x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

A unique wave of revolutions poses unique challenges

As the Arab youth revolutions are showing, we should not fear change as much as we fear stagnation.

The Arab youth revolutions that led to the fall of Hosni Mubarak have not just been a challenge to one man of power, but also to an ideology and a kind of rule that has defined the modern Middle East: centralised systems of government maintained through military and tribal religious welfare frameworks.

However, this is not the first wave of revolutions to hit the region; the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s all witnessed revolutionary movements, against colonialism in North Africa and against monarchies in Egypt and Iran. It is sobering to view the systems that emerged in those countries following those upheavals. Revolutions should not be romanticised. They do not necessarily bring the type of change or type of life people imagined.

It may be too early to judge the long-term outcomes of the Arab youth revolutions, but they are undoubtedly different from those that preceded them. Notably, these revolutions were propelled by acts of civil disobedience free from nationalism, socialism or religion. And they were for the most part peaceful.

These youth revolts have ushered in an era beyond militant dissent. That's not to say that those who espouse the use of violence and terrorism will disappear, but an alternative in the shape of civil disobedience has been added to the Arab spectrum.

The youth revolts are also significant as the first real political milestone in the lives of Arab youth who represent the majority demographic in the Arab world. It is in a sense their moment of self-realisation.

The second significant feature of the youth uprisings is the message they transmit: if you don't like your governments you can change them by taking to the streets and getting online. We saw this idea spread like wildfire first in Tunisia then in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. This message has created legitimate concern for regional regimes and superpowers alike.

Revolutions bring great uncertainty, and in a region where seasoned and legitimate opposition movements are not allowed to exist, revolutions create power vacuums. Should these vacuums be filled by extremists, this could lead to additional layers of challenges for the region. To assume that these revolutions are strictly internal to those respective countries and that external factors play no role would mean ignoring centuries of Middle Eastern history.

One must acknowledge that there are extremist governments that seek to extend their influence and export their ideology. Neo-colonialism, energy and petroleum politics, the economics of the military-industrial complex, geopolitical power struggles and proxy wars are all parts of this "new Cold War" which is shaping the Middle East. Now Arab youths have added themselves as a component to be reckoned with.

Violent or sudden change is clearly not the desirable solution, but it is happening in some societies around us, and will not be avoided so long as the sociopolitical structures contain inherent flaws that lead to social discontent.

Amid the changes that we are witnessing, the greatest long-term safeguard for a nation is empowered citizens. People must be empowered through progressive education, progressive interpretations of Islam, an end of the welfare and rote mentalities that have plagued the region and the encouragement of an active civil society via business and social entrepreneurship.

In addition, we require empowered, independent parliaments that ensure harmony between the will of the people and the will of the ruling establishments. This allows a country to function like a family, capable of constructive debate and of withstanding current and future challenges.

We should not fear change and sociopolitical evolution as much as we should fear stagnation and circumstances in which citizens are not able to engage fully through legitimate platforms such as parliaments and progressive media and social media. When engagement is prevented, then extremist elements will exploit the frustrations that may exist among citizens, encouraging the growth of extremism in society.

We must not underestimate or discount the nature of each society, nor the history and traditions upon which its sociopolitical structure has been created. Trying to impose foreign systems or ideologies will only backfire. We also must not underestimate or discount the fact that human beings - whatever their religion, ethnicity or history - ultimately hunger for self-determination.

History will not remember us because we were called monarchies, democracies or republics. Our commitment to good governance - in the shape of an enlightened educated populace, effective progressive institutions, empowered independent parliaments, sound socioeconomic policies, independent judiciaries, the rule of progressive law, quality health care and above all the preservation of human dignity - will be the measures defining our place in history.

The time will never be "just right" for bold reforms, so the Arab region must take the initiative to do what is necessary.


Her Excellency Najla Al Awadhi is a former member of the Federal National Council