Monday, November 24, 2014

Revolutionary Patience

MADRID – On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. Within weeks, the popular revolt triggered by Bouazizi’s act had spread far beyond Tunisia, engulfing much of the Arab world.

In Europe, Ukraine and other troubled countries, such as Bosnia, began their long and still incomplete transitions to democracy a quarter-century ago. The Arab world, by contrast, has logged a mere three years of transition – the blink of an eye in historical terms. Still, there have already been significant changes, and the region is advancing – though the destination remains unknown. As in other parts of the world, Arab countries need time to attain the democracy and pluralism their peoples seek. They will achieve their goals – but not in a mere three years.

In fact, events in today’s Middle East continue to be shaped by the radical changes brought about after World War I. Previously, most Arabs had been grouped together under various caliphates. After the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, two nation-states (Iran and Turkey) emerged, while the Arabs were distributed among 22 new countries, generally under British or French colonial domination.

Once the colonies had achieved independence – Saudi Arabia, today a Sunni regional power, was created in 1932 – a new attempt was made to unite the Arab nation by means of the political Islam that emerged in the 1920’s in response to the fall of the Ottoman Caliphate. The phenomenon took many forms, including the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928. At the same time, efforts at nation-building along secular lines were reflected in Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabism and the Syrian Baath Party, resulting in the establishment of the United Arab Republic, a union between Egypt and Syria that lasted from 1958 to 1961.

A half-century later, the simultaneous revolts in the Arab world were the result of neither political tendency, instead reflecting broad popular rejection of dysfunctional and corrupt authoritarian governments. But, with Syria immersed in a brutal civil war that has claimed more than 130,000 lives already, Libya on the verge of collapse, and Egypt returning power to the army and proscribing the Muslim Brotherhood, Tunisia has been the only success.

Tunisia adopted its new constitution on January 27, thus clearing the way for what will be the most secular and fairest elections in any of the region’s countries. The new constitution is the most modern in the Arab world, the fruit of a non-violent transition. With a small, well-educated population, Tunisia has become the exception.

Egypt’s government, by banning the Muslim Brotherhood, has taken the country backward since the military coup that overthrew President Mohamed Morsi last July. The Egyptian process, however, should not be considered merely a return to the pre-2011 status quo; rather, developments constitute what could be characterized as an ascending spiral that, while turning back on itself, nevertheless advances.

The generational split within Egypt is evident: social mobilization has given young Egyptians valuable political experience, and this represents a key difference from the three decades of former President Hosni Mubarak’s rule. The same could be said of Syria, though the spiral there has been an unremittingly downward one, and any reversal remains blocked, particularly since the failure of the second round of peace negotiations in Geneva.

More generally, lack of pluralism and the inability to share power are holding back the transitions. With the exception of Tunisia, this can be seen to varying degrees in all of the affected countries. In Egypt, both the army – whether under Mubarak or Field Marshal Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi – and the Islamists have demonstrated that they want all power for themselves.

Political pluralism cannot be imposed. Societies must demand it and build the lasting institutions needed to preserve it. This process can take many years, making it crucial not to lose historical perspective. The situation in each country was different when the revolts began. Countries with homogenous societies, such as Tunisia, have suffered only minimal violence, unlike socially heterogonous countries, such as Syria. Nor are there any consolidated regional structures to which the transition countries can adhere; and there are few local models – with the exception of Turkey, for example – that can be used to help democracy and pluralism take root.

Indeed, the context in which these transitions were set in motion was – and remains –unfavorable compared to those taking place in Europe. Unlike the Arab countries, Eastern Europe and the Balkans benefited from a common starting point and a common path forward: all are part of a continent that has taken historic steps toward integration since World War II. That has given them a common destination as well, both politically (accession to the European Union) and in terms of their security (through NATO).

But the situations in Bosnia and Ukraine are still very fluid. Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and 23 years after the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the post-communist transition is still incomplete.

We cannot expect results in the Middle East in three years that have not been achieved in Europe in a quarter-century. Despite the backsliding in Egypt and the intolerable violence in Syria, the region is evolving at its own pace in a complex, changing, and unstable geopolitical context. A patient strategy and an unwavering dedication to pluralism are fundamental, whether in Kyiv or Cairo.

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    1. CommentedEdward Ponderer

      Like Mr. Hermann, I find the statement "..Countries with homogenous societies, such as Tunisia, have suffered only minimal violence, unlike socially heterogonous countries, such as Syria..." extremely troubling. It means that countries like Tunisia are not "success" stories--they are gently framed panes of glass awaiting the brick to hit. Europe's biggest economic and social problems come from the classic homogeneity of each, which globalization--forcing economic bonding with their neighbors, and a growing Islamic population influx/high-birthrate--has begun to shatter.

