I have been in Jordan a few days and have been following events here and also in Turkey with continued fascination. The contrast between Jordan and Turkey could not be greater in almost every dimension, whether scale, governance systems, national and individual identity, economic performance, regional roles, or many others. Yet both countries simultaneously have been experiencing important social and political developments that reveal a reality that defines all the countries of the Middle East: The link between citizen and state is still being negotiated in almost every country in the region, even in those countries like Jordan and Turkey that have enjoyed relatively stability and improved living conditions for nearly a century or so.
The full impact of the sudden demonstrations across Turkey against the policies and style of the Erdogan government will become clear in the weeks ahead. Social media have given the world a more complete picture of events on the ground, along with high quality analyses by Turkish and foreign analysts that clarify the many reasons for the protests, in contrast with mainstream media in Turkey that have censored themselves shamefully.
In Jordan, three simultaneous developments highlight the parallel complexities, nuances and contradictions of developments that reflect the diversity of political attitudes in the country. These are the outbreak of recurring demonstrations and some limited violence in the southern town of Maan, the government’s shutting down of 300 news websites that did not comply with a new legal requirement for them to be licensed by the government, and the launch of a new initiative by King Abdullah, through the King Abdullah II Fund for Development, to promote democratic attitudes, values and practices among Jordanian youth. These developments mirror the inherent tensions between a desire to promote gradual, controlled democratization from above, and the determination of citizens at the grassroots level—whether tribal chiefs in the south or young bloggers everywhere—to assert their identities and their strong perceptions of their rights as citizens to live in dignity, and which they define in many different ways.
The loose parallels between events in Jordan and Turkey reflect the wider reality across the Middle East of citizens and states that have not fully defined their relationships through a social contract that both shape and see as legitimate. We see this in every country in the region, without exception, in Arab countries that suffer their own modern legacy of dysfunctional statehood and citizenship, and in non-Arab Israel, Turkey and Iran.
I am repeatedly amused and saddened by governments across the Middle East that react to citizen activism by claiming that any street effervescence that is not controlled by the government is the work of a small minority of thugs or foreign agitators, or is an inherent evil in the Twitter-sphere. A more accurate and mature view of street and digital activism would be to grasp that citizens are using every means of expression available to them to overcome what they see as exaggerated controls imposed by the central state authorities. Many legitimate grievances persist in the hearts and minds of hundreds of millions of citizens across the region, including in wealthy and strong economies such as in the Arab Gulf states, Israel or Turkey. Even well-off citizens who are deprived of their right to express their social or political views, or manifest their cultural or national identity, will insist on expressing their discontent in a peaceful way.
The issues at hand are always immediate, specific ones—removing some trees in a central Istanbul square, tribal quarrels at a university in Maan, police brutality in Cairo, heavy-handed legislative agendas by Islamists in Tunisia, tax policies in Tel Aviv, election controls in Tehran, and many others. These act as triggers to unleash much deeper sources of discontent that remain largely unaddressed and unresolved throughout our region, related to the common central dilemma: What is the relationship of power, identity, rights, and responsibilities between the individual citizen, on the one hand, and the state, its government, and its vast security services, on the other?
This is not a peculiarly Middle Eastern issue; it is a fact of universal statehood everywhere. Occasional demonstrations and riots break out in countries like Sweden, England and France, even, among citizens (usually immigrants) whose relationships to the state and its economy have not been satisfactorily defined. The difference in the Middle East is that the disgruntled citizens who have never shaped their social contract with the state usually make up a majority or a plurality of all nationals, rather than a small minority in isolated peri-urban poverty belts. Marginalization of small groups is a problem in Europe, while marginalization of the bulk of the citizenry is the problem in the Middle East.
So it is no surprise that every country in the Middle East is experiencing some degree of citizen agitation, from low-intensity demands for constitutional reforms to outright revolutionary revolts that overthrow governing families and elites.
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. You can follow him @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2013 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global
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