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26 September 2013

Dignity Deficit Fuels Uprisings in the Middle East

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As the Middle East hits bottom for governance, leaders must address cry for justice and respect.

The way the political situation has evolved in the countries that experienced the so-called Arab Spring has created despondency in some quarters. Are Arab nations doomed to remain fractious and poorly governed? The answer is no, and the reasons for optimism can be found if one analyzes the reasons triggering the upheavals in the first place. One of the most striking facets of the calls for political change that swept across the Middle East and North Africa is the fervent demand for “karama” – Arabic for dignity. By consciously addressing the reasons for dignity deficit, political leaders could lay the foundations for promoting progress and stability.

The lack of collective dignity felt by so many in the Arab world is the result of a combination of internal autocratic and corrupt regimes, with predictable ineffective and unaccountable governance, supported by external actors with short-term geopolitical interests. This is coupled with a sense of collective cultural siege and hopelessness about the future. There is also a perception in the Arab-Islamic world that the West is disrespectful and dismissive of the people, the culture and their pivotal historical contributions to world civilization. This is said to be evidenced by the persistence of inhuman conditions for the stateless Palestinians, despite clear violations of human rights and international law, endless UN resolutions and concrete Arab peace plans. These factors together have produced a number of fatalistic perceptions and dignity deficits that are plaguing a region and limiting its tremendous potential.

For decades, populations in the Middle East have expressed demands for more jobs, better housing conditions, more independent press and less arbitrary practices. In the context of austerity measures imposed by governments in the 1980s in order to reduce deficits, numerous urban riots took place, fracturing the fragile relations between societies and their governments. The frustration was deepened in the following years by a growing perception of neglect, rampant corruption, excessive military spending and a constant expansion of power and kleptocracy/wealth by the ruling class. The practice of some leaders to simply distribute resources and subsidies for basic goods with no further concessions of accountability could not be sustainable in the long run.

Already, the unrest in the region in 2005, when the term Arab Spring was first suggested, announced the sweeping sense of discontent. The demographic pressure of a predominantly young population was another factor for the recent revolts. Finally, internet and social networks enabled mobilization as the youth could better compare and assess their situation and organize to voice their demands.

On the domestic front in these countries, it is possible to gather all these deficiencies in public governance under a parsimonious, yet comprehensive list – a dignity index.

I define dignity in its wholesome sense as much more complex and inclusive than just the absence of humiliation. Its absence reflects in a number of collective dignity deficits: lack of reason, lack of security, human rights abuses, lack of accountability, lack of transparency, absence of justice, lack of opportunity, lack of innovation and lack of inclusiveness. Together, these collective dignity deficits have created mounting frustration due to limited institutionalized channels through which citizens could effect meaningful political change.

The yearning for dignity is a driving force in history and is central to the sustainability of any political order and for human civilization as a whole. It brought the Arab world to a crucial juncture and the ensuing transition periods cannot be but marked by the inclusion of dignity in governance paradigms.

The ousting of President Mohamed Morsi in Egypt can be assessed in this context. His exclusionary rule was contested by millions that saw many promises of the Arab Spring betrayed as the president increased his prerogatives and did not stop the country’s further plunge into recession and disorder. The future stability of the country will heavily depend on the effectiveness of this new transition. The generosity of the Gulf States in giving some $12 billion to Egypt will help the economic situation, but it is critical that resources are channelled to sectors that were marginalized previously, including education, healthcare and other basic services.

While it may be tempting for outside powers to try to influence the region’s direction of change, it is imperative that the people are the authors of their own futures and develop economic, political and cultural frameworks that are authentic to them. The youth of these countries do not suffer from the defeatism of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s that crippled earlier generations, and they are better connected and informed than their parents and grandparents. Indeed, the contagion effect of the Tunisian revolution points to a neo-Pan-Arabism. Islam is central to people’s identity in the region and a moderate, accountable and inclusive political Islam is likely to become increasingly institutionalized within more pluralistic political systems despite initial difficulties. A moderate and reformed neo-Pan-Islamism is also likely to gain more terrain as a response to emerging neo-Orientalist approaches and the constant disillusionment with world powers’ approach towards the region, the negative portrayal of Arabs and Muslims, and the predominant feelings of bias and opportunism in the international community regarding the plight of Palestinians.

The complexity of the region and of each country respectively permits one safe prediction, which is that the region will never be the same again. This poses challenges not only to newly-established and incumbent regimes, but also to external powers that need to forge new relationships and support reform efforts. Any attempt to impose solutions from the outside will be rejected on three fronts. Political elites will see such imposition as a vehicle for outside control and influence. Intellectuals will reject it on the basis of cultural hegemony, particularly given the perception that the West is dismissive of Arab-Islamic culture and its achievements in history. And a large sector of the general public will not welcome it because they will equate it with the perception of the West’s intent to encourage de-Islamization of the region. This remains a pressing challenge as the West continues to be regarded as partially responsible for the region’s troubled legacy.

Reforms need to lead towards endogenous good governance in keeping with local cultures and histories while avoiding claims of cultural relativism. They need to be authentic, appropriate, affordable and acceptable to the people themselves, while meeting minimum global criteria for good governance, human rights, and inclusivity to ensure sustainable moral and political cooperation regionally and globally.

The West needs to demonstrate that it’s willing to support the development of endogenous good governance, without meddling, by sharing best practices, assisting in building efficient and accountable civil society institutions and technological innovations. This will be an essential trust-building measure. However, skepticism remains pervasive in the region and episodes as old as the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, concluded in secrecy to establish French and British control over the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire while pretending to help Arabs escape Ottoman hegemony, still evoke tales of mistrust and memories of betrayal.

Building a partnership based on mutual respect, trust, sustainable and equitable long-term interests as well as demonstrating that it can be an honest broker in the Arab-Israeli peace conflict will be among the greatest challenges that face the West. The current US-led diplomatic initiatives might be a step in a positive direction. Finding viable solutions for the Palestinians` predicament can have far-reaching implications for addressing the external aspects of the collective dignity deficits across the region.

Prof. Nayef Al-Rodhan 

Senior Fellow and Head of the Geopolitics and Global Futures Programme at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy

Originally published in Yale Global Online.

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