The Arab Awakening

The Arab Awakening

Throughout the Arab world, we are witnessing nothing less than the awakening of several phenomena that are critical for stable statehood.



When Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in rural Tunisia on December 17, 2010, he set in motion a dynamic that goes far beyond the overthrow of individual dictators. We are witnessing nothing less than the awakening, throughout the Arab world, of several phenomena that are critical for stable statehood: the citizen, the citizenry, legitimacy of authority, a commitment to social justice, genuine politics, national self-determination and, ultimately, true sovereignty. It took hundreds of years for the United States and Western Europe to develop governance and civil society systems that affirmed those principles, even if incompletely or erratically, so we should be realistic in our expectations of how long it will take Arab societies to do so.

The countries where citizens are more actively agitating or fighting for their rights—Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen are the most advanced to date—have very different local conditions and forms of governance, with ruling elites displaying a wide range of legitimacy in the eyes of their people. Governments have responded to the challenge in a variety of ways, from the flight of the Tunisian and Egyptian leaderships to violent military repression in Syria, Libya and Bahrain, to the attempt to negotiate limited constitutional transformations in Jordan, Morocco and Oman. A few countries that have not experienced major demonstrations—Algeria and Sudan are the most significant—are likely to experience domestic effervescence in due course. Only the handful of wealthy oil producers (like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates) seem largely exempt, for now, from this wave of citizen demands.

Two words capture every important dimension of the Arab Awakening: “humiliation” and “legitimacy.” They explain why the Arab region is erupting, and what needs to be done to satisfy popular demands. The typical Arab citizen, with few exceptions, has felt humiliated in recent decades by his or her government. Hundreds of millions of Arabs feel they have been denied both their human rights and their citizenship rights, the result of decades of socioeconomic stresses and political deprivations. These include petty and large-scale corruption; police brutality; abuse of power; favoritism; unemployment; poor wages; unequal opportunities; inefficient or nonexistent public services; lack of freedom of expression and association; state control of media, culture and education; and many other dimensions of the modern Arab security state. At the same time, ordinary men and women in countries across the region have seen small groups of families in the ruling elite grow fabulously rich simply because of their connections.

Young people sparked the revolt because they are generally the ones who suffer the most grievous consequences of the failed political order. They are unable to enjoy life’s full opportunities and rewards, in terms of education, work, income and material well-being. Millions of young Arabs took to the streets this year because they refused to acquiesce in either the legacy of stunted citizenship or the prospect of limited life opportunities. Their increasingly mediocre and irrelevant educations meant they had difficulty finding jobs that pay enough to live decently, get married and start a family. They saw in front of them an entire lifetime of restricted opportunities and stolen rights. When they tried to speak out against unfair and corrupt practices, they were prevented from doing so by police and security agencies.

Considerable polling data are now available to confirm this condition. The Gallup organization and Silatech in Doha, Qatar, have polled Arabs between the ages of 15 and 29 throughout the Middle East and North Africa, providing unprecedented insight into two important backdrops to the revolt: young people are strongly dissatisfied with their national conditions and personal prospects, and the concerns and fears of young Arabs are shared by adults across the region. Where significant differences occur, they reflect primarily the gap between largely satisfied youth in the few wealthy oil-producing countries, and vulnerable and fearful youth who are the vast majority of the region’s 350 million people. The 2009 data show, for example, that Arab men and women between 15 and 29 have a strong desire to migrate permanently in quest of a job and a better life; but this desire is very uneven. It reaches 40–45 percent in some countries, like Yemen, Morocco and Tunisia, but doesn’t eclipse 7 percent in the Gulf states. Just over half of Arab youth (55 percent) have confidence in their government (in poorer Arab societies it’s as low as 37 percent, while in oil-producing Qatar it’s 90 percent). Only 45 percent of Arab youth have confidence in their mass media, and even fewer (around 34 percent) believe their national elections are honest. Just 32 percent of young people feel they can find good, affordable housing, which routinely delays plans to marry and start a family.

The lives of many young Arabs follow a trajectory of sentiments that starts with irritation and inconvenience; grows to anger, vulnerability and resentment; and finally reaches desperation and degradation. Treated as something less than human by their governments, barely able to make a living and enduring the added pain caused by decades of invading foreign armies and, in the case of Palestine, Syria and Lebanon, Israeli colonizers and siege-masters, they have endured humiliations so severe that they can no longer endure it in silence or acquiescence.

The revolt we are witnessing is not about ideology. It is mostly about men and women who, so brutalized by their own and foreign powers, are asserting their fundamental humanity—their right to use all their human faculties; to read, speak, listen, think, debate, create and enjoy to the full extent of their God-given ability or desire, whether in culture, politics, art, media, technology or any other arena.

The structural political antidote to humiliation is legitimacy: a governing system that is anchored in the consent of the governed and is accountable to the needs, rights and aspirations of citizens. Public institutions and decisions should reflect the will of the majority while protecting the rights of minorities. The two most critical elements of legitimate governance systems in Arab-Islamic lands are accountability and a sense of justice, or equity. Constitutions, parliaments, electoral laws and other mechanisms can be devised in many forms—tinged with Arabism, Islamism, tribalism, cosmopolitanism—but above all, they must be legitimate in the eyes of their people if the societies are finally to emerge from the dark tunnel of the security state and its stultifying, corrupting legacy. Legitimacy opens the door to normalcy in politics and daily life.

