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The Middle East’s Slow-Motion Revolution

AMMAN – There seem to be a thousand and one interpretations of the changes sweeping across the countries of the Middle East and North Africa. One response that is often heard is a note of cautious optimism, captured in US President Barack Obama recent speech at the State Department when he referred to the “promise of the future.”

But sometimes we also hear the populist smears that have been applied to the Middle East for so long that nothing, it seems – no amount of extraordinary change – can silence them. After the successful revolts in Cairo and Tunis, the slanders abated. Soon, however, the old messages depicting the Middle East as extreme, fundamentalist, and hostile to democracy began to re-insinuate themselves in the West.

On the other hand, ordinary men and women in the West seem to feel an instinctive sympathy toward their counterparts in the Middle East and North Africa, many of whom are paying the ultimate price in fighting for their rights. These sacrifices have convinced many Westerners that the Middle East is not beyond redemption, and that the region’s people should be given a chance to enjoy the same liberty that they do.

This clash of perceptions has caught the world’s policy experts and analysts off guard. That, too, is not surprising, because the situation remains an amorphous mix of hope and destruction.

But today, in Amman, as in almost every Arab capital, independent meetings and debates about how to move forward are taking place in art galleries, think tanks, salons, ordinary households, and, most significantly, online. A region often depicted as “backward” is debating its destiny both face-to-face and across social networks every second of every day.

Yet tweeting is no substitute for thought. Indeed, the events and personalities that have so far gained attention seem to fill the void where the declarations of freedom and treatises on rights – where the ideas – should be.

The result is the confusion that we now see. Contradictions abound. Governments across the region have been identified as the problem, and yet the state is being called upon to address a social and political agenda that has not yet been fully defined. We are seeing the birth of a more democratic spirit among the region’s peoples, but a corresponding sense of democratic responsibility remains underdeveloped.

No matter how influential new media have been, they cannot replace the need for a region-wide “manifesto for change” that all who seek freedom can embrace. Any such manifesto must address the two elephants in the room – Palestine and the price of oil – as well as the extent to which regional water and energy resources, now rapidly depleting, should be shared. (Here, I and experts from around the world have been calling for the creation of a Supranational Commission for Water and Energy to ensure the kind of sustainable resource management that the Strategic Foresight Group has labeled “Blue Peace.”)

Of course, generating ideas is easier said than done. By limiting free speech and forcing millions of young people to stay at home without jobs, the only public space left for many people happens to be virtual. Arab governments switched their people off, so their people migrated online. The result is that an old guard now confronts a new wave, and the two sides think entirely differently and speak at cross-purposes.

Whatever the new wave’s limitations, its borderless online conversations are offsetting the region’s political, religious, social, and cultural balkanization. The people of West Asia and North Africa are talking among themselves, even if their governments remain remote. That is a source of hope, if not yet of the systematic and coherent ideas about how to remake their societies that the region needs.

Cyber-activism has its limits; it cannot, in the end, deliver either democracy or prosperity. Communication may be instant, but, with no coherent animating ideology, the revolution proceeds in slow motion. The battle being fought for the soul of the Middle East cannot be won online, nor can it be subdued through the cynical manipulation of trust and fear. The quality of freedom in the Middle East, as elsewhere, will depend on its supporters’ commitment to liberal and democratic values.