For the first time since post-colonial independence, a genuine popular revolution has succeeded in bringing down two dictatorships in the Arab world and in such a spectacular manner that it has left most analysts and governments in the region and internationally literally speechless.
The revolution that took place on January 14 in the North African county of Tunisia and began in Egypt on January 25 has caught everyone by surprise; the so-called experts on theories of political change as well as Western policy makers.
I was in Egypt in December and also in Tunisia, my place of birth, during the first week of the revolution when the protests in the central province of Sidi Bouzid had just started. I didn’t expect that two weeks later these protests would become fully fledged revolutions that would oust the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes. These revolutions were as much surprising as they were significant both domestically and internationally.
The significance of these popular revolutions is that they refute Western arguments that the Arab people are incapable of achieving genuine political change through largely peaceful revolutionary means.
Their surprise element is due to the speed by which two feared pro-Western dictators, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, were brought down by spontaneous popular uprisings, largely divorced from opposition political parties especially in the case of Tunisia. The collapse of the political and social contract that existed between political regimes and the Arab masses, and which was based on political repressions in exchange for social benefits, meant the nature of the regime change itself is not simply limited to removing the dictators but a genuine desire by the masses to move swiftly towards free media, inclusionary political process and a transparent path towards democracy and human rights.
All of these are ambitious policy objectives, though their immediate full implementation is still being played out against the backdrop of fragile interim unity governments that have not attracted the full support of those demanding a clean break with the past.
But the repercussions of the revolution are also being felt regionally and internationally. The dominant discourse that prevailed when discussing the Arab world’s many failures at the social and political fronts was that the US-led West did not overtly encourage real democracy in the region for fear that this will eventually result in radical religious groups with anti-Western agendas seizing power as happened with the Iranian revolution of 1979.
Thus, the policy options were reduced to a stark choice between pro-Western dictatorship with varying degrees of corruption and authoritarianism or anti-Western religious radical groups who might ascend to power through democratic elections but whose social-political outlook is anything but democratic and modernist.
Another point that surely should not be lost on those seeking to bring about democracy to the Arab world and beyond is the following: we have witnessed regime change in the greater Middle East in two cases over the last decade, namely Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the case of Iraq, the direct military intervention to oust Saddam Hussein was problematic on so many fronts not least its lack of legitimacy; its unacceptable human cost and its excessive economic cost. Afghanistan might have exhibited more legitimacy given the Taliban’s support for Al-Qaida’s but it was no less expensive in terms of loss of human life and overall fiscal cost. In both cases, American and Western prestige and power took a battering across the region, a situation that will take generations to overcome.
Against this failed approach, the regime change in Tunisia and Egypt was achieved domestically through largely peaceful demonstrations armed with nothing more than courage, dignity and a mastery of the new technologies of social networks and alternative media. These revolutions show that real change in the region can be achieved and that this need not be necessarily the outcome of either foreign intervention, military coups or a power grab by religious radicals.
The scenario of Tunisia and Egypt, though has its specificities, has the potential to be replicated in many neighbouring countries as the current situation in Yemen, Bahrain, Algeria, Jordan and many other Arab countries would seem to suggest. Of course, the manifestations of change in each Arab country will play differently as there are context-specific realities that might engender particular course of actions and political outcomes for each country.
The West, and in particular the US administration, must now realise that it is no longer acceptable nor in is it its own national interest to turn a blind eye to the legitimate demands of the Arab masses for a more democratic governing system and a more equitable distribution of resources.
President Obama, in his State of the Union address, reiterated his support for the Tunisian people’s aspirations for democracy and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaking in Doha recently insisted that “the region’s foundations are sinking into the sand”.
This reinforces the already known truth that the real threat in the many fragile regimes across the Arab world is not so much Bin Laden’s demagogy but a deep sense of social alienation and political marginalisation. And a lack of any credible vision of meaningful reform by the ageing political leaders.
While the US and the Europe have started to signal their support for the Arab revolution, the real danger is that this historic moment would not be seized upon to press ahead with a broad reform agenda that restores a degree of faith among the Arab street that the democratic West will stand by their demands for a more democratic system of governance.
As the Tunisian and Egyptian examples show, the West need not worry too much about the alternative to the existing “stable” yet autocratic rulers: people power driven by a deep attachment to human dignity and freedom can be the best guarantee that the new governments irrespective of their political colours will only endure if they respond to the people’s demands for positive and inclusive agendas.
The West has a real stake in what is happening in Tunisia and Egypt today and must not fall into the same mistake yet again of misreading the situation and divorcing it from its socio-political context.
The US, France, the UK, Australia — all freedom-loving nations — should not be worried by this revolution despite its current fragile status during a period of significant change at all levels. Instead they should be heartened by the fact that countries at the heart of the Arab world succeeded in bringing about regime change through civilised popular revolt and with minimum violence and destruction.
From Australia’s perspective, it’s disappointing and indeed troubling that the Australian government, through its DFAT travel advice on Tunisia for example, chose to characterise what happened in Tunisia as an “internal coup”. It is anything but — the ousted president was brought down by real people power and without the direct intervention of either the army or any political opposition parties.
The fact that the speaker of the House assumed the presidency on an interim basis is dictated by the Constitution’s article 57 which also limits this period before presidential elections are held. The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, and indeed the current demonstrations in Bahrain, Libya, Yemen and beyond, are showing clearly that the Arab people’s hunger for the universal values of dignity, justice and freedom is no less potent than that of the Eastern European or South American people.
There is hope yet for the Middle East.
*This is an extract of a paper entitled Revolution in Egypt and Tunisia and the Prospects for Change in the Arab World delivered at Melbourne University last week