What is it that drives ordinary Arab men and women to do extraordinary things, like demonstrate against their government for 12 months non-stop, at the risk of being killed every day? I have heard many explanations for the ongoing Arab uprisings, but one of the best and most succinct explanations I heard at a seminar on Arab youth unemployment this week in Beirut, co-sponsored by the International Labor Organization (ILO) regional office and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation of Germany.
ILO regional director Nada el-Nashef captured one of the most complex but important dynamics that underpins the ongoing Arab uprisings when she said that to learn the lessons of the past 16 months of populist citizen revolts across the region we must better understand “the nexus between unemployment, poverty and inequality” that defines the lives and attitudes of so many young men and women in the Middle East. That may sound like an obvious and slightly clichéd statement, but it strikes me as profoundly important for touching the heart of the malaise that had driven millions of Arabs to revolt and revolution.
She touched the critical emotional center of gravity of the Arab uprisings that are more striking in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen today than even the overthrow of the Tunisian, Egyptian and Libyan governments last year, because of the sheer magnitude, danger and longevity of these continuing protests. What kind of mindset is it that drives men and women of all ages — not just unemployed youth — to go out into the streets of Syria, Bahrain and Yemen to peacefully protest their sense that their government is treating them with disdain, inequality and injustice, when the demonstrators know very well that their chances of being killed or tortured are relatively high, compared to other nonviolent protests around the world?
What is this indomitable force that sends Arab men and women into the streets for ten, eleven or twelve months in a row, braving death, defying arrest and degradation, shattering their own humiliation and vulnerabilities? Is this courage? Is this desperation? Is this reckless political romanticism? Is this their affirmation as the antidote to their marginalization and powerlessness over decades of centralized autocratic rule? How do we explain this willingness — no, more than willingness, this determination — to risk one’s physical life in order to bring about a better quality of total life in the political, social, economic and psychological realms?
In a few days it will be 15 months since demonstrators took to the streets of rural Tunisia to challenge police brutality during protests that followed the death of Mohammad Bouazizi. Defying death, still the demonstrators take to the streets, and find ever more effective ways of organizing themselves, serving their communities, and documenting the demonstrations and the brutal regime responses.
It will take time and plenty of serious research to fully understand that underlying motivation that causes otherwise ordinary and unexceptional human beings — fruit vendors, shopkeepers, teachers, farmers, taxi drivers — to persist in this extraordinary feat. One thing already is clear. Men and women who are mistreated by their own government for years on end go through a linear process by which they move from irritation, anger and indignity, to humiliation, to defiance and protest, to open revolt, and finally to full scale national revolution. That critical path from listless, deprived subject to empowered, assertive citizen is sparked in large part by the combination of phenomena that Ms. el-Nashef captured so succinctly — unemployment, poverty and inequality.
These three attributes capture the critical dimensions of a citizen’s life that usually balance out each other to maintain social order. A poor or unemployed person does not automatically revolt from those conditions, if he or she feels there are opportunities to improve their condition; but if they are poor and are also subjected to continuous and structural mistreatment and discrimination, they will ultimately fight back to regain their humanity and live a normal life.
Citizens who experience poverty and inequality together suffer deprivations in their material needs (food, schooling, health care, housing) alongside denial in their political or psychological needs (being able to take care of themselves and their families and act to improve their living conditions). If this condition endures for years, a human being loses his or her humanity, and turns into a mere vegetative organism — until that moment when the humiliation and degradation become too much to bear, and the conscious human spirit fights back, demanding the full rights and attributes of the human condition in its modern form — the citizen of a sovereign state.
When and why that moment strikes — and how it strikes millions of people simultaneously across half a dozen countries — must be a high priority for those researchers and analysts who now focus so much attention on the continuing Arab uprisings.
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 © 2012 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global
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