Arab authoritarian regimes are now being shaken to the roots or in the process of falling. So too are many fallacies about the people of the Arab world. For decades, these regimes have used the threat of Islamist fundamentalism to manipulate their western “allies”: either support us, or these extremists will bring other Iran(s) on your head. A fearful west decided to back the devil they knew.
The Arab street and its long-sidelined citizens have now exposed the hollowness of this claim, and in ways that have surprised almost everybody - the Islamists more than anyone. The millions of Tunisians, Egyptians and others who have entered the centre of their countries’ public life have delivered six especially salient messages.
The street and the world
The first and overarching message is that Arab peoples really have had enough of their dictators - and of those who propped up these dictators. It took decades to get to this point, but it has at last been reached.
The Arab state’s average lifespan in the post-colonial era is about sixty years, and for much of this period the new ruling elites were granted time and space to achieve state- and nation-building. In the early post-independence years, the overwhelming task was to align the new territorial entities with local identities along the inherited colonial boundaries - and, along the way, dissolve embedded pan-Arab sentiment. The rulers argued that that these strategic needs justified putting development ahead of democracy; some invoked the flimsy notion of “cultural specificity” to claim that democracy is inappropriate to the Arabs. The result was a model that entrenched security and authoritarian control.
In addition, the war with Israel was used to deride political openness and democratisation as a distraction from the Arabs’ principal cause alongside development. In the event, both projects failed. Instead of progress and victory, most Arab states - monarchies and republics alike - mutated into corrupt family businesses, surrounded by small opportunist cliques, all protected by draconian security apparatuses backed by an indifferent west. The corruption and malfunctioning spared no aspect of social, political and economic life. It had to end, and now it has, with a revolt of people no longer willing to be humiliated. They have declared the time-allowance for their rulers to create viable political and economic systems over.
The second message of the uprising debunks the rulers’ common cry that the sole conceivable alternative to them is an Islamist takeover. These are early days, but there is multiple evidence of momentum towards a third way beyond that locked binary. In Tunisia and Egypt, the leading force of the revolution is a new generation of educated youth whose brave actions have struck a strong chord across all strata of society and in the process bypassed the traditional (and ineffectual) opposition parties.
Their success in mobilising many members of the “silent majority” proves that millions of Arabs are fed up with both the status quo and any religiously-driven future alternative. The Islamists are certainly influential in the Arab world, including these two countries. But they are only part of the political scene; and they have so far shown a preference for power-sharing over power-controlling.
The third message is that the change heralded by these revolutions is not the work of any elite or any group promoted by a military coup or foreign intervention; rather, it is inspired and made directly by the people. The fact that the people alone are the legitimate parents of change gives confidence that the Arabs’ fate is finally in their own hands. The new era will be defined by the power of the people - not by any revolutionary junta or monarchical custodian acting in the people’s name.
The fourth message is that this widespread Arab protest is fundamentally political. The demands for jobs or better living conditions and jobs may be the catalysts, and are important in themselves, but political aspirations have soon taken the lead. In Tunisia, the leading slogan of the “jasmine revolution” was: “We live with only water and bread, but without Ben Ali”. In Egypt, the slogan “The people want to change the regime” expresses the same idea. People are not hiding behind modest and short-term demands, but want to change the political system as a whole. This is a dramatic and uncompromising shift.
The fifth message, which demands to be understood by ruling elites and their external backers, is that (superficial) stability based on armed security is no longer an option. This model might have endured for a lengthy period, but current events show that it does eventually implode. The west’s short-sighted strategy of buying stability while turning a blind eye to repression reveals the hollowness of its democratic values.
The sixth message is that the erstwhile free hand of authoritarian regimes (including Arab ones) is becoming palsied in a world interconnected by trans-border satellite coverage and social media. The waves of protest across Arab countries (as in Tunisia and Egypt) evolve organisationally on social media such as facebook and twitter; become visible on the street; and are then picked up and transmitted by satellite and international TV.
This makes the work of state-security, intelligence services and even the military very difficult. These institutions do not have the skills or the tools to suppress “electronic civil-resistance movements’. In face of massive unarmed determination, and under the world’s vigilant scrutiny, these security apparatuses and the regimes they protect are unmasked as paper tigers.