Friday, 14 January 2011

Revolution-tainment - the curious case of social change in the Middle East

The Arab League consists of 22 countries around the Middle East and North Africa regions. There are 22 governments with vested control over their populations. What diversity in societies and populations within the same bloc. Morocco and Kuwait. Saudi Arabia and Algeria. Lebanon and Egypt. Jordan and Palestine. Ok, scratch the last one. But you get the point. Each country has a uniqueness in its people, heritage, economy, size and more. Even when you look at the regimes in power you find diversity. Kings. Sheikhs. Emirs. Presidents. Sultans. Or in Libya's case, Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution. Over 300 million subjects - almost all without substantive input (mostly) in their governance. So when a corner or pocket of the proverbial Arab world reverberates with revolutionary fervor, the international media tries to ignore it, the local media will pretend like it's not happening, and the regional media will overdose. Tunisia and Algeria in January have ushered us into Revolution-tainment: the Arab world edition 2011; it's likely only going to be the appetizer this year.

When you think of the Arab world you likely might not be thinking of the Afro-Arab states of Mauritania and Comoros. You may think of Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority. More likely you might also include of Iraq (always a fan favorite). Out of the 22 countries in the Arab League, these five have had an electoral transition of the government. First off the Palestinian Authority is not really a country. It also failed in its transition (from Fatah to Hamas in 2006) as the non-country somehow split into two, with PM Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza and a Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad in the West Bank. However, the Palestinians have an ethic of democracy, which is supported by everyone unless it doesn't suit them (the latter case being the case quite frequently). Take then Lebanon. Most recently in 2009, the March 14 movement and its allies confirmed their hold on government in parliamentary elections. Yet it's not clear how democratic Lebanon is with the same names rotating power amongst themselves, and where the real power is held by the zuama or political leaders, which are their own absolute masters of their domain. How about Iraq? Elections under military occupation cannot yet count (i.e. 2005), but seemingly with the U.S. announcing its exit, Iraq held an open vote, there was a confirmation of Prime Minister Maliki; actually there wasn't, but after a short time of 'negotiations' (short time being 9 months, I guess pregnancy being taken as the benchmark) a government was formed in late December.

Then there is Comoros and Mauritania. Combined population of 4 million. So what about Mauritania? In 2007, Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdullahi won the election for the Presidency. In 2008 he was deposed in a military coup. The coup leader just won the recent elections last year. I'd have to say Comoros is really the hope. The small island nation had elections in 2006 and a new President was just elected (results verified yesterday). Lead the way Comoros!

Today, however, leading the way in the news is Tunisia. The sandwiched North African state (between Algeria and Libya, or the so-called Atlanta bloc (ATL - I made that up, but it works), was considered a very secure, autocratic secular state. In fact, the opposition was relatively non-existent in parliament and the media tightly controlled. Somehow, between mid-December and now, a trader in the market selling fruits and vegetables who was prevented by authorities from earning his livelihood, self-immolated sparking a month of demonstrations culminating in President Ben Ali's speech yesterday that he will step down - in 2014. YouTube videos (a must in any real or pseudo-revolution) have been circulating. Facebook is abuzz with black Tunisian flags (instead of the normal red) passing off as profile pics. The only thing missing is Tunisians to be given a color for their demonstrations (green is already taken by Iran, orange by Ukraine, rose by Georgia, velvet by the Czechs, cedar by the Lebanese, tulip by the Kyrgyz and so forth).

Meanwhile, neighboring Algeria, is also having some not-so-silent protests, mainly against unemployment. Is that what the Tunisian demonstrations signal? The start of a wider movement? Across North Africa? Across the Arab world? Is that even the best thing for the region? I called this article Revolution-tainment, because until now, this is what the movement has represented. The pent-up frustration in a suffocating political climate in much of the Arab world means that the movement in Tunisia and elsewhere are welcome reprieves; they provide escapes. Yet, until now, they are often movements without leaders. Causes without ideas. Diffuse not unified. In fact many Arab populations would not want to trade stability for what the revolution-tainers have to offer. Do people want to be what President Bush used to call 'free'? Sure, but freedom is a fickle thing. Are you free when you feel insecure leaving your home? Are you free when you vote, but your government is under the tutelage of a foreign power? Are you free when you can say what you want, but you don't have enough food on the table?

Yet, there is a hope that is held in large swaths of the region, for change. The revolution-tainers in Tunisia are at least doing something, bringing about something new - and people are excited, intrigued. It is not about the change of leaders - that's secondary in most places (well depending on what country). It is about a change in ideas. A change in governance. A change in the relationship between those governing and those governed. Tunisia has started 2011 with some food for thought, but the year will end with more. Perhaps in Egypt. Perhaps in Palestine. Perhaps elsewhere, but assuredly somewhere. Long live...

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