The “historic and epic” uprisings taking place in the Arab world are an attempt to restore dignity to Arab citizens and their right to self-determination; they are not really rooted in political ideology, said an AUB panel of experts during a special forum on change in the Arab world.
Organized by the American University of Beirut Office of the Provost on April 7, 2011 and entitled “Engaging Change in the Middle East, Reflections on Regional Transformation” the forum brought together five AUB experts who tackled the subject from various angles—politics, health and youth, agriculture, and history. It attracted an audience of students, faculty, and deans, as well as senior administrators including AUB President Peter Dorman, VP for Advancement Richard Brow, VP for Regional External Programs Hassan Diab and VP for Finance Steve Kenney, all of whom participated in an engaged Q-and-A following the presentations.
Provost Ahmad Dallal welcomed the audience and panelists, noting that AUB had “survived and even thrived” through historical periods marked by turmoil and change, such as Lebanon under the Ottoman Empire, World War II, the creation of Israel, Israeli invasions, and the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon.
“In its own way, AUB has shaped the discourse affecting these changes,” Dallal said, inviting faculty and students to partake in the discourse on change in the Arab world.
Rami Khouri, director of the AUB Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs and an internationally syndicated columnist on Mideast politics, said that Arabs were revolting for their human dignity and citizenship rights, after being suppressed for decades in security states that were widely funded and supported by the West.
“The most important causes of these uprisings are the humiliation of the citizen and the delegitimization of the state,” said Khouri, adding that protesters are demanding a functional, democratic, and equitable Arab system that respects the human being.
“This is a revolt that is primarily about biology, not ideology,” said Khouri, “in that it is about their demand to be able to practice their fundamental human attributes and rights -- to speak out, hear different views, debate public issues, voice their concerns, and contribute to decision-making.”
The common thread in all the uprisings is the demand for constitutional change, added Khouri, arguing that people want to re-legitimize the power structure so that citizens could secure their rights through lawful channels.
According to Khouri, Mohamed Bouazizi—the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in December 2010 thus sparking riots and demonstrations and unleashing the fury of the masses—had not wanted to die. He killed himself only after being subjected to mistreatment by police, and then failing to secure his rights through the constitutional process.
Meanwhile, Rami Zurayk, professor of landscape design and ecosystem management, argued that while the hike in food prices was used to mobilize the masses, the real driver for the uprisings was anger at the regimes for creating food insecurity in a region that has all the resources to protect its citizens from price fluctuations. Zurayk noted that Arab countries control a large percentage of the global production of oil and phosphorus (used as a fertilizer) – both essential in modern food production.
Initially Arab regimes sought to subdue the “bread riots” with a few socio-economic measures, but these fell far short of expectations, said Zurayk. “They (the Arab regimes) thought that they could quell the popular uprisings with a few tons of bread. They did not realize that we were hungry for freedom,” he said.
“Food security is a key determinant of dignity. It is a determinant of freedom. It is a basic right, not a charity,” said Zurayk. “We are not bellies waiting to be fed; we are human beings seeking freedom.”
Zurayk then warned that the uprisings could fail if they do not become framed by ideas and a strategic vision.
“Is it not time to work on new ideas on how to change our world, free it from need and make it fair, just, equitable and sustainable? Can we even have a revolution that is not based on ideas?” he asked.
Karim Makdisi, assistant professor of international politics, traced the reaction of the international community to what he called “seminal” uprisings that “sought to restore the agency of Arabs” on the international stage.
“Many were hoping that the Arab uprisings would somehow signal a changed relationship between the Arab world and the international community, one free of colonial impulses, double standards and obvious power politics games,” he said. “However, these hopes seem to have been dashed as the uprisings spread and threatened entrenched local and global interests that are now seeking to restore order rather than engage in genuine transformation.
“International intervention in the region is thus inconsistent and increasingly geared towards controlling uncertain outcomes of the Arab uprisings,” Makdisi added. Whereas two UN resolutions were passed with regard to Libya, there have been no UN interventions to protect civilians in places such as Bahrain or Yemen, let alone Gaza, he noted.
“Arabs’ hopes that the recent uprisings might transform the international community’s agenda in the region by leveling the playing field with respect to Israel were quashed when the United States vetoed an otherwise unanimous February 17, 2011 UN Security Council draft resolution that condemns Israeli settlements in Palestine,” he said.
But Makdisi was hopeful that if the uprisings were to succeed then the Arab relationship with the international community should also reflect that change. “[In that case] the Arab relationship with the international community (including the UN) will … shift from passivity and subservience (the attitude of Arab regimes) to one of more proactive and constructive diplomacy (similar to what Turkey for instance is doing),” he said.
While poverty, literacy rates, and income levels in the Arab world are often below acceptable levels, Rima Afifi, professor of health promotion and community health, argued that “misery alone does not create revolutions, …; instead, a sense of social injustice and lack of dignity” is what led Arabs to rise in protest.
Afifi noted that youth constitute about 25 percent of the Arab population, which is considered the youngest in the world, yet they suffer from high levels of unemployment and a feeling of being marginalized and unheard.
“Youth across the Arab world have used their voice to become agents of change and preserve their dignity. They have done this in ways that are unique, bold, and innovative; and used their social networks effectively,” she said. Arab youth have an opportunity to shape health, dignity, and voice in the region. And they will do so not only to promote their right to dignity, but also that of others.
Historian Alexis Norman Wick presented three “circles of temporality” within which the current revolutions are inscribed.
Wick said that the 25-year-old Palestinian struggle had shown from the outset “how an unarmed people can suddenly divest itself from fear.” Add to that, the defeat of Israel by the Lebanese resistance in 2006, after its withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, also helped the Arab people to believe in their own power.
“This (Israeli defeat) sounded the final death knell of the enduring double myth of Israeli might and invincibility opposed to Arab meekness and passivity,” he said.
Even the post-WWI leftist and anti-racist movements all around the world, representing the second circle of temporality, helped shatter colonially rooted racism, giving access to “the colonized and marginalized to a platform previously reserved for white elite Europeans.”
Additionally, all the revolutions of the third “circle,” both Western and non-Western, also helped galvanize the current uprisings, according to Wick. Examples of these include those leading to the Communist Manifesto, the 1857 Indian rebellion against the British, and the Urabi Revolt of 1879 in Egypt by Colonel Ahmed Urabi in protest of European and control of the country’s finances, the powers of the king, and the poverty and indebtedness of the peasantry.
Describing the current Arab uprisings as ones that are not grounded in a particular revolutionary theory or even political ideology, Wick probed the audience with an intellectual question: “What if revolutions needed not more theory but rather less or none at all?”
Wick referred to the current uprisings as “’a moment of great potentiality,’ precisely because of the breakdown of our special analytical criteria and concepts, precisely because it is a moment when the voiceless masses make us, experts, voiceless, forbidding us from provoking a pretentious closure to our analysis.”