their modern identity? What political systems, economic structures, and foreign relations would best serve these societies while according with their values? What futures do Arab societies imagine, and how can they be realized?
Arab societies do not lack the faculty for independent and critical thinking. But the exchange of ideas in the public sphere has been so absent in these years of insular governance. What we need to invigorate the public sphere is the help of intellectuals and civil society activists who can draw on lessons from similar global experiences in state-building, while introspection as a tool of self -discovery is being nurtured. But these energies are rare. Many thought it futile to start up a think tank since regimes were unwilling to listen, and instead opted for personal contacts. Lobbying by way of patronage is a global phenomenon, but it took on monumental proportions in the Arab world. Many independent intellectuals were silenced, or opted to throw their fortune behind foreign governments/parties. The general distrust of intellectuals on the part of Arab publics is understandable.
But today the scene is opening up for new innovative opportunities for innovators to galvanize discussion through media announcements, campaigns, and the arts. Their institutions can serve as a middle ground between policy-making centres and academia, and can also play host to independent researchers and civil society groups; in essence, they can connect the various strata of society in constructive exchange. They can encourage debates on what best serves the polity, learn from international experiences, and from our own earlier mistakes. They can nurture an aggregation of local energies to suggest practical policies. At least, they can be hubs for ideas to incubate.
It is clear by now that where the Spring has traversed and the rules of the political game have changed fundamentally (as in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya), a new threshold of inclusion and new public freedoms have been secured. Independent centres for aggregating and disseminating ideas and discussions (think tanks or other similar forums) would help in stretching such inclusionary practices to their limits. With the monopoly on information and free speech broken, such centres will help impose higher standards on the quality of what is being discussed in the public sphere. Today, there are some serious and tireless energies at work in many such institutions in many Arab states. They need help.
It is not a magical or impossible mission; it simply needs local financiers to invest in local potential. There surely is no lack of money across the Arab world; just as there is no lack of entrepreneurial spirit among the many who have accumulated massive monetary investments worldwide. On the technical side, the careful design of such centres (through endowments or allocated funds) can ensure that investments do not hold their recipients captive. At root, however, they demand an appreciation for the importance of the free exchange of ideas and dialogue with others who do not share one’s opinion. I wonder where in this vast Arab world are we going to see this momentum start to pick up?