Several Arab countries these days are having to adapt to the fact that many of their citizens are legitimately angry at the government for a variety of reasons, and those citizens want to express their grievances in a way that achieves some results. How Arab governments respond to citizen protests is likely to become a more common challenge to ruling authorities in the years ahead, as socio-economic conditions deteriorate slowly in many Arab countries, disparities worsen, and the existing political system does not provide credible or effective mechanisms that allow for meaningful citizen protests or adequate government responses.
Two specific examples of questionable government responses are on display these days in Egypt and Lebanon, two countries that are as different from one another as any two countries in the world can be. Yet the security-focused responses of both governments to citizen discontent include tactics that repeat similar moves by many others around the world, usually with limited or no positive results in those other lands. I refer here to the Egyptian government’s policy of destroying homes and other buildings in northern Sinai in an effort to quell anti-government protests and armed attacks, and the Lebanese government’s new fascination with concrete walls as a means to stop demonstrators from reaching certain places in central Beirut.
While both tactics are understandable to some extent and in some circumstances, they both represent short-term stopgap measures that seek an elusive security response to what are essentially political and socio-economic grievances than cannot be resolved by security measures. Similar situations pertain in other Arab countries, like Iraq and Algeria, where demonstrations take place on and off, at national or provincial levels, as citizens increasingly despair at ever being treated fairly by their state or served efficiently in the realm of education, health, and other basic needs.
The Egyptian and Lebanese examples, very different as they may be, are also symptomatic of the fundamental political problem that is masked by the short-term security measures: the apparent inability or unwillingness of major portions of the prevailing power structure to sit down with non-violent protesters, discuss the grievances at hand, ascertain how widespread those grievances are in the population, and find ways to resolve the problems that have man-made solutions because they are all man-made problems.
The prevalence of dysfunctional political governance systems that lead to such situations is not new; most Arab countries have seen their citizens suffer increasing hardships and disparities in daily life needs such as water, electricity, affordable housing and public transport, without a serious response by their government. This leads to situations of greater tension and sometimes violence, because the inadequate government response sees the problem of disparities in services then escalate into a much more volatile problem of citizens who are angered by the fact that their government does not treat them with respect, but rather, in their eyes, with disdain and contempt.
The Egypt situation is the clearest, and also the most troubling for its regional ripple effects. According to a new Human Rights Watch report, between July 2013 and August 2015, Egyptian authorities demolished at least 3,255 residential, commercial, administrative, and community buildings in the Sinai Peninsula along the border with the Gaza Strip, forcibly evicting thousands of people.
The report noted: “Extended families who had lived side by side for decades found themselves dispersed, forced to abandon the multi-story houses they had built next to their relatives and passed down through generations. Some families became homeless and lived in tents or sheds on open land or in informal settlements. The Egyptian authorities razed around 685 hectares of cultivated farmland, depriving families of food and livelihood and stripping most of the border of its traditional olive, date and citrus groves. The evictions scattered families among the Sinai’s towns and villages and in some cases as far as Cairo and the Nile Delta. The Egyptian government has indicated that these evictions could continue.”
The demolitions policy seems to have failed, since it has been paralleled by a steady increase in attacks against Egyptian security forces in the Sinai and also government office and officials in Cairo.
The Lebanon situation is different, with less violence by both sides; yet we should not expect a very different political outcome from the policy of building walls to prevent peaceful demonstrators from reaching certain symbolic locations—like the parliament that represents the people. The demonstrators will choose other targets and tactics, while they and other citizens will be further outraged by their government responding to their calls for serious reform by putting concrete walls in their face.
Situations like those in Lebanon and Egypt require deep discussions among citizens and their public officials that address the serious grievances that have been put on the table. Home demolitions and concrete walls represent the most severe antithesis of serious political engagement, and from experiences in other countries they are likely to aggravate the tensions at hand, rather than dampen them.Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright ©2015 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global
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