Arc of hope - Dr Maleeha Lodhi - Tuesday, March 01, 2011

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The writer is special adviser to Jang Group/Geo and a former envoy to the US and the UK.

The wave of popular uprisings sweeping the Middle East takes my mind back to a book I read some time ago. Published in 2009, the book’s portion on the Arab world would have to be substantially recast if it was being written today. The escalating public revolts that have toppled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, spread to Libya, Bahrain and Yemen and have unleashed ripple effects beyond, are remaking the region’s political map.

The book called the ‘Geopolitics of Emotion’ by Dominique Moisi offered a provocative but interesting thesis. In an age of globalization, emotions, claimed the author, have become indispensable to understanding the world we live in. Magnified by the media they both reflect and react to globalization and in turn influence geopolitics.

With these assumptions the book focuses on three primary emotions - hope, fear and humiliation - as they are closely related to the notion of confidence, the defining factor in the author’s view, in how nations and people address the challenges they face. From here Moisi argues that cultures of fear, hope and humiliation are reshaping the world.

He identifies Asia as the continent that has seized the economic initiative from the West and is focusing on building a better future and creating a culture of hope, understood as an expression of confidence. The US and Europe he says have been dominated by fear - of the ‘other’ and ensuing from a loss of national purpose.

The author argues that the Arab world has been defined by humiliation or the injured confidence of those who have lost confidence in the future. A combination of historical grievances, exclusion from the economic boom of globalization and experience of conflict has created a culture of humiliation. The author acknowledges that these cultures are not static and can change and be transcended over time.

If this paradigm is applied to the ongoing upheavals in the Middle East it is clear that they are pushing their societies beyond a stagnant present and an inglorious past to a hopeful future. The political ferment in many Arab nations reflects a spectacular effort to throw off a legacy of humiliation and reclaim national self-esteem and dignity crushed by decades of Western-backed autocratic rule. The uprisings have in fact generated a tide of hope as they are led by a restless new generation that is refusing to submit to the despair induced by an oppressive status quo.

In re-imagining a better future for themselves young Arabs are charting a course that aims to recover their national pride. This sentiment has been captured in several news reports about Egypt. One cited a young Egyptian who had helped organize the protests as saying he could not, at first, figure out what was missing for his generation until the success achieved by their movement. That missing element was pride, he said, that had now been restored. This liberation of the mind has been critical to being able to break free from the shackles of repression.

Portrayed for decades as nations whose people were quiescent and resigned to accepting the status quo, Arab protestors have been challenging this by demonstrating an unshakable resolve to shape their own destiny. They have refuted the notion that they are politically supine, incapable of responsible citizenship and not ready for democracy.

Some Western writers have been quick to proclaim that the Arab Awakening resembles 1848 (the French uprising that spread to Europe but eventually failed) or 1989 (a Berlin ‘moment’ which refers to the fall of the wall that divided Germany and triggered East Europe’s liberation from a collapsing Soviet empire). But it is neither. Given the role that modern communications - social networking and the Al Jazeera ‘effect’ - have played in mobilizing the protest and driving the ‘contagion’ across borders, this is a very contemporary, youth-inspired phenomenon located in the context and dynamics of Arab society that is setting its own trajectory rather than following somebody else’s path. The upheavals reflect the vision of a new generation and not a replay of Europe’s past.

The patronizing Western claim that the Arab movements are a triumph of Western values miss the point. The yearning for change, greater freedom and better lives are universal aspirations not the monopoly of a single culture. So also is the desire for self-determination that is motivating the Arab movements. Representatives of the homegrown protests have themselves rejected any suggestion that they looked outside for inspiration.

The demand for basic freedom is the common thread connecting the mass protests in different countries. In all of them the young articulated this aspiration and gave voice to the pent up discontent with unaccountable authority.

The youth bulge common to the Middle East - where more than half of the population is under 25 - served as the catalyst for the eruption of the Arab street. What has been called a networked generation, empowered by new technology, used the Internet, Facebook and Twitter to heighten awareness, rally and sustain the peaceful resistance. Modern real-time communication helped to expose the young to a wider world that they saw passing their country by.

While the movements and the factors behind them differ from one country to the other there are commonalities - prolonged authoritarian rule by dictators surviving well beyond their political shelf life being the principal one. Another is the peaceful, nationalistic and democratic character of the movements. The participation of women is also a common feature.

Political and economic stagnation and disenfranchisement, concentration of wealth, regime corruption, rising prices and unemployment especially among youth (estimated to be as high as 25 % in some countries) are among other similarities that contributed to creating a breeding ground for popular grievance and frustration. These political, social and economic conditions became increasingly unacceptable for a younger generation whose demand for an end to the old order and the right to choose their leaders animated the protests and resonated among people from all walks of life.

While it is much too early to conclude that the Middle East’s momentous events will fundamentally transform the region and go beyond just toppling leaders, a powerful dynamic has been generated for democratic transition in the region.

These developments have also thrown into sharp relief the decline of US influence in a region where for decades Washington placed security for Israel and the need for cheap oil above and beyond all other concerns and chose to ally with tyrannical regimes. The West failed to see the upheaval coming, trapped as it was in a flawed policy prism that saw autocratic client states as a bulwark against Islamic extremism.

Tom Friedman captured this opportunistic policy succinctly in a recent column. “For the last 50 years” he wrote, “America treated the Middle East as if it were just a collection of big gas stations... (The) message to the region has been very consistent. Keep your pumps open, your oil prices low, don’t bother the Israelis too much and, as far as we are concerned you can do whatever you want “.

The US has been reduced to a bystander by the chain of Arab uprisings and has since been scrambling to avoid being caught on the wrong side of history. Unmistakable in all of this has been the ebbing of its influence in the region. But America isn’t alone in losing ground. Its most implacable foe al Qaeda, also confronts the prospect of a decline in its appeal. The more Arab countries move towards accountable government and greater freedom the more the conditions and grievances which fed al Qaeda’s narrative will be eroded. Already al Qaeda’s call for the violent overthrow of Arab tyrannies has been rendered irrelevant - and rejected - by the peaceful protests that seek to achieve this aim by the assertion of people’s power.

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