Misbah Ahdab, vice-president of the Democratic Renewal Movement, was invited to talk on October 27th, 2011 in Ankara, at a workshop on Turkish and EU support for the Arab Spring:
“The Arab world is that place on planet Earth where people have the least chances to be happy,” Lebanese historian Samir Kassir said in his reference book “Being Arab”. He adds, however, that “the despairing view of Arab thought and culture as permanently ensnared in conservatism and fanaticism has obscured several phenomena that could prepare a way out of the crisis.” These phenomena started to materialize on the 17th of December in Sidibouzid.
For years, one would have thought that voices of dissent in the Arab world were limited to Al-Qaeda and radical Sunni Jihadism on the one hand, and Iran-supported pro-“Resistance” groups on the other. TV appearances of leaders of these two forms of radical Islam attracted tens of millions of viewers. Yet, these groups brought neither popular mobilization, nor change or hope for Arab citizens living under tyranny.
Thousands of theological and ideological speeches had much less impact than one simple sentence: “The people want the fall of the regime.”
The Middle East has changed. Those who could only go to mosques, run by radicals in the 1990s, as the only available space for dissent, can now log on to Facebook, Twitter, and the Internet at large. I see this everyday in my city, Tripoli, lately dubbed as an Islamist stronghold. This movement is growing and unstoppable. The role of mosques has also changed. Instead of being the place where ideas are developed and inserted into people’s minds, mosques have become the locations where people, whose ideas were developed elsewhere, gather and connect with like-minded others.
These factors of tremendous hope should not hide the existential challenges the Arab Spring is facing, while in the making, and is expected to encounter in the next phase. We – in Lebanon – lived a spring in 2005. We failed at consolidating its gains. We know what works, what doesn’t, and the arsenal that powerful anti-change actors resort to.
Sustainable change, immunized against reactionary forces, only comes with a democracy that delivers; social and economic development, equal opportunities, jobs, and the hope of a dignified life. It is up to the new authorities and democrats to be frank with their people: change will not bear fruit overnight. People are ready to wait, as long as hope is intact and that a genuine, transparent effort is made to move things in the right direction.
Another critical challenge the Arab Spring has to overcome is the counter-revolution, objectively allying figures of the old regimes and well-funded radical extremist groups.
Counter-revolution forces have resorted to four techniques to destroy democratic gains:
1) They deny the existence of any change, to keep people trapped in the old paradigm of the fabricated struggle between the tyrannical regimes and radical Islam.
2) When this does not work, counter-revolutionaries try to strike deals with military transitional authorities, to maintain the status quo ex-ante as alive as possible.
3) They – violently – target democratic, civic activists.
4) They incite sectarian problems, exacerbating the fears of ethnic and religious minorities.
Some Arab states have been funding extremist forces, whether in countries currently witnessing uprisings, but also in other places like Lebanon, making it difficult for moderate – traditional and progressive – political actors to operate. Again, economic development is a fundamental answer to this problem. Money can rent deprived young generations as political mercenaries, but cannot buy their loyalty. I see this everyday in Tripoli.
Development is a necessary step, but remains insufficient if change actors do not provide convincing answers to the fears of ethnic and religious minorities. It is only when the legitimate fears are addressed that we can discard the fabricated ones. In words and in deeds, democratic advocates in the Arab world need to show they are building a civil, inclusive and merit-based state for all its citizens. In Lebanon, the forces that were fighting for liberty, sovereignty and independence excluded – intentionally or not – large segments of the population from their messaging and political alliances, widening the confessional divide in the country. We are paying the price of this mistake today. A revolution that excludes segments of the population, especially on religious or ethnic grounds, plants the seeds of its own demise.
Democratic systems should be home-grown, and made of locally available ingredients. Discussions around the Arab Spring have recently almost solely focused on the role and position of the Islamists in the uprisings and the post-revolution power structures.
Whoever wishes or tries to exclude them from the process is delusional. They have their place in building the future of their countries, alongside all other components of the society, according to the same rules of the game. They should understand though that people’s merit in a democracy is linked to their respect of the rule of law, not to their abidance to a certain interpretation of the religion. This is where Turkey’s role can be pivotal. The Turkish message – stemming from a successful experience – has an audience in the Arab world and among Islamist groups in particular. With such guidance, the sterile, yet recurrent debate on whether democracy is compatible with Islam will become void.
Even people who happened to support old regimes must have a place in a new, democratic system. We should not mix supporters of the old regimes, and figures of the old regimes. Those with a criminal record among the latter should be brought to justice. The others had a justifiable interest in the prevailing state of affairs. The message to these people should be clear: your rights and interests will be preserved as they will be for all citizens; we will not hold you accountable for privileges you previously held, but there will be new rules of the game, which we will decide democratically, together.
Only a widely-supported democratic government, with strong local and international backing, can then uphold one of the most important post-revolution responsibilities: reforming security apparatuses and educating future soldiers, policemen and officers on the principles of democracy, citizenship, protecting the state instead of protecting power. This cannot happen without generous, targeted, transparent and conditional financial and economic support from the international community.
Finally – and again out of experience – we need to warn our neighboring democracy activists against the risk of division, lack of vision and mismanagement. Any short-sighted approach, any inclination to create new corruption systems, any miscalculated electoral strategies will automatically transfer power to more organized but so much less democratic forces: rejuvenated former regime figures and/or ultra-conservative religious forces, even when mathematically, they do not represent a majority of the people. Sustaining democracy is at least as important as defeating tyranny.
Even though the bulk of responsibilities lie on the new democratic authorities in the Arab world, the international community, the European Union, and in particular Turkey, have a critical role to play in making these transitions a success.
A serious international commitment to fair economic exchange, along with investment in productive capacities and social development, hits two birds with one stone. On the one hand, local job-creating growth is highly needed to ensure a sustainable popular adhesion to democracy and to resist anti-change influx of money. On the other hand, it is a key response to migration pressure Europe struggles with internally. Investing in a democracy that delivers is a win-win strategy.
The international role in supporting good governance, through technical assistance, transparent and closely-monitored and evaluated aid, will give new democracies the means to thrive. Democracy goes well beyond elections. Electoral processes should of course be strengthened, watched and supported, but so many countries in transition failed because the international attention span did not go beyond election day. Building a credible trusted judiciary, reforming media laws, supporting the emergence of vibrant syndicates, overseeing modern security forces, widening the access to education. these are some of the numerous tasks ahead.
Strategically, a double schizophrenic approach must end. Firstly, how can it be any helpful to support democratic change in Arab countries, while nurturing in parallel strategic ties with regimes that are actively working to undermine that same change?
Secondly, while massive anti-Israeli mobilization in transitioning Arab states has not occurred yet, do not think this can last if the right-wing Israeli government pursues its rogue policies. Weakness vis-à-vis the Israeli government plays in favor of Arab state and non-state actors who have used the Arab-Israeli struggle as a pretext for staying in power. Don’t water their plant!
The success of the Arab Spring requires a comprehensive package: a strong internal commitment to inclusiveness and the rule of law; a strong Turkish involvement in containing extremist outbursts that might erupt; and an international support for reform that survivesthe setbacks that will inevitably pave its way. We need to move forward, and we need to do it quickly. The inclination to militarize popular uprisings, thus undermining their real change potential, grows by the day. Arab democrats have to act swiftly to connect with the people, show they care about their daily concerns and can do more than academic and conference-oriented speeches. The international community must overcome its hesitations and place its bet on the Arab citizen. As much as the fear of failure has historically turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy, today let’s act and fulfill the prophecy of hope and freedom.