…avoid pessimism in watching Arab change
Navigating this period marking the two-year anniversary of the uprisings and revolutions that started to change the face of the Arab world, we are witnessing a dizzying array of conditions across the Arab countries: street demonstrations, clashes between groups of young activists and police, outright warfare, slow-motion constitutional transformations, the occasional assassination or bombing, elections and referendums, and recurring government crises. It is easy for the observer surveying this slightly chaotic regional picture to give in to pessimism and either to declare the Arab uprisings a messy failure or, at the extreme, to long for the old days of stability and quiet under President Hosni Mubarak and his fellow Arab autocrats. That would be an unfortunate and inaccurate conclusion, because beneath the surface reality of turbulence that occasional turns into violence or stalemate is a much more complex, time-consuming and hopeful trend.
The single most important common denominator across the entire Arab world these days is the grinding attempt by citizens to do two things simultaneously that they have always been denied: to write their own constitutions that define the exercise and limits of power for the state and the citizen; and the much more difficult task of agreeing on the nature of the nation-state, which can adequately respond to the identities and interests of different ethnic, religious and regional groupings of citizens who, for the first time ever, are now defining their state and their own citizenship.
These two massive challenges and goals – legitimate citizenship and coherent statehood – require complex negotiations among many different domestic players. This process is finally under way, but it is taking place in the midst of severe economic stress and lingering bitterness and distortions emanating from the excesses, thefts and crimes of previous regimes in most Arab countries, and often without stable transitional political institutions or agreed rules of the game.
So in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen the overriding political dynamic is a cacophonous and messy drive to find a workable balance of power among very different groups of citizens that define themselves by their ideological, religious, tribal, geographic or ethnic identities, not to mention the over-arching class tensions between poor and wealthy citizens.
In Egypt, we see many Christians and secular citizens who are deeply worried about the apparent attempt by the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government to shape the state, and its values and institutions. In Yemen, various groups like the tribal-ethnic Houthis in the north and many independence-minded southerners battle the central government to affirm their rights and interests. In Bahrain, many Shiites and other citizens challenge the state’s tight grip on power that they claim discriminates against them. Many Kuwaitis have spoken out and challenged the state’s manipulation of the election laws to ensure regime-friendly rubber-stamp parliaments. They are demanding a more equitable representation of all trends in the country and greater accountability of government spending.
Many other examples across the region reflect this need to agree over the common definition of the values and policies of the state, the relative powers of the central government and of groups of citizens in provincial areas, and the rights of all citizens. One of the most important but under-reported situations reflecting this valiant attempt at state configuration is in Libya. On-going discussions to shape the permanent political system have focused on the drafting of a new Constitution, under the aegis of the constitutional declaration and the transitional government that includes the elected General National Congress, the provisional legislature.
Many citizens in the eastern part of Libya around Benghazi agitated politically to change the formation of the constitutional drafting committee from an appointed body to a nationally elected one. These “federalists,” who fear the centralisation of power in Tripoli, have advocated for a major devolution of central government powers to the regions. So the movement toward full parliamentary elections and a permanent constitution in Libya has taken place slowly, because of the time-consuming requirements of achieving consensus among the main political actors at every stage of the process. Libya is a worthy case to study more closely, for like all other Arabs engaged in similar challenges, the citizens of Libya are defining their own country for the first time, without any previous experience in genuine political contestation, state-building, constitutionalism or pluralistic politics.
So let us be clear about what we are witnessing these days, as we move into the third year of this historic era of Arab self-determination. In Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya, we are seeing the most visible progress in and also severe stresses of indigenous state-building. Bahrain and Syria remain locked in a stage of battling against autocratic legacies. Other states such as Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco and Oman are on the first rung of low-key political agitation by citizens demanding meaningful reform rather than regime change.
The writer Director, Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, American University of Beirut. He tweets at: @RamiKhouri. This article also appeared in The Daily Star, Lebanon.