Monday, January 31, 2011

Witness to a (General) Revolution

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science.
I don’t think I have ever commented in writing on political matters. But the events unfolding in my/our world for the past few weeks are unprecedented in their scope and their impact; they bring new things every day – including scientists blogging about the socio-political order around them.
Salman has taken the lead and commented several times recently on socio-political developments in the Muslim world, including events in Pakistan, Tunisia, and Egypt (for example see the earlier post, How important is the internet in Tunisia uprising?). And judging from the comments that have been posted in response to his writings, it appears that readers of this blog are highly interested in such discussions, even though in principle we are supposed to be mainly focused on science and religion topics. But then where exactly does one draw the line between religion, politics, and social order? Furthermore, Mohammad Yahia, the editor of the Nature Middle East portal and a blogger of his own, has commented on the impact of the current events on Arab scientists and academics.
But do I want to comment because people are interested in this topic or because I feel I have something thoughtful to contribute? Neither, actually. I have decided to comment because writing is a cathartic exercise (it helps heal one’s wounds), and because this gives me a chance to crystallize the ideas that have been running through my head and the feelings rushing in my heart for the past several weeks. Watching the coverage of these uprisings, mainly glued to Al-Jazeera, I have gone through various emotions and sought to understand the historic events around me.
First, let me highlight the main developments (from Tunisia and Egypt) of the past few weeks:
·    Tunisians, living under the most oppressive police state, peacefully overthrew the regime and insisted on establishing full democracy and human rights for all, including and especially freedom of speech and assembly. No more will campuses be under surveillance, and students and professors be arrested, interrogated, and forbidden from travel simply because they’ve expressed non-acceptable views or mingled with people who were already on the regime’s black lists.
·    Aftershocks followed from the Tunisian earthquake, starting from next-door Algeria and Libya and reaching Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen. (Lebanon is another issue.)
·    The “day of rage” in Egypt (January 25) surprised everyone by getting hundreds of thousands of people into the streets calling for regime change. At that point, everyone knew that the follow-up event (demonstrations three days later after the Friday prayers) was going to be historic – and it was.
·    For the first time in history, transnational mass communication media (satellite TV and internet) played a crucial role in the revolution(s), largely in the Tunisian case and to some extent in the Egyptian case. Scholars will for years be dissecting and debating the role played by Facebook, Twitter, and Aljazeera (the latter much more essential than has been recognized so far). And the Egyptian government’s unprecedented and unsuccessful attempt to paralyze and silence the protests by blocking almost all internet, SMS, mobile phone, and at some stage even land phone communication, will also soon be analyzed in depth.
Events are still unfolding day by day, and for this and other reasons I don’t want to comment too much on the events themselves and try to predict what will happen in the short term and beyond, both in Egypt and elsewhere. Instead I would like to focus on what I perceive as the real problem in this region and what people want and expect.
First and foremost, people want an end to corruption. Democracy is important and needed, but this is not what got people into the streets. After all, there are other countries in the region where there is as little (or even less) democracy (citizens’ participation in the system) but where no one has demonstrated for or against anything. And the case of Tunisia is very telling in this regard: while the regime was autocratic almost from the start (for over 20 years), people revolted against it only when it went very corrupt in the last few years, with the president’s family-in-law seizing large portions of the country’s wealth (or whatever wealth was available). I think we can see that correlation (between uprising and corruption as opposed to uprising due to autocracy) in almost all the countries where troubles have taken place.
A second cause for these revolutions appears to my mind: nepotism, as opposed to meritocracy. As I’ve just said regarding the situation in Tunisia (under Ben Ali, the deposed dictator), and as people know about the Mubarak regime and others like it, people become angry when they see their country being hijacked by a family and/or a clique and turned into its personal possession.
Indeed, in those countries (and quite a few in the region), “succeeding” depends much more on whom you know than on what you know or what you can do (with your education and skills). People then are torn between two inclinations: an idealistic, almost quixotic fight for meritocracy, and a pragmatic “if you can’t beat them, join them” attitude of “I need to secure my family’s future”, so let me play nice and build useful relations. And this is, unfortunately, so true in academia, as much if not even more than in other areas of our society.
So, while I have no crystal ball to gaze into the future and hence cannot predict what will happen now, I can make a few hopeful comments. I always tell my friends that I am (in general) an optimist with respect to the long(er)-term future but a pessimist regarding the short term. I don’t necessarily believe that things are going to be worse in Tunisia and Egypt (and elsewhere) under those who will replace Ben Ali, Mubarak, and their ilk. Many people have expressed worries about more Arab countries turning chaotic like Iraq and thus wonder whether keeping a despot like Saddam would not have been better. Well, first, the change that occurred in Tunisia (or the one that will soon take place in Egypt) in no way resembles what happened in Iraq, and secondly no one said such revolutions would turn hell into heaven in a short time. Each situation is different, and in each case history will unfold differently. But I am confident that within a few years or perhaps even a few decades (for the big ones like Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, etc.), things will straighten out. (It will take time to fix whole systems of education, management, etc.)
It will all depend on how quickly people will accept the principles of rule of law (all equally subjected to it, no matter who or what) and meritocracy. Once we have gotten rid of despotism, corruption, and nepotism, then things will work, no matter what political system or ideology one implements (and ideologies will rotate, since parties will complete and thus win or lose people’s confidence).
I am now more certain that the Arab world is undergoing an important transformation, perhaps a la Eastern Europe. Perhaps that is too hopeful, but since things can’t get worse, any change is for the better. But hopefully, this won’t be just “any change”; it may be “the change”… Inshallah!


