Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011: How Arab Citizens Lost their Fear and Regained their Dignity

There is no adjective that can capture the enormity of what happened in the Arab world in 2011. Suffice it to say that the region will never be the same. It will be a infinitely better place; it already is.  The citizens of the Arab world have shed their mantle of fear and regained their dignity and with it they have reclaimed their freedom.  And with freedom comes hope.

A skeptic would say that despite the ongoing uprisings in the Arab world, little tangible change has in fact occurred. The big change is intangible, it is a  change the mindset of the people. Loss of fear is liberating, it allows people to think for themselves, to dream and to hope.  All one has to do is to look at the faces of the young and old in Tahrir square beaming with pride and confidence, to feel the energy and sense of elation emanating from the chanting crowds in Cairo or Homs or Sanaa.  This is a sea change for the region. The people are longer willing to play the role of docile, pliant sheep to local power elites and all the regional and world powers who conspire to keep them submissive, stagnant and predictable.  The regimes of the region should take note, the citizen has been empowered and it is no longer business as usual.  The most dramatic example is the recent response in Egypt to the videotaped beating of the female protester. Overnight, thousands of Egyptian women descended onto the streets of Cairo to protest.  It was a sight to behold, women of all ages and from across Egypt's cultural and social spectrum were out in the street in a spontaneous show of support for a fellow citizen. This type of a grassroots response to the plight of a single citizen would have been unheard not too long ago. The change in people's mindset is not only manifested in street activism but in what people dare to say and dare to think.  The previously stale fare served up on the web from the Middle East is now replaced by a flood of original ideas,  thoughts and creative expression. Emboldened TV anchors and journalists are no longer willing to tow the official line; they are asking hard questions and demanding answers. Politicians are no longer untouchable and unaccountable. Another dividend of the Arab Spring is that it has brought the people of the region closer together.  Activists exchange ideas and have helped each other in organizing acts of civil disobedience and banners in demonstrations in one country often offered support for the people demonstrating in another.

In the last decade a series of UN reports on human development in the Arab world painted an increasingly  grim picture of the region by whatever index of measurement used.  As the rest of the world moved forward, we seem to be moving back.  No longer; the Arab Spring has shaken the world.  Occupy movements across the world were inspired by the Arab Spring and the world's most populous country, China, clamped down hard on protesters fearing the contagion of the Middle East revolts would reach its shores.  The world stands in awe at the courage of the young men and women who stood their ground and sacrificed their lives for the good of their people.

The revolts in the Middle East are far from over and the clouds of instability and unrest will continue to plague the region for years to come. Change will take time; the corrupt autocracies will leave behind few if any viable civic institutions.  Make no mistake about it though, there is no turning back and the region will be a better place.  We owe it to the thousand of mostly young men and women, who have made the ultimate sacrifice so that the rest can live free.

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