The Substance of the Arab Revolt

Rami G. Khouri

BEIRUT -- Three months since the first demonstrations in rural Tunisia initiated a wave of rebellions that has spread throughout the Arab world, we have witnessed to date the toppling or serious revolts against some regimes, and revived discussions about political reform in half a dozen others. Seen from within the Middle East, several important issues emerge that should capture the attention of anyone who cares to grasp the substance of this new Arab Revolt, rather than its superficialities. These provide an important foundation for dealing with the political evolution that will continue to define the Arab world for years to come, and as such they are important guideposts for the future, rather than just analytical milestones from the recent past. They relate to the nature of the change that is demanded, and the fact that such demands have been around for decades, but the outside world was not interested in hearing or acting on them.
Persistent popular pressure has forced the resignation of the interim Tunisian and Egyptian prime ministers last week, and maintained progress in both countries on revising the constitution and scheduling new national elections. These two core issues are mirrored across the entire region, for they are the common denominator of discontented citizenries. They clarify that the Second Arab Revolt is about more than ending corruption, increasing available jobs and wages, reducing abuse of power, or removing a dictator here and there. The basic common desire across the entire Arab world is for a totally re-legitimized power structure and governance system that uses structural constitutional change to achieve three critical goals: credible citizen rights and political representation, the accountability of public power through realistic mechanisms that affirm the consent of the governed, and term limits on heads of state.
These demands cannot be achieved by tinkering with the current exhausted and discredited political systems, raising public sector salaries or initiating a vague “dialogue” with opposition movements. The cry from all corners of the Arab world is for profound structural changes, not superficial reforms, cosmetic adjustments or fleeting buy-offs. Removing prime ministers who were associated with the former regimes is a strong sign of the importance that demonstrating Arab citizens attach to a complete break with the past. They don’t want to improve the old regimes and systems; they want to bury them, and replace them with legitimate governments.
The focus on constitutional change affirms the importance of installing a new political order that is both credible and institutionalized, i.e., it is both seen to provide a fair system of the exercise of power and citizenship rights, and also impervious to the manipulation of strong personalities or power centers, such as the military, religious groups, or populist forces. These pivotal constitutional demands are the heart and soul of the changes that Arab citizens have initiated in their countries, noticeably without foreign armies or government prodding, or well-meaning but rather irrelevant civil society education and training courses. (Not surprisingly, the next most common thing we hear across the region, after the call for real constitutional change, is for foreign governments, armies, political brokers and cultural carpetbaggers to stay home).
The other important thing about this process is that it is not new or unexpected, contrary to the prevailing accounts of many international observers and analysts who continue to express a combination of surprise and befuddlement at what is sweeping our region. The fact is, any honest analyst of the Arab world who took the time over the past four decades to listen to ordinary people and elite figures, or analyze developmental statistical data, would have seen many signs of ordinary Arabs and political activists struggling to express their discontent and demanding real change in the arenas of democracy, accountability, human rights and equitable socio-economic development. Since the advent of the modern Arab security state around 1970 that was personified by the three countries most impacted by the current Arab Revolt, namely Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, hundreds of individuals, organizations and movements have courageously challenged their regimes, articulated legitimate grievances, and demanded more democratic governance systems.
I will discuss this legacy in more detail in a separate column. For now, we should remember, give credit to, and honor those brave Arab men and women in their thousands who risked their lives -- and many lost their lives or their freedoms -- to point out the power abuses, incompetence, and mass home-grown humiliation of the prevailing Arab power structures that were largely supported by Western governments.
There is nothing new or unexpected about what is going on, other than that Arab regimes and the world outside can no longer close their eyes and ears to the demands of Arab citizens who take their citizenship seriously, and have now ended their complacency and taken to the street to seize their rights, and rewrite their constitutions. Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. Copyright © 2011 Rami G. Khouri -- distributed by Agence Global