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Because hope is now a waking dream
The Middle East has witnessed many a metamorphosis. None of them is as meaningful as the ongoing Arab Spring - especially for a sea of marginal Arab youth stretching from Sana'a to Rabat. Yet many, especially in the West, still appear rather sceptical about democracy's prospects in the region. This is facile. A radical new Arab democratic beginning has been made.
And do consider where it has come from. The Middle East of colons and Orientalists had British and French imprints all over. The Middle East of oil was 'trade-marked' in the 1950s by the 'seven sisters', the leading group of Western oil companies and tycoons. Then in the mid-1960 s and 70s, a new Middle Eastern chapter carried the signatures of Pan-Arabists and nationalists. 'Pages' that ensued soon littered the region with the fingerprints of military, clan and/or single-party autocrats.
Today, despite the Syrian miasma, the Yemeni impasse, and colossal challenges in post-Gaddafi Libya, the Arab Spring continues to unfold, bringing with it both confusion and hope where the darkness of misrule still prevails in large measure. At this historical juncture, the weighty question 'Middle of where, East of what?' refashions itself in the midst of sparks the Arab Spring brings to light, by provoking thought on a different question. This question regards the extent to which the Arab Spring places the Arab Middle East on the cusp of a 'democratic turn'.
A fledgling 'democratic turn' has already shaped an unprecedented learning curve stretching over nearly four million square kilometres that span diverse cultures and histories, affecting 100 million Arabs in three states - Egypt, Libya and Tunisia - and condemning to the proverbial dustbin of history a combined 96 years of tyrannical rule (respectively, 31, 42, 23) in these three main states that now make up the core of the Arab Spring's geography.
57 million people in these three states have thus been reconstituted as citizens. They are no longer occluded 'denizens'. In both Egypt and Tunisia, nearly 80 per cent of citizens who queued up for hours to exercise their right to vote were in fact participating in their maiden electoral exercise. Tunisia, birthplace of the Arab Spring, inaugurated such change in October 2011, by voting in the Arab Spring's first Constituent Assembly. And of the 217 members voted in;nearly thirty per cent were women, a significant upshot.
February's elections in Egypt - a sequel to a three-stage People's Assembly elections - resulted in the voting in of a Shura Council (consultative chamber). In the country's first real democratic elections, voter-turnout reached levels never recorded even in the cosmetic 'elections' routinely held by the Mubarak regime. A 100-member parliamentary committee has just been assigned the historic task of drafting a new democratic constitution.
The six-month stretch of electoral dynamism from Cairo to Tunis will see a short hiatus before the Libyans finally get their act together and go to the polls in June. The 'demonstration effect' of the Arab Spring's electoral fever is felt everywhere. Jordan, Yemen, Morocco, and even Syria, oddly enough, have had or are preparing elections. That aside, and more importantly, the threshold of fear has been broken by Arab people's power. New rules of political engagement are slowly evolving. These favour promising democratic reconstruction founded on civic cultures, compromise, Islamist-Secular power-sharing, and renouncing of extreme ideological posturing.
There are as yet no neat constructs of how to analyse these early elections. The quasi 'paradigm shift' brought on by the Arab Spring points to the potentiality of elections with democracy. That is, a reversal of elections without democracy, seen until now under the ousted or challenged political orders.
But this Spring needs time to flourish. And analysts must conceive of attendant 'democratic transition' as historically situated and flexible, while being nuanced and potentially subject, at times, to partial reversals.
There are onerous tests ahead. Trial and error is inevitable - but should be permissible only when not undermining popular sovereignty. Across the Arab Spring geography, there is vast panoply of possibilities: democratic futures in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya;and managed but upgraded reform in Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco and Yemen. Syria's dynasty may, however, get a reprieve of sorts, for now.
However, this must not be interpreted as permanency for the Asad dynasty, nor the end to the spiral of violence and counter-violence in Syria. Ultimately, the logic of the Arab Spring of 'al-sha 'b yurid' - 'people desire' shall prevail. Protest will persist until the challenges of social justice and levelling the playing field for Arab youth are addressed by newly-elected administrations.
What indelibly defines the Arab Spring is that peripheral popular power is returning the vibrancy of peoples' will to the centre. Mohammed Bouazizi's December 2010 act of self-immolation in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, ignited the Arab Spring, and with it a spectrum of possibilities that so far hint at a definite 'democratic turn' - a new Arab democratic kickoff.
The processes that constitute this 'democratic turn' will continue to blossom, notwithstanding much Orientalist punditry, of a looming 'Arab Winter. '
The writer works on processes of democratic transitions in the Middle East and North Africa at the University of Exeter, UK
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