Turmoil and social unrest in the Arab world are entering their fourth year. Many of the issues that triggered the “Arabellion” remain unresolved, some even worsened and the region continues to be split by tensions between Sunni and Shia, secular liberals and islamists, and governments and civil society. Dr. Saleh Rusheidat, former Member of the Jordanian Senate and Beshir Abdel-Fatah, Editor-in-Chief at Al-Ahram Foundation took stock of the situation in the Arab world. Alar Olljum, Adivsor to the Managing Director for North Africa, Middle East, Arabian Peninsula, Iran & Iraq at the European External Action Service, completed the picture with the EU’s perspective.
Olljum recalled that a Tunesian once told him that he disliked the term “Arab Awakening. “It implies that we were sleeping,” the man had said, “when in reality, we were silenced.” Whatever label we attach to the events that began in January 2011, it is important to realize that they represent a paradigm shift: “It marks the turning point when the Arab people rose from being objects to subjects of history,” Olljum pointed out. So perhaps it was the EU that finally woke up. The EU, still in the midst of the financial crisis, shifted its strategy in order to support the nascent democracies in North Africa. With a system that focused on the “3M” – money, markets and mobility, the EU tried and continues to try to support democratization, economic integration and reciprocal exchanges. So far, the results have been mixed, according to Olljum, but “we don’t have the luxury to be disenchanted.”
Despite the hardship and disappointments in the struggle for freedom, the speakers from the region were far from being disenchanted: “The 21st century has been a loss for the Arab world, but the first uprisings three years ago marked a turning point in the history of the Arab people in their struggle for freedom,” declared Saleh Rusheidat.
In any revolution it is vital to move from the “revolutionary state” to revolutionary action, Beshir Abdel-Fattah added. This requires leadership and a vision, a programme for the subsequent changes in order to ultimately replace an autocratic regime with a democratic one. The main problem with the revolutions that followed 2011 was that there were no contingency plans. Rusheidat agreed saying: “The youth of the Arab spring recaptured the spirit of the Arab Awakening, calling for freedom, national unity, civil rights, democracy, social justice and economic progress. The momentum of civil society was, however, undermined by the pull between family and tribe, religious and ethnic affiliations. The dream of Arab unity has clashed with the realities of Arab divisiveness.”
Abdel-Fattah said a case study for this problem was Egypt, where liberal parties struggle from a lack of grassroots support, their lack of unity and organization cost them votes. The values and ethics of democracy have not translated into something tangible in society. Thus, people think they have to choose between military elites or Islamists.
The revolutions of 1848 across Europe were met with counterrevolution and hardening of authoritarian rule. The process of Arab transformation, just like the European version over 150 years ago, will need decades to mature and is dependent on three key aspects for its success: First, the transforming Islamist movements into democratic political actors. Second, resolving the sectarian division that currently promotes disrespect for diversity in any form, religious, political or cultural. Third, organizing and unifying Arab secular forces to strengthen the foundations of democratic reform, institutions and civil society. “Europe has a key role to play in helping to consolidate the positive aspirations of its southern neighbors,” Rusheidat concluded.
Foto credit: FNF Europe