Awe and History in the Arab Revolts

Rami G. Khouri

BEIRUT -- For those many honest people around the world who are perplexed by the variations and inconsistencies in so many aspects of the current citizen revolts across the Arab world, historical analogies may be a good starting point to understand the full dimensions and implications of the momentous current developments. In their ongoing revolts against police states and overly centralized autocratic governments, ordinary Arab men and women are compressing into a single moment their equivalent of perhaps the two most outstanding global historical movements of the past 300 years or so: first, the democratic revolutions that engulfed the world from their starting points in France and the United States in the late 18th Century; and, second, the global decolonization movement that swept much of the Third World in the mid-20th Century.
Each of those movements on its own was a monumental force for human and social transformation on a colossal scale, sweeping across countries and continents with an intensity that emphasizes how the powerful allure of freedom and sovereignty resonate so strongly in the hearts of people everywhere. It is impressive enough for a society to transform itself into a democracy, and it is equally moving to see entire countries rid themselves of foreign domination or control and achieve true independence. So imagine how awesome it is to combine these two great feats into a single dynamic -- which allows us to understand better the persistence, intensity and complexities of these citizen revolts.
Democratic revolutions and liberation movements across the world often lasted for decades, and usually included various forms of political violence, domestic turmoil, intense negotiations, trial-and-error policies, and in-fighting among dominant political groups or movements. Some transformations were stopped or reversed in mid-course; others persisted for a century or more until the fruits of change were finally made available to all citizens. In some of the world’s leading democracies, for example, women only obtained the right to vote hundreds of years after the declaration of statehood or the consolidation of nationhood: in 1920 in the United States, 1928 in the United Kingdom, 1944 in France and 1971 in Switzerland.
Genuine sovereignty and credible democracy often go hand-in-hand, but often also occur sequentially, as we witness in Russia, China and East Asia in our time, where democracy evolves slowly in eminently sovereign lands. A critical third element that can accelerate or retard these two great phenomena is economic development. Prospering societies with a credible dose of social equity (Switzerland, Norway, Canada) will enjoy more vibrant democracies than stressed, poor and polarized lands (Yemen, Kenya, Pakistan). These all occur simultaneously in the Arab revolts across the region today, as men and women who struggle for their freedom, democracy and true sovereignty also have to cope with the drag of hollowed economies and corrupted bureaucracies.
This is why I and many millions of other Arabs are in absolute awe of what ordinary men and women are doing in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and, to a lesser extent, in other Arab countries where the struggle for democratic sovereignty is less intense. These people are simultaneously trying to achieve in a few months what leading Western democracies and independent states around the world needed decades, or even a few centuries, to achieve: to remove the oppressive weight of an authoritarian elite or foreign influence, reconfigure and re-legitimize the institutions of national governance, expand the base of national decision-making to allow all citizens to feel that they have a say in how their country is run, and revitalize economic growth while paying attention to basic social equity issues.
The triple dictates of national sovereignty, democratic constitutionalism and equitable and sustainable socio-economic growth create demands that are beyond the capabilities of even the most advanced and stable societies. Arab countries, on the other hand, must address all three of these enormous and important issues at the same time, when they all lack the experienced human talent needed to get the job done.
I know that awe is not a sufficient reaction that can contribute anything useful to the great feats being achieved by courageous men and women in Libya, Syria, Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen and other Arab lands. But awe is my initial spontaneous reaction as I watch what is going on all around me in the Arab world, where once pacified, ossified and dehumanized Arab men and women squeeze into a matter of months their own struggle to enjoy the epic global human triumphs of the past three centuries -- democracy, freedom and national sovereignty. So if you notice some contradictions or inconsistencies in events around our region, or you are skeptical that the citizen revolts will achieve their aims, this would be a good moment to look back in world history and appreciate that Arabs are finally claiming their place in that awesome but messy saga. 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