May 23, 2011


Arabs and the long revolution (A talk by Brian Whitaker at the Centre for Applied Human Rights, University of York, 18 May 2011, Al-bab)

Ten or 20 years from now, the Middle East is going to be a very different place. This may sound like a bold prediction, but one way to see what's coming is to look at the age profile of Arab populations. In Yemen, 43% are under the age of 15. In Syria, the figure is 35%, in Egypt 33%, in Oman 31% and in Saudi Arabia 29%. For comparison, the figure in the EU is just 15% - less than half what it is in many of the Arab countries.

So there is a huge youth bulge coming up. One enormous problem will be how to provide work for them but, perhaps more importantly, as a result of increased contact with the rest of the world the authorities are also going to be dealing with a generation which has different attitudes and aspirations. The change can be seen already among Arabs in their twenties. They are much more globally-aware than previous generations and they see how their own lives are restricted in comparison with elsewhere.

So far, we have witnessed full-scale uprisings in five of the 22 Arab countries – Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and Syria, plus major disturbances in Bahrain and warning signs in Algeria, Morocco and Oman. A lot of media reports, especially in the United States, describe the street protests as "pro-democracy demonstrations", but that is really viewing them through a western lens.

If you look at the activists' slogans, hurriya (freedom) is certainly one of the buzz words but "democracy" as such scarcely figures at all, even though democracy may be one of the things that freedom implies.

The most popular Egyptian slogan, later transferred to Syria, was "The people want the fall of the regime". The Arabic word for "regime" is nidham, but it also means "system" and this wider meaning is what the protesters are really talking about: not just getting rid of unpopular leaders but the whole system associated with them – the corruption, the cronyism, the repression, the lack of accountability, and so on.

We also hear protesters demanding "respect" and "dignity". Among other things, that means not being shot at or set upon by thugs when they try to express their views. But it's also, more broadly, a call to be treated like grown-up citizens.

In my book, What's Really Wrong with the Middle East, I argued that Arab regimes are basically modelled on traditional concepts of the Arab family, with a father figure at the head who knows what is best for his children (or at least thinks he does) and whose authority should not be challenged.

This can even be seen in the language and imagery used by the regimes themselves, including the idea that the head of state is a shepherd guiding his flock.

So these calls for respect and dignity may sound quite bland but they are actually very subversive. Though not fully articulated at present, they point to an assertion of rights as citizens and a refusal to be treated like children or sheep.

Posted by at May 23, 2011 5:48 AM

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