Spring Always Follows Winter

Rami G. Khouri

BEIRUT -- One of the great misconceptions about the current revolts for freedom, citizen rights and human dignity that continue to spread across the Arab world is that they came as a surprise, emerging from nowhere, with no advance warning that Arab people had it in them to challenge their own power structures and security regimes. The truth is otherwise. Those who have been taken by surprise by this Arab Spring obviously were asleep during the Arab Summer, Winter and Autumn that came before. More likely, they simply did not make the effort in the past two generations -- since the 1970s -- to look beneath the surface of events in the Arab world to explore the sentiments of ordinary people. The Arabs and their states were defined by a series of one-dimensional caricatures -- anti-Israeli, anti-American, Islamic, extremist, violent, emotional, and corrupt -- that left no room for more probing, nuanced and accurate perceptions of the actual values of our societies and the sentiments of our citizens.
In reality, the Arab world since the 1970s has witnessed a non-stop litany of citizen movements that have unsuccessfully pushed, prodded and challenged their governments to transition from autocracy to democracy. The list is long, and includes numerous civil society initiatives, democracy and human rights movements across the region, more focused or specialized movements to promote women’s or workers’ rights, and thousands of journalists and academics who agitated for the same goals.
Professional associations in many Arab countries -- lawyers, engineers, doctors -- have long fought for greater rights anchored in the rule of law. When a brief liberalization moment occurred in the Arab region in the period around 1986-90, Arabs in their tens of millions flocked enthusiastically to vote or enjoy a more open press, revealing their pent-up demand for real citizenship. Business associations in recent years have pushed for reforms across the board, especially in education and the judiciary. Activists in Kuwait and Bahrain have spearheaded demands for more participatory and accountable governance in the Gulf region for decades.
Islamist movements emerged in the 1980s as the most important challengers of Arab state power, and in most cases were beaten down, jailed en masse, or forced into exile by the state’s security forces. The important thing to remember about Islamist movements -- the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, Egypt and Syria, Al-Nahda in Tunisia, Amal and Hizbullah in Lebanon, the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria and others -- is that they started in almost every case as local groups demanding more citizen rights and empowerment, better government and less corruption (alongside their criticisms of the United States and Israel in many cases).
One American scholar who has long studied Arab political economy that reveals the underlying power relations in society is former American University of Beirut President and Princeton University professor John Waterbury, who noted in a private communication a few weeks ago:
“Quiescence has never been a consistent feature of the Arab world. Citing only from memory, I note the following: cost of living riots in Casablanca, 1965, food riots in Egypt 1977; the Hama massacres of 1982 in Syria; cost of living riots in Jordan, Sudan, Algeria in the late 1980s; the Shi’a uprising in Iraq in 1991, the long-smoldering Islamist insurrection in Algeria after 1991, Houthis and others fighting the regime in Yemen, civil war continuously in the Sudan since the early 80s, the Lebanese civil war 1976-89, the Palestinians against the Israelis seemingly forever, and so on. We should not confuse police states with political docility. There have been at least three other civilian-led protest movements that led to real change, but not to lasting change. In 1964 and again in 1985 civilian demonstrations led to the downfalls of General Abboud and Jaafar Numeiry of the Sudan, leading to years of civilian government, until 1989 when General Omar Bashir seized power and remains in power. In the spring of 2005 a million mostly young Lebanese went to Martyr’s Square in Beirut and brought about the downfall of the Karami government and the withdrawal of Syrian military forces from Lebanon.”
Egypt alone in recent years witnessed the Kifaya movement that challenged Mubarak family rule, the Judges Movement for the rule of law, human rights and voter rights movements that included brave pioneers like Saadedin Ibrahim and the Ibn Khaldoun Center, the April 6 Movement that emerged from the 2008 labor strikes, the vibrant opposition press led by Al-Masri Al-Youm and others, and thousands of young bloggers who spoke on the web when they were not allowed to speak in public.
Such determined activism for freedom, democracy and the rule of law has occurred in almost every Arab country for the past two generations. There is nothing surprising about the hope of a spring that naturally follows the gloom of a long winter that in our case has lasted for decades. Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.
Copyright © 2011 Rami G. Khouri -- distributed by Agence Global