Arab Exceptionalism

It has been eleven months since the Arab citizen revolts started in Tunisia last December and rolled through the Arab world in a wave that has manifested itself in different ways across the region. The two most striking things about the past eleven months are also slightly contradictory.

It has been eleven months since the Arab citizen revolts started in Tunisia last December and rolled through the Arab world in a wave that has manifested itself in different ways across the region. The two most striking things about the past eleven months are also slightly contradictory. On the one hand, in virtually every Arab country, street demonstrators–or less kinetic political protests in the form of petitions to the rulers–have persisted, with several common issues defining citizen demands in all countries: real constitutional reforms that define citizenship rights and the limits of government powers, and a focus on social justice in a new social contract between rulers and ruled. On the other hand, this contrasts with the very different regime responses and the trajectories of the political reform process across the Arab region.

Egypt is the most dramatic situation, as demonstrators and the aging martial old guard face off on the streets and do so again in the first round of elections this week, while the former president and his sons and cronies are in jail and on trial. Egypt captures the central ailment of the modern Arab world, which is the military’s dominance of public affairs. In Tunisia, though, a relatively smooth transition is underway that may see the birth of new ruling coalitions that include Islamists, progressives, new young activists, and some old-guard trade unionists and politicians.

In Yemen, that old snake of a soldier-turned-president Ali Abdullah Saleh finally worked out a deal to relinquish power without being held accountable, though street demonstrators remain skeptical of the deal’s transferring power to the opposition in a transitional period. The role of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries in mediating the agreement is an important precedent that may come back to find relevance in other beleaguered Arab states.

The most obvious case for similar regional diplomacy would be Bahrain, but this has been pre-empted in large part due to the Saudi-Arabian-led soft military intervention –a Hummer parade, really–that essentially annexed Bahrain to Saudi Arabia in strategic terms. Yet the Bahraini king called in an international commission of enquiry into the security services’ conduct in battling the protestors, and responded this week to its documented narrative of police abuse and torture against protesters by promising serious reforms. Whether this is sincere or not remains to be seen in the months ahead, but the process itself has offered one more intriguing example of how Arab countries can deal with their political challenges.

In Morocco, elections are being held this week for a parliament under new constitutional rules that voters approved in a referendum earlier this year. Morocco and Jordan are the test cases of whether Arab soft authoritarianism can pre-emptively avoid violent regime changes by making minimal changes that satisfy the citizens’ demand for greater rights and respect. The protests in these two monarchies lack the intensity that we have seen in Yemen, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya and Bahrain, but the grievances of ordinary citizens –on corruption, abuse of power, lack of representation, socio-economic disparities–are virtually identical to the rest of the region.

Syria is the most advanced example of a determined and strong regime that fights back against its demonstrating citizens, without being able to placate or stop the protests. The Arab League’s robust and escalating intervention in Syria is the most important new diplomatic twist to the current wave of Arab revolts. This follows the more guarded Arab League moves on Libya, which opened the door to Arab and international military intervention there. Syria also faces the danger of seeing some of its neighbors–especially Turkey and Jordan–providing safe havens for Syrian civilians, dissidents or military defectors, thus adding one more twist to the many different responses to the wave of revolts that we witness from regimes, demonstrating citizens and concerned neighbors or foreign powers.

These very different situations clarify that we do not have a single process across the Arab world, but rather a range of different conditions and responses that are defined by local political and economic conditions, strategic factors, and the relative legitimacy of the ruling regime. Egypt and Tunisia also affirm that democratic transitions will happen according to different timetables, with reverses and pauses here and there. Eleven months into this historic transition of a region that had been frozen for several generations, the common denominator across the entire Arab world, strikes me as both self-evident and irrepressible: Millions of Arab men and women repeatedly risk their lives to achieve their human and citizen rights, and face down and defeat strong and violent regimes that do not hesitate to kill thousands of their own citizens.

The awful modern legacy of Arab political exceptionalism in the world–of an entire region’s permanent authoritarianism, abuse of power, corruption, and lack of social equity and citizen rights–has now been challenged across the board, with common grievances and varieties of activism being met with a range of very different responses.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.

Copyright © 2011 Rami G. Khouri–distributed by Agence Global

Related Stories