Letters on the Revolutions: Can We Solve the Catch-22?

  • 2011•03•31

    Howard Hudson

    As regimes splinter across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), researchers from the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance came together to share their views on the region and its future. Will democracy take root as in Eastern Europe 20 years ago? Will each country chart its own course? Or will the region slip back into the deadly circular logic of a “Catch 22“?

    To understand the long-term context, Ph.D. fellows Zina Nimeh (from Jordan) and Sepideh Yousefzadeh (from Iran) gave a series of personal accounts and analyses. Our third contributor, “Georgia” (not her real name), works for an international body in the Persian Gulf and chose not to reveal her identity.

    Counting sacrifices and blessings

    For Yousefzadeh, leaving her job in Iran was the first of many sacrifices: “As a UNICEF staff member, I was not allowed to join the protests [against President Ahmadinejad after the disputed elections of June 2009]. So I had to make a choice between my career and my duty as a citizen to bring democratic changes to my society. I chose the struggle.”

    “Like many others, I would count the days to the next protest. There were times of real fear and the days between the demonstrations were the hardest…. There were times when we would walk with a long green piece of fabric above our heads. Those were moments of hope, marked by the harmony and synergy of the protesters.”

    Then came the crackdown: “My close friend was arrested and thrown in jail. I couldn’t stop thinking about her. What is she eating? Is she warm? Will she be released? You are sorry for anyone imprisoned unjustly, but having a close friend detained makes the experience all the more tangible.”

    So how can Iranians, Libyans and others overcome these obstacles? Should they be ready to make the ultimate sacrifice? No, says Yousefzadeh. “We have to avoid not only committing but also suffering further violence. We are struggling for a better life, and the means to get there cannot be martyrdom. The massacre in Libya cannot be explained by the ‘price we pay for freedom’.”

    “I have the same feeling for what is going on in Iran; and I no longer think that street protests are the right strategy. Turmoil is part of the process but these sudden revolutionary changes are more likely to leave us with extreme options for negotiations.”

    Foreign powers and future generations

    Yousefzadeh also warns us to remember the role of outside stakeholders. “This process not only involves the Middle East; it also involves the EU and the US, and their strategic alliances. From a long-term perspective, outside players are more significant than individual countries in the Middle East because their predefined ‘interests’ do not always support democracy. Their support is not important per se, but their reactions linked to their fears or interests could weaken the movement.

    “This was our experience in Iran. For example, foreign support given to Iraq during the Iran–Iraq war in the 1980s impacted on opposition groups in Iran. Defending the country was the priority so, with a few exceptions, opposition movements joined to defend the country. It was then that the revolutionary government designed its systems of control and suppression.”

    Despite all the hardships Yousefzadeh is adamant that change will come: “The youth are the engine of these revolutions, and there is no way of going back or stopping what has started. The same is true for the ‘Green Movement’ in Iran. There will come moments of remission, peak, and silence, but on it will go until we achieve true democracy.”

    Distant voices within

    For Zina Nimeh, a Jordanian married to an Egyptian living in Maastricht, The Netherlands, the events of early 2011 took on a personal note despite their distance. “This feels like a much awaited moment; young people who were well educated, came from well-off backgrounds and had a bright future ahead of them gave it all up to fight for the promise of a better future for everyone.”

    “They were people like us. Not Islamists, not fundamentalists, not even politicians, and they were killed when they decided to voice their demand for a country which should honour their universal human rights. The argument of the regimes has always been that they were the only ones capable of maintaining order; that without them fundamentalism and chaos would consume the region and proliferate across the world.”

    In early March 2011 these words were echoed by the son of the Libyan president, Seif al-Islam Ghaddafi, who warned that his country could degenerate into another Somalia. To counter the scaremongering, Nimeh re-frames the question and looks to the younger generation. She says that Europe should remember its own ticking time bomb: its aging population (for more on this listen to March 4 podcast produced by the United Nations University Maastricht Economic and Social Research Institute on Innovation and Technology (UNU-MERIT)).

    “Estimates tell us that more than 60 per cent of today’s Middle Eastern population is under the age of 30. This is a valuable resource — for the region, Europe and beyond — which should be appreciated, nurtured and developed through quality education and social protection. For the rest, I think we are privileged to witness history in the making. I am optimistic.”

    Minefield of complexity

    Others are more cautious. “Georgia”, our contributor from the Gulf, warns that “religion, culture and politics are not separate entities as in the West, and this has important implications for governance challenges and change”.

    Further, “religious leadership, often crossing formal national boundaries, influences law-making and shapes perceptions at all levels of society; but at the same time, Islam doesn’t have the hierarchical governance structure that we see in other religions like Catholicism. Moreover, the respect for religious precepts and authority has often been prioritized over democratic aspirations.”

    “Georgia” also identifies redistribution of wealth as another key aspect which could save or split a number of regimes over the coming weeks: “Some of the more stable and open societies, like the United Arab Emirates (UAE), focus on giving many of the ‘benefits of democracy without the democratic system’. Thus, many policies are deployed to keep nationals happy, even while having relatively high levels of unemployment. These include housing provision, generous unemployment benefits and allowances, free education (and sometimes even scholarships plus stipends to university students), and differentiated workforce policies.”

    However, “countries like Libya and Egypt are quite different. Their nationals are struggling with limited economic opportunities and the consequences of many years of corrupt government and regimes that had become oppressive and violent.”

    Therefore “the push for reform will likely spread to other countries in the region where there is a sizable portion of the local population which is struggling with a lack of economic opportunities (i.e., unemployment) and whose leaderships have not devoted enough attention to them (for lack of resources or will) through alternative economic compensation schemes. That would leave out, in principle, countries like the UAE, whose political and religious tolerance are well combined with economic strength (as a country) and generous welfare and ‘wasta’ (networking) benefits to nationals.”

    Despite the dangers youth and opposition movements across the region are riding the momentum to seek a better life, rising again and again in the face of oppression. History is being made, but whether this translates into the full democracy of Eastern Europe, “democracy lite” as in UAE, or national permutations remains to be decided by the people. The West can impose sanctions or set up no-fly zones as they have finally done since March 19 over Libyan airspace, but only the people themselves can unravel the Catch 22.

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    The Maastricht Graduate School of Governance joined UNU-MERIT in early 2011, becoming the United Nations’ first public policy graduate school.