Monday, January 31, 2011

Voices of Democracy: A Third Paradigm for the Arab World

Cairo, Egypt - 2005

We have been back from our trip to the Middle East for almost a month now, settled back into work and our daily routines of life in London. I mentioned in one of my posts on Lebanon about how quickly things can change in the course of only a few weeks and tonight, as I write, my words ring truer than ever before and I cannot stop thinking about the events that have unfolded and which continue to unfold to my greater surprise each day in countries that I have spent much time and where I still have many friends. Aside from the recent parliamentary change of government in Lebanon resulting in the newly appointed Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a billionaire and Executive MBA Harvard graduate who also happens to be endorsed by Hezbollah, among other groups, the wider Arab world is once again at a pivotal point in its history.

Beirut, Lebanon - 2010

For some reason I am reminded of an episode of “Mad Men”, a show that, aside from its tremendous commercial and popular success, has become accomplished at subtly placing the show’s characters and storylines along the backdrop of key historical events, showcasing real time perceptions then of what we know now in hindsight to be moments of major significance. Little Sally Draper, who watched live on television from her living room the self-immolation of an antiwar monk in Vietnam, an image we have all come to know very well, could not have known then the enormity of what that act represented and the events that would soon follow into the next decades, changing the world forever. To the Drapers, and to other families around the world, this sudden and inexplicable act in a faraway land may have gone largely unnoticed as they went about the drama of their daily lives, but it changed the world forever.
Marrakesh, Morocco - 2009
On December 17th 2010, it also went largely unnoticed to most of the world when a 26-year old, university educated man set himself ablaze in the city if Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. Forced to man a fruit and vegetable stand in the absence of real economic opportunities, Mohammad Bou Azizi was like scores of other young, educated Tunisians, facing a hopeless economic situation, devoid of viable options for the future while a complacent, autocratic regime treated the country like their own personal ATM. Just like Vietnam in the 1960s there are many who might struggle to point to Tunisia on a map, but what has transpired since has had massive ramifications for the greater region as a whole and will undoubtedly draw both Europe and United States into a diplomatic and security conundrum in the days and years to

Giza, Egypt - 2005

This public suicide was the ultimate act of protest against consistent catastrophic levels of unemployment, high inflation, and an entrenched, established, and elitist government that has continued to profit privately while its citizens fall deeper into economic troubles. What resulted in the following days started out as small public demonstrations which eventually developed into mass protests and finally a rebellion across the country, resulting in the “Jasmine Revolution” and the abdication and escape of President Ben Ali after almost twenty four years of hard line rule. Although characterized as authoritarian by Amnesty International, Freedom House, and Protection International, and ranking 144th out of 167 countries studied in The Economist’s Democracy Index, Ben Ali was often backed by the West as a stable governing force in the country, but who is now being pursued by Interpol in Saudi Arabia along with his wife (who managed to take 1.5 tonnes of gold from the Central Bank
before fleeing the country) for alleged human rights abuses and pervasive corruption.

Streets of Cairo - 2005

In the following days, inspired by the change that was proven possible in Tunisia, protests and public demonstrations of varying degrees hit Libya, Sudan, Yemen, and even Jordan and Syria. Further acts of self-immolation occurred in Saudi Arabia, Mauritania, and Algeria in parallel demonstrations and protests in those countries. Currently, as I write this, I listen to live reports of the chaos hitting the streets of cities across Egypt, the voices of the people calling for reform and the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak after thirty years of unchallenged rule since the assassination of Anwar Sadat. It hits close to home when I hear journalists describing chaos in Cairo neighborhoods that I have spent much time including the upper class Mohandissen and Zamalak areas which seem the unlikeliest of places to foment revolution. For the first few days I enthusiastically followed on Facebook and Twitter friends who live in Cairo, digesting information and personal experiences, until they were suddenly silenced and disappeared from the Web entirely when all internet service and mobile providers were shut down by the government.
Cairo, Egypt - 2005

If you listen closely to the voices on the streets, the anger they express come from the inability to influence or impact any meaningful reform on the policies enacted by a government that does not change and which has not put the interests of the people first. Dishonest and despotic at worst or detached and incompetent at best, the leadership of much of the Arab world is being called into question by people who want a role in deciding their social and economic futures, secured by a guarantee of fundamental human rights. This movement which continues to grow in intensity each hour is not fueled by a centralized religious extremist rhetoric, but rather by a grassroots political message against a damaged system that has proven its inability and unwillingness to address the problems of its citizenry. In any case, it has become drastically apparent that an open and honest dialogue is required, not just by the citizens and their current government, but also by outside powers that still maintain a significant degree of control and influence in the region out of various interests ranging from regional security to the Suez Canal.
Tonight no one knows what the outcome of this will be or when it will be resolved. The man who is slowly beginning to look like a major opposition leader, former head of the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, himself declared that “what we have begun cannot be reversed”. And indeed he is correct. No matter what comes of this, nothing can change the enormity of what the last several weeks have proven; that the world must not be complacent and accept only two diametrically opposing, but equally flawed forms of government in the Arab world which bring no benefit to anyone and for which progress and long term stability are not possible. The voices of opposition in Cairo are proclaiming that the only alternative to an autocratic and corrupt secular regime need not be an equally oppressive fundamentalist religious movement, but that there can be a third way governed by the principles of civic representation, participatory democracy, and universal human rights. What we are witnessing now, just as Sally Draper did in 1963 from her living room, is one of those opportunities in history where revolutionary change seems possible. It would be a shame if the world went about business as usual and failed to pay attention.

- K.V.


  1. This is indeed a historic and amazing time in the history of the Arab world. I am all too excited and yet anxious to know the outcome. Only time will tell. Btw, your commentary rocks. Always enjoy reading this blog! =) -Mejgan.

  2. We're thinking of everyone in Cairo and the Centre must be busy with media calls! Thanks for reading Mej!