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    Humiliation and Legitimacy are the Bookends of Arab Discontent

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    As the ripples from the Tunisian and Egyptian popular revolts work their way throughout the Arab world in the months and years ahead, we should bear in mind two pivotal words that capture every important dimension of the process under way. The two words are “humiliation” and “legitimacy.” Like bookmarks at both ends of the process, they explain why the Arab region is erupting in revolts, and what needs to be done to satisfy people’s demands.

    They explain what has long ailed hundreds of millions of Arabs who have been denied their birthright as human beings, their citizenship rights as nationals of sovereign countries and their human rights as children of God and members of the human race. They clarify the abuses, crimes, distortions and stresses of the recent past that have finally driven young people to set themselves on fire in a desperate death cry, so that their surviving family members might have a better life; and that also have driven many more people to rise up en masse against their prevailing political orders. They also clarify the changes that must occur for the grievances to be redressed and normalcy to resume in these abnormal countries.

    “Humiliation” is the consequence of combined material and intangible pressures on ordinary people that include petty corruption, police brutality, abuse of power, favoritism, unemployment, poor wages, unequal opportunities, inefficient or non-existent public services, a lack of freedom of expression and association, state control of media, culture and education, and many other things. Ordinary men and women grow up in non-democratic societies feeling increasingly frustrated that they cannot achieve their own human potential, while simultaneously witnessing a small group of men and women in the ruling elite grow fabulously rich simply because of their connections, rather than their abilities.

    Young people in their 20s are especially prone to feeling humiliated, because they obtain increasingly mediocre educations and have more and more difficulty finding jobs that give them enough income to live decently, get married and start a family. They see in front of them an entire lifetime of stunted opportunities and stolen rights. When they try to speak out against the unfair and corrupt practices that define their societies, they are prevented from doing so by police and security agencies that tell them what they may speak and what they may not speak in public.

    This trajectory of events pushes them into a path of sentiments that start with irritation and inconvenience, grow to anger and resentment, and finally reach desperation and degradation. The end result is humiliation so severe that it causes young Arab men and women, like their elders, to enter into a condition of dehumanization. In being treated as something less than human by their own society, along with the pain caused by decades of invading foreign armies and Israeli colonizers and siege-masters, these Arabs become less than human. Animal-like, they react instinctively to protect themselves and to regain their humanity.

    The revolt we are witnessing across the Arab world is not about ideology; it is about biology. It is mostly about men and women who, so brutalized by their own domestic powers and by foreign powers, demand above all to assert their fundamental humanity. That means their right to use all their human senses, and not be denied any of them; to read real newspapers and magazines; to discuss issues in public; to express and hear a variety of views; to associate with whomever they wish; to make and enjoy music or poetry; to think freely, debate, agree or disagree and propose ideas; as well as to engage in other means of affirming their humanity, which their leaders have sought only to stunt.

    “Legitimacy” in the public realm is the antidote to the humiliation that the state and society, and foreign powers, have inflicted on ordinary Arab men and women who have been largely denied the substance of their humanity and their citizenship. The changes that young and adult Arabs now demand in their societies are anchored in a powerful need for legitimate governance structures that can replace the fraudulent and corrupted ones that have reigned for many decades. Legitimacy is a simple but overpowering concept that requires public governance institutions and decisions to reflect the will of the majority, while also protecting the rights of minorities.

    The two most critical elements of legitimate governance systems in the Arab and Islamic lands are accountability and a sense of justice or equity. These can find expression in many textures and shades, including most importantly, in Arab lands, the historical concepts of Arabism, tribalism and Islamism, among others more modern. Constitutions, parliaments, electoral laws and many other such concepts can be devised in many forms, but they must be legitimate in the eyes of their people above all else, if our societies finally leave the dark tunnel of the modern Arab security state, with its stultifying, corrupting, mediocre legacy.

    Legitimacy leaves little room for humiliation, and opens the door to normalcy in both statehood and the daily life of ordinary citizens. As this historic Second Arab Revolt works its way throughout the region and rattles one power system after another, keep in mind the two central concepts of the humiliation that drives people to reclaim their total humanity at any cost, and the elusive legitimacy that must be re-established at the core of institutions and power relations in an Arab region that craves normalcy once again.

    Rami KHOURI
    The Daily Star

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