      Further, it is large homogeneity that allows its own home-grown Machiavellian power hierarchy to freely develop (even within supposed democracies, within the framework of an unholy alliance of money, politics, and mass-media "for hire"). Given homogeneity, there is now great advantage in scapegoating minorities or outside nationalities/cultures to move attention away from the actualities of the internal corruption. The most famous of these, the stereotype of stereotyping if you will, has been government-facilitated Antisemitism ("the socialism of fools"). It was used successfully for a while by the last of the Czars (including the fabrication of the infamous "Protocols of the Elders of Zion") to deflect attention from revolutionary fervor, and the rise of the German Nazi party (which initially, as the National Socialist Worker's party and prior to Hitler's rise within it, actually did not promote racism as policy). Given the powerful influence of German Nazism on the birth of Syrian Baathism, it was natural that internal tribal prejudices would be used as a power base. But more powerfully, and above all the internal schisms and particularly directly in the Nazi model, was the use of the more general homogeneity through Antisemitism, the most powerful "common enemy" tool for securing power. Appealing to the fears and pride of pan-Arab nationalism and Islam, it would play a major role for the rise of Baathism and would be the model of choice for the monarchists and Islamists (over the internecine hatred between Sunni and Shiite--Islamic minorities as the Sufis, already largely eliminated or living in exile). Israel and the alien sounding term "Zionism," combined with ancient prejudice and the perceived threat of Dar al-harb reborn within the heart of Dar al-Islam, sparked the world's largest, multi-governmentally bankrolled, campaign of demonization that the world had seen since the Nazi era, cynically manipulating the hardships of the Palestinians as a justification to Western liberalism. The real threat, the real reason behind the campaign, however, was a too-close for comfort, working model of secular democracy.

      To return to the general principle, it is exactly the largest blocks of effective national/cultural homogeneity that establishes the most entrenched hierarchies of power, and the greatest antagonism -- both of intrinsic national/cultural egoism and artificially exaggeration --to perceived foreign influence/threat. As globalization will evermore make this "influence/threat" imminent, there is a catastrophic explosion waiting to happen. If heterogeneous places like Syria are like atomic bombs that can be set off by the heat of dynamite, homogeneous places--while more stable like fusion cores, will lead to far greater devastation once atomic bombs elevate the heat to the point of setting off the fusion reaction.

      The temperature of friction from globalization is rising rapidly, and if we do not act intentionally to promote mutually responsible connections between individuals, communities, and nations over their natural egoistic hatreds--we heading for Armageddon. -- We are to late in the historic process to sit passively back an wait. We must act.

    2. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      There are multiple problems with what the article is suggesting.
      First I think the most important part of the articles is this:
      "..Countries with homogenous societies, such as Tunisia, have suffered only minimal violence, unlike socially heterogonous countries, such as Syria..."
      First of all how many homogenous nations are there in the age of mass immigration, and continuing historical inter-mixing, and recent political changes creating new countries based on other than tribal, national foundations?
      Moreover even in homogenous countries today there is a huge social inequality creating several isolated, hateful layers within those countries.
      So basically any country is a potential power keg that could explode any time soon, including the most stable looking, powerful countries since the global crisis continues and deepens, and extremist forces are on the rise.
      Trying to wait for history to sort out this explosive scenario could result in unprecedented suffering it seems we completely lost any sensitivity towards this, when we put such numbers in an article as 130000 lives lost in Syria for example we just shrug our shoulders...
      But waiting for the changes to happen by themselves could result in much worse, higher figures, decimating most of our human population given the amount of WMD all over the globe with itchy fingers over the buttons.
      Things can explode "out of nothing" much faster then 3 years.
      We cannot afford to wait, we need to start educating people right here and right now about how we evolved into a globally interconnected and interdependent human system, where any positive or negative change can reverberate across the whole of humanity immediately, reaching even the most remote places.
      We need to educate ourselves about the main and only reason why we cannot solve our problems, and why we seem to be running around in circles, repeating our historic mistakes again and again.
      And this root cause is nothing else but our inherently self-centered and egoistic human nature that can only be adjusted by a uniquely new, global, integral education program, with a complete change of the environment and its social values around us.
      We need a complete "operation software" change if we want to survive.
      In a global world there are no national or regional solutions, only total, global solutions.
      Only human beings are capable of such unprecedented self assessment and self-change, we are the only creatures who could adapt to evolution by free choice rather then by being beaten to it by suffering.

    3. Commentedtemesgen abate

      an oxymoron? such a``double -helical `` configured article bravely tried to make sense of the convulsions.