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Chaos in the Arab world


Years ago, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers crooned, "We got to get together sooner or later/ because the revolution's here/ and you know that it's right. " It could well be the anthem for the hundreds of thousands currently rising up against decades of authoritarian misrule in countries across the Arab world. The fragrance of the Jasmine Revolution - which saw Tunisians overthrow President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali - is spreading rapidly. Citizens in Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Syria, and Sudan, frustrated and tired of the autocrats who have driven their countries to the ground, are marshalling people power to reclaim a say in their collective present and future. While the discontent is still boiling under the surface in Jordan, Yemen, Syria, and Sudan, it has unleashed itself with unprecedented fury in Egypt, where demands for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak - the monarchist president whose corrupt, arrogant dispensation has served itself for three decades now - has reached a crescendo.

If democracy were about ordinary folks asserting their right to be heard and holding those who govern to account, then this wave of protests in the Arab world is a fine example of the construct. What's more, the mass marches and stakeouts by the mutineers - a large chunk of them are students who are younger than the regimes they want to overturn - have been peaceful exercises, not bloody agitations. Where there has been violence, like in Egypt now, it has been a consequence of orchestrated state high-handedness. It's more than a little curious, therefore, that the West, eternal champion of liberal democracy, is not as vociferous in its support of the multiple movements unfolding as one would expect it to be. Instead, we are hearing calls for "peaceful, orderly transition" - an euphemism for status quo. Transitions overseen by deposed dictators and their coterie are cruel jokes. They only ensure cosmetic changes, a little something that keeps more of the same intact.

The US, committed to fostering democracy worldwide, has come a cropper here. But that's not surprising. After all, in self-interest - economic and strategic - Washington and its allies have propped up despots for decades, in Chile, Iran, Egypt, and Pakistan. Understandably, morality and realpolitik don't make for good bedfellows. One of the reasons Western liberals are cynical about the Arab uprisings is the fear that Islamist fundamentalists will piggyback the protests only to establish their hold thereafter. It's precisely this strain of thought that betrays the West's hypocrisy visa-vis democracy: one rule for us, another for you.

Democracy from within, as defined and expressed by ordinary folks - not fundamentalists, elites, and foreign messiahs, alienating forces all - is the variety that stands a chance of survival. By all accounts, this current surge of opposition is not fuelled by extremist ideology. It is driven by citizens across the political spectrum - the religious right, the extreme left and the vast middle - who have simply had enough. Unemployment, poverty, corruption, and restrictions on personal freedoms rather than Islamist doctrine are at the heart of the matter. Even if there were radical elements involved, it makes eminent sense to engage them in a democratic dialogue rather than exclude them. In the name of promoting modernity and liberalism, the West has backed leaders without credibility in the Middle-East and this, in turn, has only helped fundamentalists gain ground.

Sure, there are legitimate fears about the outcome in Egypt and elsewhere: disparate sections of the opposition, united now against a common enemy, could fall out once the motive is achieved. Delivering on the promise of prosperity will be a tedious process for any new government, which could lead to further disenchantment among the masses. And there is no guarantee the rule of law and the rights of women and minorities will be honoured. But that is no excuse to stifle the millions of voices crying for change.

If self-determination is democracy's cornerstone, then we must honour its manifestation, even if we are not comfortable or conversant with it. A dynamic idea, democracy takes on different avatars depending on the circumstances and cultures it is located in at a given point in history. Remember, it was still called democracy even when women were denied suffrage.

Reader's opinion (2)

Amrit SinghFeb 10th, 2011 at 14:18 PM

Follies exist in all kinds of governance approaches, some might be more worse than others but there is not one ideal system. It is bound to undergo mutinies and revelutions sometimes even violent. System remains in an autocorrect mode but fluctuations in people dynamics force them out of trajectory

Narain BatraFeb 6th, 2011 at 19:26 PM

It’s true that “democracy takes on different avatars depending on the circumstances and cultures it is located in at a given point in history,” but there are certain indispensables for democracy including decentralization and separation of power, independent judiciary, free press, the rule of law, and not least free marketplace.

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