On 27 and 28 October, the NCCR Democracy project managed by the University of Zurich, together with the Center for Comparative and International Studies at ETH, hosted a conference on the topic: “Transformation of the Arab World: Where is it heading to?” Adam Dempsey, Eveline Hoepli, Chantal Chastonay and I covered the event for the ISN.
The conference kicked off on Thursday morning with Roland Popp’s unscheduled presentation, “The Past as Prologue? Regional Dynamics and Revolutionary Trajectories in the Middle East.” Popp, a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at ETH and an expert in the international history of the Middle East, stressed the importance of looking beyond the unit-level to understand transformation. Citing the example of Egypt’s 1952 revolution, the fear of Arab nationalism it provoked in the other monarchies of the region, and Nasser’s subsequent isolation (which, as we know, ended up driving him closer politically to the United States), he argued that regional dynamics are essential to understanding many developments whose logic at first appears confined to individual countries. Wise counsel, no doubt, and of obvious significance for the remarks that would follow.
Young men and women have formed the core of the recent uprisings across the Arab world. Yet media outlets have often generalized coverage of the Arab spring and overlooked individual contributions. So the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs’ (FDFA) decision to invite six activists to its Annual Conference was an opportunity to hear the hopes and fears of the region’s youth. Their message was a mixture of genuine ambition, cautious optimism and concern for the future.
Despite recent clashes between Coptic Christians and the security forces of the interim military government, Egyptian youth remains confident that the ‘Tahrir spirit’ is alive and kicking. Confidence also remains high that genuine democratic change will happen and that upcoming elections will be free and fair. The Egyptian representative, Sondos Asem, also emphasized that relations between Muslims and Copts are generally good. While Islamists continue to grow as a significant political force, it is by no means guaranteed that they will eventually hold the reins of power. As a result, the Conference was told ‘not to fear the Arab spring’.
Libya’s Loay al-Magri offered a more substantive vision of the aspirations of the country’s youth. Demands have been made for the swift establishment of the rule of law with no ethnic distinctions. This should be accompanied by social and economic policies that review Libya’s education system, encourage vocational training, redevelop the commercial sector and revitalize the jobs market. It is also hoped that a full and frank exchange of ideas across Libyan society will result in similarly proactive foreign policies. It remains to be seen whether the recent death of Muammar Gaddafi will accelerate or temporarily derail these ambitions.
Perversely, it took a state of emergency to have Syria’s 48-year-old emergency rule removed. But although this had been a key demand of the protesters, the move is now seen as too little too late. In many ways, the situation is reminiscent of the events early February, when Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak’s vague promises of reform were only salt in the wounds of the crowds on Tahrir Square.
A state of emergency derives from a governmental declaration in response to an extraordinary situation posing a fundamental threat to the country. Too often, however, dictatorial regimes misuse such rules for self-serving purposes: they introduce unwarranted restrictions on human rights and civil liberties, neutralize political opponents or postpone elections. There has also been a tendency to maintain states of emergency long after the original reason for its proclamation has disappeared. The result is a constitutional dictatorship.
With the turmoil in the Arab world, it’s easy to lose track of where emergency laws still apply. Here’s a brief overview of some of the recent changes:
As new “days of rage” are announced across the Middle East and as the ‘Jasmine revolution’ spreads across the Maghreb and some of the most entrenched autocracies in the Middle East and Arabian peninsula, the word ‘revolution’ seems to be on everyone’s lips. Although the rest of the world, Europe included, has seen such people power-driven revolutions in the last years, this latest wave really caught the world by surprise.
How is it that decades of authoritarian oppression finally resulted in largely peaceful uprisings that are spreading like wildfire across the region? Did it come as a result of the Bush era’s democracy promotion ‘campaign’, as some right wing American politicians have argued (with just a little congratulatory tap on their own back)? Or should social media tools like Twitter and Facebook be seen as the true champions of this new media-driven process? Perhaps Julian Assange and WikiLeaks should get credit as revelations of the extravagant lifestyle of Tunisia’s first couple drove angry protesters to the streets in the very early stages of this collective Arab revolt against oppression?
Clearly the latter two both played into the complex equation that toppled the regimes of Ben Ali and Mubarak and has put many more regional despots under significant pressure to reform. Ultimately though the credit, and indeed responsibility as these revolutions turn into democracy-building exercises, lies with the people and the leaders of the opposition movements who were brave, daring and ingenious in the timing of the protests and in the way social media platforms and other tools from the handbook of peaceful revolutions were used to an impressive effect. The largely peaceful nature of these infectious uprisings has garnered a lot of praise from around the world, and rightly so. The jubilation on the streets of Tunis and Cairo was an inspiring sight when streamed on iPhones and computer screens around the world.
This is a new age of revolutions against oppression and a new age for global solidarity. The outcome of these revolutions may not yet be known, but there is no doubt that these past weeks have changed Arab and indeed world history for good.
Here are a few select publications from our Digital Library that provide context to these momentous events:
From Dictatorship to Democracy, a seminal handbook by Gene Sharp on how to conduct nonviolent resistance against autocracies and a manual that many Egyptian protest leaders cited as an inspiration.
The situation for Christians in the Middle East is difficult and increasingly precarious. From Morocco to Egypt and Iraq, they have come under pressure either from governments or from Islamic groups. The latest dramatic event happened this weekend, when a Christian church was attacked in Iraq by a group linked to al-Qaida, killing at least 50 people.
It’s worth reviewing the situation in some of the Middle Eastern states with sizable and historical Christian communities: