My two cents on the Arab revolution sweeping from Tunis to Cairo, and hopefully beyond, published on the ABC’s Unleashed:
With Egypt on the cusp of a democratic revolution, it is clear to the world that the Arabs are finally having their awakening. This decade will mark a significant change to the post-colonial Middle Eastern order that has stagnated the region for much of the past century.
The Arab ‘street’, which has been sidelined in the political life of these countries by decades of autocracy, is about to take charge in determining the interests of their states.
As a generation of tweeters take to the streets of Egypt in a bid to oust their dictator, President Hosni Mubarak, it is fair to deduce that globalisation has at last reached the shores of the Middle East.
‘Arab exceptionalism’ no more
The democratic wave that swept through Eastern Europe, Latin America and parts of Asia post-Cold War failed to dint the authoritarian landscape in the Arab world. Rather, Arab regimes tightened their autocratic rule when the world was heading in an opposite direction.
Discourse on globalisation and development, thus, largely bypassed the Arab world. It became widely anticipated that the Assads, Mubaraks and Abdullahs of the region would continue their dynastic rule by gifting their rule to their progeny.
‘Arab exceptionalism’ was a phrase coined to normalise the region’s autocracy and lack of development, and justify the failure of globalised trends to penetrate the Middle East. Adherence to this perception of the Arab world blinded many to the realities on the ground, and consequently caused shock in the West and Israel when millions began pouring onto the streets of Cairo to demand Mubarak’s resignation.
Indeed, a week prior to the beginning of the Egyptian protests, Israel’s head of military intelligence Major General Aviv Kochavi was certain on the stability of the Mubarak regime.
Albeit dormant, the Arab ‘street’ was not totally immune to the effects of globalisation. Despite living in heavily censored states, young Arabs connected to the World Wide Web and discovered a means to challenge the status quo. Social media – a global phenomenon of Facebook, Twitter and blogging – pierced the tightly held information censorship bubbles of the Arab world, and enabled locals to air their frustrations in an open space.
Popular Facebook pages were up a week earlier informing Egyptians of mass protests, a date was chosen, a Twitter hashtag was selected, and before you knew it, tens of thousands were in the streets.
This is not to detract from the core elements of the protests. Indeed, like most revolutions, Egyptian grievances are found in poverty, unemployment, and a lack of freedoms. Social media and the internet, however, have provided Egyptians and Arabs with a means in which to communicate such grievances, exchange ideas, and aid in collective action.
Internet is for Arabs what cafés were for the French in 1789, an open space where aggrieved citizens can share their frustrations and work together towards an alternative. Social media did not cause the protests in Egypt and Tunisia, but it facilitated them.
The use of the internet and social media is not the only indication of the effects of globalisation on the Middle East. Protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan are all chanting the same demand: democratic reform.
A globalised ideal that has made its way to all corners of the world is now on the lips of Arab protestors. Liberal democracy – a concept championed by the US seemingly everywhere but the Middle East – has been touted as the preferred alternative to authoritarianism.
In an era where the West feared an Islamist takeover of the region, that protestors are chanting for democracy should be a sign of comfort. Islamism infers that Arabs are still exempt from the global system, and are opting to pursue an antagonistic form of governance. However, the calls for democracy in Cairo and Tunis demonstrate an eagerness from the Arab ‘street’ to join the global system, and begin to receive the economic benefits promised by liberal democracy.
Indeed, liberal democratic reforms also include a redefinition of a nation’s interests. Sovereignty in the Arab world has long been confined to the selfish interests of despotic ruling families. This proved much easier for the US to manage in terms of finding allies to support its regional interests, such as containing Iran and protecting Israel.
Democracy, conversely, bestows sovereignty onto the people, and thus – as we understand from our own democratic traditions – the national interest becomes a complex and fluid concept driven by altering attitudes within the public.
At present, the Arab public remains hostile to Israel, and ambivalent towards Iran, and this poses a short-term dilemma for Washington. Long-term gains, however, outweigh any short-term costs, with a democratic and developing Arab world moving with the globalisation process and not against it. The social and economic pressures brought by despotic, corrupt rule will alleviate, and radical religious extremists will have a smaller pool of frustrated, impoverished youth to recruit from.
Using globalised means of communication to promote a globalised political system, Arabs have proven that they are no longer an exception.