"The Arab World’s Work Has Just Begun"
Op-Ed, Agence Global
November 7, 2011
Author: Rami Khouri, Senior Fellow, Middle East Initiative
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: Dubai Initiative
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama -- I’ve had the moving and educational experience of spending a few days in Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama, studying the narratives and lessons of the civil rights movement in the United States. Simultaneously, I have kept an eye on the Arab world that is trying to make its own transition from a condition of autocracy and mass citizen rights denials to one of greater equality and human dignity. I will write in my next column on the many parallels I see between the American civil rights struggle and the two relevant struggles throughout our region: the citizen revolts in several Arab countries and the continuing Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation, colonization and subjugation.
Last Thursday, I spent time walking through Kelly Ingram Park in central Birmingham, the epicenter of the non-violent protests against racism and the high-water mark of the violent attempts by the ruling white authorities -- using police dogs, high-pressure fire hoses, beatings and mass imprisonment, among other things. That experience helped me to better appreciate both the intensity of the non-violent struggle in the face of sustained state violence, and the nature of the transition to a better order that now pertains across Alabama and the American south. I was again struck by the central issue of how societies that suffered deep wounds and then experienced sharp confrontations ultimately made the transition to a condition of equality and justice. Appropriately, the motto that defines Kelly Ingram Park and the Birmingham experience is the journey from “revolution to reconciliation.”
Tunisia, Libya and Egypt are the first Arab countries now making this transition, while others are in various stages of protest, political contestation or only discussions about reform issues. The events in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt remind us of three important realities: The process of transformation will be different across the Arab countries. It will take years to bear fruit and stabilize, and it will suffer setbacks as well as forward movement.
It is striking in this respect that during the same week that Tunisians digested the satisfaction of their election and the thrill of watching legitimately elected political parties consulting furiously in order to form a coalition government, in Egypt the ruling military council tried to move the country backwards by demanding that all political parties agree to provisions in the drafting of a new constitution that would cement the military’s dominant role in national governance. The proposed measures would shield the military from parliamentary or civilian oversight, allow it to veto any legislation dealing with armed forces affairs, and minimize the authority of the parliament that will be elected in the coming two months to designate the members of a panel that will write a new constitution. The armed forces would also be designated as the protector of "constitutional legitimacy," giving them a permanent and final say over national policies.
In Libya, meanwhile, the focus is on more basic issues, including: rounding up the weapons that are in the hands of dozens of tribal-based militias that were instrumental in overthrowing the Gaddafi regime, forging a basic level of national integrity, establishing a security architecture, and moving ahead with the immense tasks of reaffirming national cohesion, designing a governance system from scratch, and agreeing on broad policy directions.
We should not be surprised that we see three very different situations in the three Arab countries that have started their transitions. The reality of post-revolutionary state-building is demanding, tedious, slow, erratic and complicated. That is becoming obvious in the Arab world just as it has been here in the American south, where rule-of-law-based transitions to equality, freedom and democracy required a century or more. The national constitutional amendment to grant all American citizens the vote was passed in 1870; it took another 95 years, until 1965, for the Voting Rights Act to be passed and nullify all state-level restrictions on black people’s right to vote.
In many ways, reconciliation is much more difficult than revolution. Building a new constitutional and democratic political order is far more demanding than overthrowing a corrupt and brutal regime. When I asked a black woman acquaintance in Birmingham this week to reflect on her experience in the civil rights movement that has defined her entire life, I asked her to tell me what she believes is the single most important quality to assert to make sure that the gains of this or any other transformation are safeguarded and perpetuated for future generations. She pondered for only about two seconds and replied, “vigilance.”
Many of the leaders of the American civil rights movement transformed themselves into advocacy groups after their victory, she noted, and kept up the pressure on the political system in a different manner. I suspect we are witnessing the same thing going on now in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, as we all learn about the thrills and the hard work of walking that glorious path in the park from revolution to reconciliation. The hard work of rebuilding a more legitimate, humane Arab order has just begun.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.
Copyright © 2011 Rami G. Khouri -- distributed by Agence Global
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