Monday, March 21, 2011

Arab Spring: Shifting Sands, Convulsing History

During the Egypt uprising, one reporter after another repeated the same mantra: the barrier of fear had been broken. And yet, once Mubarak stepped down and the media eye moved elsewhere, that mantra has not been heard nearly as often.

However in the month since Mubarak's downfall, there is ample evidence that the barrier of fear has indeed been broken. Along with that loss of fear, other walls have come tumbling down: of shame, false pride, hypocrisy: as Egyptians stormed the offices of secret police, people re-lived their torture, keen to explain and share.  They stepped inside torture devices to demonstrate the pain and humiliation they had experienced.  Men who had been raped as part of the ritual shaming by secret police spoke of their ordeals, often with heart-breaking humour mingled with awe-inspiring strength.  Young women detained, sexually assaulted and tortured by the Egyptian army have recorded and publicized their testimony in the past month, a cultural shift that is nearly cataclysmic in its symbolic and narrative worth: the shame is not of the victims but of the torturers who thought that rape and sexual assault can brand women as whores!  This is a courage of no small order!

The barrier of fear has also been broken in other parts of the region: Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, Iraq, even the brutally oppressive Saudi Arabia and Syria are seeing unrest by ordinary people with extraordinary courage. The penalty for demanding basic human dignity by these young protesters is the use of tear gas, nerve gas, and even live ammunition at the demonstrations.  Moreover, the regimes are institutionally well-entrenched, identifying the key protesters and leaders, hunting them down, arresting, torturing and killing them beyond the eyes of the cameras.  That makes even the reporting of these protests and human rights abuses by the regimes acts of courage that few of us can begin to imagine.

As an aside, and once again, it is important to point to the involvement of women in these movements. And no, none of them fit the western feminist paradigms although they do echo many of the earlier (pre-colonial) traditions of women warriors and leaders in the region itself.  They are indicators that  it is time for new paradigms, and not only for nonwhite, non-western feminisms!

New paradigms are needed not only for feminism, but also for definitions of statehood, political franchise, strategic relations, political and cultural narratives.  We are in the midst of historic times where none of the old models and certainties can hold.

So what next?

It is obvious that the Arab Spring is not about to come to a standstill.  Despite media warnings and ponderous, well-paid analysts from big name think-tanks, these movements do not look to be dying down. Yes, Bahrain is being brutally crushed by a combination of sectarian political tactics, Saudi and GCC troops, and the regime's own mercenaries from Sunni majority countries. Yes, Libya has gone into armed conflict and international (some would call it western as if the UNSC resolutions and Gaddafi's killings of civilians never happened) intervention. Yes, Saudi and Syria appear to be brutally suppressing their own uprisings.  And yes, Yemen at the time of writing this has lived through a Bloody Friday and moving towards a coup or regime change (only time will tell).

Yet none of the events unfolding fit the currently existing theoretical and political models: Hamas and PL both cracked down on the youth demanding a united Palestinian front. Syrians are out in their thousands to demand change even as Vogue writes glowing articles about the dictator's "democratic" home and fashion plate wife (Hang on to that issue: it will be the equivalent of a praise piece for Marie Antoinette for our times; a true historic artefact!)  Morocco's king seems to be trying to outrun the breezes of Arab spring while Oman seems to be veering madly between reform and deep regime freeze.  Saudi kingdom has once again tried to buy off its population, a measure that seems almost sure to fail.

However, despite the specificities of history, culture and circumstance, the region is tied by a crucial commonality: the fear of regimes seems to have melted. The youth - often educated, disenfranchised, yet politically focussed, are stepping up to demand all the same privileges many in the western world take for granted: security, rule of law, a voice in their own lives and future, opportunity and human dignity.

Of course, many are facing apparently unsurmountable difficulties: the regimes are heavily armed by western weapons, often supported politically and economically by western powers.  Many have deep financial links with the "new global elite" who have little interest in welfare or even fate of the common people. Moreover, for decades, financial and geo-strategic interests have generally trumped human rights. That - I have said before - has been a short-sighted strategy especially on part of the western nations who at least talk of human rights. It is understandably a product of centuries of colonial thinking on part of Europe and by extension the US (and in a limited way, Russia).  Now, with the first breeze of Arab Spring, the lacunae in that policy lie exposed.

There is no stopping the change occurring in the region. Although there may be setbacks, brutal crackdowns, even temporary freezes in the uprisings, we stand at the beginning of a long process of historic change. Most importantly, none of it is really controllable by foreign powers, regardless of their financial, political and military interests. Just as Egypt and Tunisia threw off their dictators by themselves, and are continuing to stumble and struggle on the path to political growth on their own, the rest of the countries shall do the same.

An intervention - as in Libya - may be of temporary help but it is necessary to note that even the opposition council there has insisted that they be allowed to make the change for themselves. This is a key factor to keep in mind: assistance will be welcome (as has been the case in Libya) but the old colonialist paradigm of "saving people from themselves" is a long buried ideal.

It is also worth noting that it is not only western states who are unable to grasp, manage and react to these historic shifts. As the UN resolution on Libya demonstrated, India and Brazil are too tied their own postcolonial histories to be able to see into the future.  Russia and China have also reverted to knee-jerk "west vs rest" divisions, driven of course by their own business and political interests, although these seem shortsighted.

Unfortunately, in not too far future, all nations will have to choose whether their strategic goals match the new realities emerging in the region.  This means emerging powers like Brazil and India will need to decide whether an instinctive anti-western, postcolonial reaction still holds strategic value, or should they attempt to bring their decisions in line with the emerging realities of the region.  Both will have to decide whether they want to play postcolonial victims or take their rightful place in the future as political and economic powerhouses, especially as the latter comes with great responsibility.

As Libya shows, international lines are increasingly blurred and the only real way out is to actually LISTEN to the people: this is a lesson not only for the dictators in the region but also the international community that has long listened to dictators, tyrants and tottering monarchies instead of the people.

In the long term, these convulsions of history are unescapable. They will continue - not on media schedules and not for the next few weeks - but into the next couple of decades as historic changes do!  At the end, those who put short term interests over long term paradigm shifts will find themselves on the wrong side of history.

What the international community needs to do is to find a fragment of the courage displayed by the common people of the region and just learn to let go of old prejudices and paradigms.  It is a brave new world coming our way and while those in the region must live through the convulsions of history at great cost to themselves, the least the rest of us can do is to face them and the changing reality with new models of culture, power, and narratives.