Akbar said...

Hahaha...! I can only laugh at the naivity of those who think this "revolution" is a positive change in these countries. This upheavel in Tunisia and Egypt, is bound to be hijacked by religious extremists. Governments of most of the middle eastern countries like Jordan, Syria, Yemen and possibly Libya too will be toppled in coming years (EXCEPT Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Kuwait..and you know the exact reason) and either overtaken by the extremists or give them enough strength to unleash an uncontrollable wrath (sponsored) over the masses.

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Oh, how did I not see that?! The religious extremists are going to hijack these revolutions...
So, yes indeed, let's stick to dictatorship and corruption, we're much better off with that!
But, wait a minute, isn't that what the western powers have been telling everyone, for years and decades?
Well, I'm lost now (me and my naiveté)...

Akbar said...

Oh yes, they definitely will...I can only laugh in sarcasm :-P

Ali said...

Why does everyone think democracy is the best way of governing a country?

I am increasingly feeling democracy is not a model that can work universally. Is this because of my naivete'?

Mohamed said...

Good observations, Nidhal. I too share your optimism for the future, although I expect change will take time.

Other than the points you mentioned---corruption, nepotism, lack of respect for law, etc---I feel the problem lies with authoritarian societies as much as with authoritarian regimes

At every level of society---family, tribe, clan, nation---authoritarian and patriarchal attitudes seen in the traditional family are replicated, right up to the top.

The message that it doesn’t pay to make waves is impressed on Arabs from an early age. It starts in the family, where father knows best and if you don’t respect his decisions there will be trouble.

Egypt has a million Mubaraks---in other words, the Mubarak way of doing things is not just confined to politics, it is found at all levels of society, in homes, schools, workplaces and so on.

This has far-reaching implications, because it means that if we want political change we need social change too.

A knowledge-based society is essentially non-authoritarian and open. It favors transparency, encourages a spirit of inquiry and confronts unwelcome realities. Unfortunately, this is not the general picture of Arab society.

At the same time, though, I don't think this is a reason for pessimism. Arab society is definitely changing, if only slowly at the moment.

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Excellent comments! I fully agree with you: authoritarianism is deeply ingrained in the Arab psycho-social order, and indeed it's at every level, not just the political one. I alluded to that when I mentioned the academic world. One day we should discuss that more in depth and at length -- hopefully with our sociologist friends.

I also agree with you that we should still be optimistic -- in the longer term, as I said...

Mohamed said...

I agree that this is something sociologists studying the Arab world should consider. I don't think we would much headway towards democracy and open society unless we address this issue.

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