Winds of Change in the Middle East: How far, how long?

At the very core of democracy lies the element of mutual trust and respect between the governed and the government. Democracy’s very essence is aptly captured in the simple definition of “a government of the people, by the people and for the people” as expressed by Abraham Lincoln in his popular Gettysburg address at the height of America’s development in the democratic process.

It was well into the 5th century that the first elements democracy, were birthed in the Athenian regions of Greece. Its message since, has been that of freedom in empowering citizens; with a primary concern on the creation of a governance system which puts the citizenry at the very centre of decisions concerning them. In view of the basic premise of respect for human rights, democracy has done considerably well as a system of governance that suits the human condition. It serves the intrinsic need of man by making him party to decisions which affect him. Thus, the underlying principle of the sovereign will is what keeps it running.

Although there are variations of democracy as evinced by the different characteristics of most republics, an unyielding adherence to a participatory process and respect for the rights of citizens forms the cornerstone of democracy. Like its bedfellows of “justice” and “truth”, the principles of democracy, rather than the procedures or practice, remain the essential components. It offers a choice to its adherents based on their special circumstances and conditions. Thus, most democracies have incorporated suitable components such as liberal, socialist and religious traditions in practice without compromising the participatory element that is essential. A cursory look at the systems of government across the world proves that there is progress when the ruled have a say in who rules.

The recent people’s power revolt in Tunisia and its recurrence in Egypt and other nations in the Middle East highlight the intrinsic human desire to participate in the governance process – the need for a people to have a say in the decisions that affect them. When these needs are denied, there is usually a backlash against the despotic rulers in the long run. From Tunisia, through Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Algeria, Yemen and Palestine, the Middle East has come to face what can be seen as the most recurring verdict of historical essence, which President Barack Obama mentioned in his speech to the Ghanaian parliament. The long standing absence of democracy in most Middle East countries has caused dissatisfaction among the citizenry. As such, the Tunisian people’s power revolt gave a grand appeal to the many states who feel a kinship to the situation. These states have shown through similar protests that their needs as a people is no different from the universal rights of freedom and equality assured under democracies.  The resounding message remains, that governance in a repressive an environment is bound to fail over time.

A careful look at Tunisia reveals that the need for democracy ranks high on the scale of human needs when it comes to governance. After his bloodless overthrow Habib Bourgiuba in 1987, Ben Ali led Tunisia to become what can be described as one of the many progressive economies in North Africa. He played by economic rules in the spirit of globalization and won the support of the World Bank, enabling him to put Tunisia on a very sound economic track over the past two decades. His glory days also reflected in his alliance with US President Bush in the fight against terrorism in the Arab world, as he cut out Islamic radicalism in his country. Clearly, Tunisia and Ben Ali for that matter became symbols of growth in the Middle East, yet critical failures to incorporate democratic elements in the nation’s governance system provided fertile grounds for the recent protests that spelled the Jasmine revolution. An educated mass, facilitated by the country’s policy of compulsory education until age 16, was the fruit of Tunisia’s progressive efforts. At the height of all this however, Tunisians were denied political rights while corruption festered and dissent brewed. In an apparent state of built-up frustration due to the lack of opportunity to take part in a participatory government which democracy guarantees, the situation gave way to the protest which ousted Ben Ali as president of the nation. Clearly, the people’s power revolt indicates that no people can be held in bondage forever.

Ben Ali’s failures as a non-democratic leader played out in the case of his family members taking hold of the country’s wealth. The case of his wife’s meteoric rise to the heights of power, coupled with the looting of state resources by her household posed a challenge to his government. By hoarding wealth and silencing opponents, the power revolt was an imminent order in the menu of human needs. The Tunisian situation proves that only a transparent and participatory governance process can guarantee stability over the long haul. Across the Middle East, the Tunisian example has sent a wave to all the despotic leaders who have held on to power while suppressing dissent among the populace. The clear message of the people protests shows the benefits of democracy as against autocratic leadership. Protestors in the streets of Egypt, the Maghreb, Yemen, Palestine and Libya, among others, have highlighted the need for political reforms and an end to the corruption, unemployment and the poverty which much of autocracy has produced.

Although democracy has made much progress in the world at large, political structures in the Middle East have shown resilience to the sweeping changes of democratic reforms. A March, 2005 Special Report on “The  Dynamics of Democracy in the Middle East”, by The Economist Intelligence Unit (UK), summed up the condition in the region: “In eight of the Arab countries—the six Gulf states, Jordan and Morocco—hereditary rulers hold sway. Some form of democratisation is under way in all of these states, but the ruler retains considerable powers. Elected parliaments play important roles in Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait and (most recently) Bahrain, although Morocco is the only one of these states to have active party politics (soon to be redefined according to a new law). Of the states embarking on political reforms, Saudi Arabia has particular significance given its critical position in the world oil market.” (The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2005). This notwithstanding, a revelatory footnote is added in that report: “The region’s dictators and absolute monarchs have been forced to take note of both the changed international mood and of the latent power of their own people”.

The inspiration from the Tunisian people’s power protest has undoubtedly unleashed this “latent power” in a more potent manner, bringing awareness to the leaders of the region that unprecedented changes are underway.

A call to democracy runs through the demands being made by the protestors across the Middle East following the Tunisian example. From Egypt, Iran, Palestine, Bahrain, Libya, Morocco and Saudi Arabia, protestors have shown a strong desire for political reforms which would assure critical elements of participatory democracy. The latest is the demand by protesters in Yemen for an end to the 32-year rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh; compelling the President to respond with a promise to relinquish power into “safe hands”. There is also the case of Saudi Arabia, where numerous calls are being made by the Saudi citizenry for radical political reform in the highly autocratic state. One thing is clear: people have become fed up with the old way of doing things and are seeking changes that would facilitate their welfare in an inclusive fashion.

It remains noteworthy, that while much of the Middle East has been engulfed with protests for political and social reforms, Qatar, though an absolute monarchy remains unaffected by the phenomenon. It is clear that the nation has over the years created a more tolerant environment by respecting the rights of its people without necessarily compromising its traditions. The nation’s liberal airwave, which has produced the internationally dynamic Al-jazeera media network, indicates the basis of democracy under which the country is operating. It is only when the citizenry are granted their basic freedoms that a nation can experience sustainable stability.

But the question remains: would the Tunisian protest result in more prosperous, more stable and peaceful democratic states in the Middle East? Time has shown that when the will of the people is violated by governments, protests serve as a meaningful step in nudging despots towards the main concerns of the people. Key examples range from protests in the Philippines, Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine and Iran. These examples offer an insight of what the aftermath of people protests usually produce. Varied as the aftermaths may be, there is a universal feature of a declaration; that the people are dissatisfied with the order of things and want a change.

From a peculiar standpoint as a Ghanaian, I can comfortably state that for democracy to survive, the will of the people coupled with a general consensus on values and widespread commitment to the existing political order is imperative. Also, citizens must seek ways in which to work together in the general interest of the country without creating internal conflicts for despots to capitalize on.

As the Tunisian people’s protest and recurring cases indicate, people’s protests, more than violence and bloodshed, remains a very critical step in the march towards more peaceful and democratic societies. For one, it takes the lid off autocracy and exposes its flaws. It also affirms the will of the people to see change in the existing ways. From this step, a commitment of the people to progress, backed by the will to see democracy triumph is what would rally the needed support to produce more prosperous, more stable and peaceful democratic states in the Middle East.

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