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By Professor Fethi Mansouri*
The Arab Spring, now entering its second year, was no random event.
Rather, it was a synthesis of many interconnected failings within the post-colonial Arab state system ranging from endemic politicalcorruption,to direeconomic stagnation and associatedsocial marginalisation of the masses to list just the obvious ones.
But revolutions, as idealistic and romantic as they may appear to be, are never meant to be quick and tidy events. Indeed, the Arab Spring from its beginnings in Tunisia on 17th ofDecember 2010 to its current manifestation in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere in the regionis exhibiting all the hallmarks of a highly unpredictable phenomenon driven by a combination of internal dynamics and external interests.
As we celebrate the first anniversary of the so-called Arab Spring, many trends and dominant features are starting to characterize this momentous socio- political event from the e rise of political Islam in variouselections and political jockeying, to theintensifyingideological polarisation of political and social debates tothe pressing need for economic recovery thatthe Arab masses are demanding and expecting.
The current developments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain and elsewhere are indicative ofthe heterogeneity of the Arab Spring and the need to avoidunhelpful generalizations.
Yetsome common instructive themes have indeed emerged that warrant closer scrutiny. First and foremost is the realization among the masses and political intellectual elites alike thatthe existing political institutionsand in particular the Arab state systems have lost their legitimacy and can no longer be sustained. The toppling of the ld guardsin Tunisia, Egypt and Libya is proof that the search for Arab democracy has gathered an unstoppable momentum and that meaninglesscosmetic reforms will no longer satisfythe genuine yearning for true and deep reform.
The fact that the old guards have lost all credibility is no surprise to most observers and analysts, butsuccessive failures to at leastdevelop the local economies, to reform the educational systems and to bridge the development gap has engendered a deep social and political malaise among their citizenry and especially young people.
A second common theme of the Arab Spring has been the absenceof any specific ideological ownership that could claim monopolise the revolution at the exclusion of all other political players. Andbecause of its ‘leader-less’ nature that the Arab Revolutions have had such a spectacular impact on the region and the world at large.
Their unpredictabilityhad caught the old guards by surprise but also ensured that even the emergingpolitical parties had to constantly play catch up to the Arab street and pay special attention to the genuine demandfor deep institutional reform that transcends the political sphere to touch the social, ethical, educational, and cultural domains. And perhaps this is why the Arab Spring is changing not only the domestic politics of the region but also its culture in a manner that cannot be captured by the mere organising of free and fair elections.
But, undoubtedly, the most compelling feature of the Arab Spring is the predominance of youth and women in kick-starting it and in ensuring its sustainability even as the new political class takes the political reign.
Two individuals who epitomise these two demographic groups are Mohamed Bouazizi the young Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire and ignited the Arab spring on the 17th of December 2011 and the veiled Yemeni political activist Tawakkul Karman whose sheer determination and clarity of purpose won her the 2011 Nobel Peace prize. Perhaps this is no surprise given that these two demographic segments of the Arab populace have been the most disadvantaged, marginalised and excluded from the decision making process.
But in the context of the Arab world with its ideological baggage and historical legacies of a largely patriarchal society, it is no easy feat for youth and women to demand a prominent, indeed a leadingrole in shaping political and social affairs.And this is where one of the key challenges of the post-revolution phase resides.
As the world celebrates the first anniversary of therevolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya respectively, many are starting to ask the question if indeed the heavy human cost and the high economic price are indeed justified.The answer to this question will depend on one’s perspective: if one places a premium on political reform and freedom of expression then the answer can only be in the affirmative; but if on the other hand security and economic stability are more important, then for those living in the here and now would probably have a different pronouncement.
But the real achievement of the Arab Spring can be found in the lasting images of the spontaneous gatherings in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Qasaba square in Tunis and similar public gathering spaces in Manama, Aleppo, Benghazi and elsewhere. The overwhelming message that the gathering youth conveyed in a unified voice was that it was time to end corruption and authoritarianismand embark instead on a much neededprocess to reform political, educational,judiciary, cultural and media institutions.
Theirs was a cry for dignity and legitimacyat a time when the old guardshad lost all forms of credibility. How well the region will cope with the many challenges brought about by these revolutions will depend among other thingson the nature of emerging political systems, the pace and success of economic reforms andmost crucially the competence and capacities of the new ruling elites.
Yet when all is done and dusted, the human cost, the economic price and all the sacrifices made in the pursuit of the ideals associated withthe Arab Revolutions will be well worth it if and only if real and lasting positive change can be attained. And the only judge of this milestone will once again be the Arab youth gathering in the many ‘Tahrir’ squares across the cities and villages of North Africa and the Middle East. Arab democracy’s hard labour may have just started, but it is well and truly entrenched in the psyche of Arab youth.
* The full version of this article will appear in a newbook titled‘The Arab Revolutions in Context: Civil Society and Democracy in a Changing Middle East’ (Isakhan, B., F. Mansouri & S. Akbarzadeh 2012, MUP).
* Professor Mansouri will be a keynote speaker at a forthcoming International Conference co-hosted by the University of Melbourne and Freedom Houseon ‘The Middle East in Revolt: the First Anniversary International’17-18 March 2012.