After decades of sustained oppression, Arab popular and political culture suddenly tried to assert its full mental and emotional capacities during the recent uprisings that led to the collapse of several tyrannical regimes in the region. The shift to being so abrupt, it’s not terribly surprising that the results of those uprisings were somewhat disappointing and that the so-called Arab Spring degenerated into conflicts that are taking the lives of tens and hundreds of thousands of people as they grind on in Syria, Yemen, Libya and even Egypt. The spillover from these conflicts has also added fuel to the smoldering fires in Iraq and Lebanon.
Syria is almost starting to look like Afghanistan with the menagerie of strange bedfellows engaged in merciless mayhem, mainly conducted by the Bashar Al-Assad regime, the Al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Syria group, and hundreds of Hezbollah militants. American National Intelligence Director James Clapper recently reported that Syria has turned into a safe haven for extremists. It is estimated that about 26,000 such extremists are in Syria, where terrorists groups such as the Al-Nusra Front may be preparing, or at least planning, to attack the West. Meanwhile, all of these groups sink their fangs in the flesh of Arabs without distinguishing between civilians and combatants, all under the cover of religious edicts that are pushing the region into the inferno of sectarian conflict.
But the darkness of this reality, which is stained with blood and distorted by destruction, should not prevent us from recognizing the other, more encouraging, emerging currents. A new dynamic is developing in the whole region aiming at diagnosing the problems and searching for the new systems, ideas and values that can help build a better future for Arab world. Some manifestations of this process include several new constitutions, transforming media coverage, and new, decentralized communications and social forums, including online media.
One of the more obvious manifestations of this process is the approval of a new Constitution for Tunisia, followed by the formation a new consensus-based Tunisian government. This was accomplished politically, and primarily without violence.
Tunisia, which fanned the winds of change for the rest of the “Arab Spring” countries, has just initiated the next phase of the transitional period that began in the Arab political worldview three years ago. Much of the transition was initially primitive and corrupt. But the Tunisian update includes both a new, agreed-upon constitution and the peaceable transfer of power between parties and individuals. Moreover, according to Article 2 of the new constitution, “Tunisia is a civil state that is based on citizenship, the will of the people, and the supremacy of law.”
It is true that the constitution also contains vague phrases about the role of religion and gender that may be interpreted by Islamists like Ennahda (if they return to power) in a discriminatory or abusive manner. But the net positives of both the process and the substance of the new Tunisian constitution set the stage for further progress. One of the most important features of the new constitution is that it allocates to Tunisian women half of the seats in Parliament. Call it “Tunisia 2.0.” It is a real basis for optimism and a clear sign that at long last the locomotive of change has made its first, but hardly its last, stop in the Arab world. The Arab uprisings that began three years ago were not homogenous in their aspirations. Some expressed a popular desire to be rid of tyranny and arbitrary, abusive rule. Others more directly sought specific forms of political and, perhaps, religious freedom.
Within this popular and factious movement—a virtual cacophony of public demands—another, very different, trend almost managed to take over the wave of change and impose itself on the future by claiming that what was taking place was not an “Arab Spring,” but actually an “Islamic Awakening.” Perhaps some people decided to test these assertions and experiment by giving political Islamists a chance to govern. This is exactly what happened in the Arab world’s most important country, Egypt.
However, these Islamist parties soon prompted the public to angrily reject them when they failed to meet the requirements of basic governance and the other fundamental expectations. This backlash led to the flourishing of Arab sentiments in favor of modernity, secularism, democracy and pluralism. In the Libyan parliamentary election, party balloting non-Islamists trounced the Islamist parties. Yemen is also moving in this direction, and Egypt, by far the most important and influential Arab country, rose up in one voice to reject the growing despotism of systematic religious extremism. In Syria, too, there is a second uprising by rebel groups, not only against the dictatorship but also against terrorist organizations. Yet this dynamic is still very fragile and the risk of backsliding remains all too real.
This tumultuous period of transformation and change presents a historic opportunity for the Arab peoples, and their elites, to regain self-confidence and once again believe they have the ability to overcome their challenges and the power to determine their own futures. Explaining away uncomfortable realities by citing oft-repeated theories about “Zionist and international conspiracies” or “hidden hands” should not be allowed to seduce Arabs into any kind of withdrawal from the reality or the broader world around them.
Such conspiracy theories are repeated with abandon. They rob the Arab people of their ability to assert their rights and responsibilities as citizens, and to take the initiative proactively to determine their own futures for themselves. It is high time that Arab societies face up to their internal problems and external challenges, rather than blaming others. They should develop new social compacts and legal and political processes that will allow them to unite and shape their own futures, rather than passively waiting for events to unfold, and all the while learning from the experiences of other regions and countries.
There is a historic opportunity for a new, galvanized Arab intellectual life to inform and participate in empowering a new consciousness that embraces the inescapable reality of global competition and the urgent need for Arabs to raise the levels of efficiency and professionalism in their societies.
Let’s begin by correctly identifying what’s going on: these are civic transformations that must be the basis for the creation of fully formed, well functioning modern societies that are united within themselves and competitive globally. But for this to happen, intellectual, social, cultural and political discourse in the entire spectrum of the Arab world must begin to find ways of promoting pluralism, tolerance, freedom, accountability, rule of law and real equality for minorities and women.
This will not be easy. A recent UNESCO report that confirms that half the children in Arab states lack the fundamentals of a basic education demonstrates that all too clearly. The future of the Arab world relies on developing the necessary mechanisms for social and economic development and real international competitiveness.
These challenges are gigantic, but the crucial thing is to begin moving in the right direction. Once the process is underway, it is the responsibility of like-minded people to work together and develop the necessary compromises and consensus views that can begin to coalesce on the ground and online to develop a better and safer future for the region. The path will be long and difficult, but it is unavoidable and failure cannot be an option.