Dr Bassem Hassan
Two things are crystal clear. First, we are living through a truly historical and transformative moment in the Arab world today: a moment that will certainly shift the historical path of the region and consequently the world. After all, ever since a few thousand horsemen armed with a new ideology and the determination to spread it emerged from the Arabian desert to create one the largest, most enlightened and longest lasting empires the world has ever known, whatever happens in the Arab world has had deep repercussions on what happens across the globe. Second, these popular Arab revolutions are black swan events. No one predicted them and no one knows what they will lead to. Anyone who makes any prediction and ends being right, will have been right by sheer luck and pure coincidence, and not thanks to any piercing insight.
It is difficult to curb the excitement and the “I never thought I’d live to see this day” feeling when watching the Arab people, particularly Arab youth, rise against their brutal, and sometimes even insane, dictators and oppressive regimes with such fearless determination and exemplary courage. Many of us had dreamt of these days so much and with such futility that we learned to stop dreaming. Ten years ago, a handful of Arab youth, blinded by maniacal religious extremism into thinking that liberation comes through mass murder, caused most Arabs untold shame and despair. For ten years we Arabs have had to suffer the humiliation of being branded as terrorists by the rest of the world and as cowards by our dictators. And just when it seemed like all hope was lost, Mohammed Bouazizi the young poor and humiliated fruit vendor – literally – burned down the fear barrier. Shed of their fear, the Tunisian people opened the floodgates that are now sweeping all Arab dictatorships into the dustbin of history, where they belong. However, now that it seems like the fall of all Arab authoritarian regimes is a question of when, not if, it is perhaps it is time to start asking “what next?” Not predicting, just asking!
A revolution is a singular event; almost a singularity. It usually transpires in a relatively short amount of time and causes a seismic shift in the direction of a nation or society. In fact, when a revolution fails to occur swiftly, it usually turns into a civil war and/or protracted chaos, as had happened in Lebanon decades ago and may be happening in Libya today. In contrast, what happens after the revolution in terms of nation building and social transformation can be a slow, arduous and difficult process. Recall for example the years of tyranny, wars and upheaval that followed the French revolution, before secular democracy finally took hold. Arab societies today are not in need of reform; they are in need of rebuilding. Each and every Arab country today has had it’s borders created by it’s former colonial rulers and it’s political and economic system built and mismanaged by brutal dictators and their corrupt regimes. Illiteracy and poverty are rampant across the Arab world. The basic rights of women and children are considered a joke across almost all Arab societies and authoritarian, submissive, superficial and extremely irrational forms of religion (both Muslim and Christian) are the norm, not the exception. This is by no means a unique property of the Arab world. The secular democratic Europe that emerged from under the burden of the unholy alliance between absolute monarchy and a Mafiosi church was no different, and this should give us hope.
The new systems that will emerge in the Arab world will need not only to be responsive to the temporary aspirations of their people for increased political freedoms, but much more importantly, they will need to be responsive to their long terms needs. For there to be a new Arab renaissance the emerging systems will have to set egalitarian sustainable socio-economic development, universal education, women’s rights and the de-politicization of religion as their priorities. They will also need to bury another awful legacy of the departed dictatorships: the fear and suspicion of the other Arab! By way of simple example, today, I as a Lebanese, need a visa to enter Arab countries where any westerner can enter freely. The emergence of people power in Arab countries should result in the opening of the Arab world to itself. Just like the revolution spread across the barbed wire borders from the small remote Tunisian town of Sidi Bouziz through the now legendary Tahrir Square to the streets of historical Syrian cities, so must the development of the new Arab world. For we inhabitants of this beautiful and bountiful region are many peoples who share not only a common history, culture and language but also a common destiny. We have been very good at sharing our autocracies, suspicions and social and religious fundamentalism for over half a century. Sharing our freedoms, hopes, and cultural and scientific achievements should be far less of a challenge… and a far more pleasant exercise!