The citizen with rights—the most basic element of legitimate statehood—is the first building block of the Arab Awakening. Mohamed Bouazizi inspired the mass protests that have planted the seeds for stable citizenship across the region—the spontaneous action of a single indignant and dehumanized person resonated widely and powerfully with millions of his compatriots. By sparking mass resistance and national transformation through his refusal to live in humiliation, he should be seen in the same light as a line of historic figures around the world whose self-sacrifice transformed their societies—Rosa Parks, Lech Walesa, Steve Biko, Václav Havel, Nelson Mandela, Andrei Sakharov, Aung San Suu Kyi—because millions of their countrymen and -women shared the same goals.

When hundreds of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets in January and February to remove the Mubarak regime, they tasted their first dose not only of individual empowerment but also of collective citizenship rights. When they returned to the streets in July, they reaffirmed their insistence on transforming their government so that it was more legitimate in their eyes, and reflected the two critical elements they felt were missing from the old system: accountability and social justice.

Egyptians and Tunisians, and all Arabs, as we will soon learn, do not want to see their fellow countrymen and -women killed by the hundreds without anyone being held accountable. This is what Arab regimes have routinely done; it is also what Israel has done in Palestine and Lebanon, and what the United States and other foreign armies did in Iraq in recent years. It is not surprising that these three—the corrupt Arab regimes, Israel and the United States—are the main targets of anger and indignity, because a central message of the Arab Awakening is that there should be no abuse of power or killing with impunity (only the domestic dimension of these sentiments is operational, with foreign policy issues to follow in due course). Behind this emphasis on accountability lurks an equally important concept that is central to the spirit of the Awakening: social justice, the critical but underappreciated philosophical underpinning of the new Arab citizenry.

Social justice is about removing structures that abuse and subjugate citizens and turn them into powerless victims of oligarchies and autocracies. It is about ensuring that public authorities reflect the values, and serve the needs and rights, of citizens. Egypt leads the way in this important new dynamic, in which millions of individuals have come together to demand that the authorities rule with the consent of the governed. In the Egyptian case, the citizenry are insisting that the transitional authority, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, carry out the key demands of the January revolution. For the first time, public opinion matters in some Arab countries.

The new Egyptian regime swiftly assuaged some grievances through moves to arrest, investigate and try former officials; dissolve Parliament and outlaw Mubarak’s National Democratic Party; and suspend the Constitution and write a new one subject to public approval. The beginning, in early August, of the trial of Mubarak, his sons and former officials was a powerful turning point in the Egyptian and Arab political psyche, because it reaffirmed the ordinary citizen’s trust in a system that held power accountable and put in the dock officials accused of abusing, robbing or killing fellow citizens. Less rapid progress has been made, though, on lifting the state of emergency; protecting protesters and holding police accountable for killing demonstrators; reforming the security forces; limiting executive authority; fighting corruption; and improving economic conditions for ordinary Egyptians. These issues resonate widely across the Arab world. How governments respond to them will determine whether societies make a smooth transition to democracy or street confrontations persist for some time.

Even as demands grow for these three building blocks of credible governance—the basic rights of the citizen and citizenry, and a legitimate state authority that is accountable to the people’s demand for social justice—we are witnessing the fourth element in the Arab Awakening: the birth of politics. In Tunisia and Egypt, citizens are directly contesting for power by forming groups that engage politically with other groups to define new state norms and policies. These include civil society organizations, religious movements, political parties, the private sector, military authorities, youth groups, labor movements, women’s organizations and many others. As this contest for and over power develops through a combination of means—parliamentary, electoral, judicial and media actions, as well as peaceful street demonstrations—it midwifes the birth of pluralistic, citizen-based politics. This contrasts sharply with the legacy of Arab decision-making, monopolized by ruling families and elites who depended heavily on foreign powers for their survival.

In countries where regimes have not been changed or descended into violent confrontations, citizens have in many cases forced the governments to engage them in dialogue aimed at reforming or reconfiguring the constitutional systems. If the changes that emanate from such discussions are deemed superficial, citizens will no doubt return to the streets to demand real change, as we have witnessed already in several countries.

These developments point to the ultimate issues at stake in the Arab revolts, the prize, if you will: national sovereignty and self-determination. The contest over sovereignty has been at the heart of the confrontation between citizens and ruling authorities since December, but it dates back decades. It is about who holds ultimate power, who is in charge of decision-making in the nominally independent Arab countries. Most national decisions in Arab countries for much of the past century have been made by small groups of unelected men who dominate the political elite with their security services. A widely shared public sentiment across the region is that Arab ruling elites have responded more to the dictates of foreign powers than to their own people. When decisions have been made internally, they have primarily carried out the interests of the ruling families and their cronies, or the security and military systems that were the ultimate powers. Nowhere in national decision-making did ordinary Arab citizens feel that their voices were heard, or that their rights and sentiments mattered.

Egypt is once again the region-wide test case of what happens at this delicate and probably decisive transitional moment. The demonstrators who returned to Tahrir Square and other city centers across the country in June and July, before suspending their protests for the holy month of Ramadan in August—and those who continue to take to the streets in Syria, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen—want to make power answerable to the will of the citizenry. Through the instrument of citizen sovereignty, Arabs are struggling to shed the ugly and embarrassing legacy of modern statehood, in which they enjoyed independence without real self-determination and citizens for the most part never had an opportunity to define national values, governance systems, ideologies or policies.

The Arab Awakening is in the first stages of creating a citizen-based sovereignty that values social justice and equal opportunity. It is an audacious quest, for Mohamed Bouazizi and the millions of Arabs inspired by him, just as it was for Rosa Parks and the civil rights movement in the American South.

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