10 Apr 2012
Arab dreamers have to move beyond protest
By Lydia Khalil
"CITIZENS, we have reason to fear that the revolution, like Saturn, will successively devour all its children."
The phrase uttered by Pierre Victurnien Vergniaud in the aftermath of the French revolution is no less true now. At the one-year anniversary of the Arab Spring, the youthful optimism and energy that transformed the region is mostly gone.
In its place is the grey pale of uncertainty and instability of transition. The shabab, the youth who bravely ushered in the era of Arab revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, have been elbowed out of the way by more organised Islamist forces and the hold-overs of the old regimes, who have deftly inserted themselves into the opening the youth fought so hard to carve out.
The shabab managed to overthrow old leaders, but they were wholly unprepared and unable to translate their revolutionary zeal into political power. Nor do they yet have the organisational capacity to effect the more fundamental changes needed at the institutional level.
Wael Ghonim, a youth leader of the Egyptian revolution, said: "We are going to win because we know nothing about politics." Believing their movement was more pure and authentic than the machinations of old opposition parties that never managed to do much in the way of reform, Ghonim and others like him believed the enthusiasm and pure intentions that galvanised their populations were enough.
How wrong he was. In Egypt's first free and fair parliamentary elections in many decades, Islamist political parties garnered more than 60 per cent of the popular vote, outmanoeuvring less established secular and youth-led parties through superior organisation and entrenched networks. It seems all the shabab managed to do was provide an opening for old opposition forces to establish themselves. A year on, violence is on the rise, corruption still reigns and power is still ensconced in the military. The economy has collapsed.
And the children of the revolution are no longer in a moral or political position to effect the change they sought. While some have run as political independents in elections, joined up with more established parties or formed their own, most have continued their strategy of protest. Their protests are now only getting in the way of their morning commute.
In many ways, the children of the revolution have been their own worst enemy. The shabab have not yet faced up to the fact that the fluid, spontaneous and networked approach of the revolution will not work in the cut and thrust of political transitions.
Sceptics of the Arab revolts have long claimed that the swift dismissal of Arab despots, odious as they were, would lead only to violence and hardline Islamist rule, and that the optimism of the shabab was naive and unwarranted. There were too many deep-seated economic, governance and sectarian problems in the Arab world. Simply removing the heads of authoritarian regimes cannot cure these ills. It requires political vision and years of work to undo the damage of decades of authoritarianism in the region. While this is all too true, there is also no denying there was a real and fundamental transformation that took place in the Arab world last year. The shabab led that transformation and in many ways there is no going back.
The change the shabab brought on through their remarkable protests throughout the Arab world laid an important foundation on which future change in the region can be built.
By rising up against dictatorships, they removed a mantle of fear that had shrouded the Arab populace for decades. This is no small achievement. For the first time in a long time, people in the region believe that their actions matter. The shabab have removed the strictures of paternalism that held back not only the young, but also everyone in the Middle East. In some ways, Ghonim and his cohort are right: it goes beyond politics.
Going forwards, the youth of the Arab world have two choices. They can go the way of past revolutionaries and become devoured and overtaken by prevailing forces or they can build upon the foundation they laid by putting forward a political strategy to implement their demands for social justice, economic opportunity and fair political participation.
The youth must prepare themselves for another showdown, this time against Islamist parties seeking to co-opt their agenda, and regime hold-overs who have denounced their old leaders but have no interest in fundamental change. This time they need to move beyond protest and into politics.
Despite their poor track record in the year after the Arab revolts, there is still reason to believe that the generation that ushered in these unprecedented changes is still on track to finish what was started. For one thing, they have not much else to do. The lack of jobs and economic opportunity that spurred a lot of the protests has not been resolved, only worsened. If the economic situation does not improve, it is further impetus for them to continue to agitate for change. And while many of them do not have experience in working politics, they are certainly political and have been able to organise effectively in the past. They must now transfer their networked organisational and informational capacity into parliamentary politics.
It is abundantly clear that what the Arab Middle East lacks are institutions and systems to channel the aspirations of the average citizens, to channel and make fruitful the dreams of those who wanted dignity and opportunity. Building institutions is political work; it is difficult work; and it is not work that bears results quickly. A prolonged, painful period of transition lies ahead for the Middle East.
Hopefully, the shabab who started this all will have a say in their own future.
Lydia Khalil is a non-resident fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute