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The Arab revolution was characterised by a strong call for ‘dignity’. But what does this concept mean to the Arab people? The manifold interpretations of this concept in pluralist political landscapes, should be part of our European perspective and the policy aimed towards the region, according to European politician Marietje Schaake.
By Marietje Schaake
In the spring of 2011, I met with a young Syrian woman. She was involved in peaceful protests and activist networks speaking out against the repression of the Assad regime. Since she had a job that allowed her to travel, I was able to meet with her in a large European city. At that time the uprisings in Syria were not being so severely crushed as they are today. Her group, as she described the network of young people engaged in civil disobedience and peaceful protests, always wore sneakers and knew the labyrinth of Damascus’ streets by heart, in order to be able to run away from police and secret service agents. Their action to paint the water of fountains blood-red as a protest against the killings, would be even more chilling today as it was then. Priorities have since shifted towards mere survival. The courage but also the creativity described by this young woman gave the Syrian opposition a face. She, like many other young activists, described aspirations of claiming human rights, living in freedom, and seeking a democratically elected government to represent the people in a secular state. They called for dignity.
The notion of dignity is inherently liberal, as it implies self-determination in economical, political, social and cultural terms. It implies the choice to live as one wishes, to shape his or her own identity and destiny. Ideally, dignity is not just claimed by the individual, but also granted to others in a reciprocal manner. Dignity is a more subjective concept than for example universal human rights, and therefore means different things to different people. For one person dignity may be experienced through participating in free and fair elections, for the other it means worshipping without repression, speaking out in opposition of government or finding means to be economically independent. Dignity may mean increased self-determination, whether it is in an economic, political, social, cultural or religious context. Free of dogma, church or state.
Clearly, the young woman mentioned above did not represent the
voice of the
Syrian opposition. Uncertainty about the representation of opposition movements throughout the Arab world has not diminished since the first days of the uprisings. Since the early days of the demonstrations in North Africa and the Middle East, increasingly loud voices in the West warned against an Isla-mist power grab that would backfire. And while some of these fears proved legitimate (one only needs to listen to the struggles of women in Egypt seeking the assurance that their basic rights are not revoked (also described in the article by Petra Stienen in this issue), the need to support valid calls for freedom deserved our attention if only even a minority aspired to societies compatible with our values.
Based on the fragmented images reaching us via internet from the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Benghazi and Damascus, not one single message on dignity could be distilled. Clearly the situation in each of these countries varied quite a bit. Additionally, part of the distorted image can be explained by the use of social media that do not provide a representative cross section of society. Rather it was self-selecting. Those who spoke English, perhaps worked or studied abroad, emerged as de facto spokespersons to the outside world. They knew how to reach out to the West, and how to gather support. Complicating the assessment of the situation was the fact that traditional media did not always have the direct access needed to report on events on the ground. During the course of the upheavals, Western media eagerly embraced eloquently blogging and tweeting, well-educated, secular and modern youths as examples of Arab the people. To these media, the Arab spring perhaps became a romanticised equivalent of the 18th-century European enlightenment with the massive use of technologies as proof for a new realisation of individuality: I tweet, therefore I am.
Initial joy and wishful thinking over an Arab Spring have been replaced by a more realistic view of the complexities and uncertainties involved in the transitions of societies that were long ruled by Western backed secular dictators. Two years on, we are faced with new dilemmas. Although the aspirations to live without repression are legitimate, the reality is that new forms of repression present new challenges. Additionally, the uncertainty of transition is leading to hesitation in forging relationships with newly emerging leaders. Since the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East began almost two years ago, responses from the West in general and from liberals specifically are still evolving.
After the ousting of secular dictators, Islamist groups were openly rewarded by the Arab public for their material, economic and spiritual support during the decades of oppression and fear. Their first electoral successes were a manifestation of a number of different things. Islamist political parties enjoyed an advantage of decades of social work and foreign funding and guidance. A well organised political organisation stood in contrast with the long repressed and fragmented liberal voices, who were scrambling to get started. In Egypt I heard people justify their vote for the Muslim Brotherhood or for the Salafist Nour party by saying that people who had not yet stolen from the public deserved a chance. Others based their vote on confidence and gratitude after years of social programs in their neighbourhood, rather than on the wish for the establishment of an Islamic state. It is now up to the electorate, to many a sensational new civic responsibility, to hold the newly elected political leaders to account.
This leads to a related, but different issue of interpretation: what does ‘democracy’ mean to these people? The notions of what democracy means to people, and which priorities they identified after the uprisings, are still in flux. An interesting project that provides insight into public opinion in North African and Middle Eastern societies is the Arab Barometer.
Surveys conducted in seven countries in the months immediately before and after the outbreak of the uprisings, help shed light on what aspirations people are having. The surveys show that support for ‘democracy’ as such remains very high. But the way in which it is actually perceived, differs from political (free and fair elections) to economic (reducing inequality, provision of services) ideals. Before the heights of the political developments the notion of political democracy was on the rise, but in the aftermath of the political upheaval the economic notion was on the rise.
People’s perception of their most urgent needs as well as of their ambitions, change over time. The opinion on the role that religion should play in a democracy decreased between the first survey conducted before the protests kicked-off and the second one afterwards. The percentage of respondents saying that religion should not influence what people vote in elections, went from 67,8 percent in the first survey to 81,2 percent in the second wave. Support for the idea that laws should be made in accordance to the will of the people remained stable (from 62,9 percent to 64,5 percent), but there was a slight increase in the belief that laws should be made in accordance with shari’a (from 67,3 percent to 73,4 percent). Interestingly, only 30,2 percent in the first and second survey considered that democracy and Islam were incompatible. These figures show that shari’a law enjoys wide support, and at the same time people believe that the law should reflect the will of the people. While a secular government is preferred over theocracy, they would like it to see governance on the basis of religious laws. For many people in the West these concepts are not compatible.
The shift from perceiving democracy in political terms to a more economically motivated notion is encouraging, and indicates that socio-economic factors and quality of life are of primary concern. As the public is moving towards a more economically driven perception of democracy, Islamists have to show what they will do with the newly gained power in that respect.
What does this all imply for Europe and the way in which we should respond to these developments? As European liberals, we should not be shy in supporting liberal values in general; liberal movements and parties particularly need our support. This is even more urgent as the universality of human rights is increasingly under pressure in Arab countries after the uprisings. Labelled as pushing a ‘Western construct’, civil society organisations working on human rights find themselves pressured or even ousted from countries like Egypt and the Gulf States. New ways are needed to engage with people in countries in transition. The concept of dignity offers a new lens through which the aspirations of people may be better understood and supported. For people to take ownership of their own future, it is indeed essential that values are embedded in a local cultural, social and political context. In North Africa and the Middle East religion plays a significant role in shaping this context.
In the aftermath of authoritarian rule, developing the concept of dignity as both individual and collective self-determination may not only serve as a lens through which we can see the transitions, it can also be used pragmatically; as a mirror to establish reciprocity in granting freedom and dignity to others. A negotiated vision of a shared future will be essential for populations of countries in transition. Especially in the process of developing rules and laws, a bottom up process needs to be inclusive of diverse voices, and should lead to laws that do justice to the diversity within societies. It should provide a mechanism of clear checks and balances. When individual aspirations translate to a collective vision in a reciprocal manner, ideally there are sufficient safeguards protecting against new abuse of power. When the notion of dignity and self-determination prevail and are in this manner reflected in law, minorities and majorities can live in harmony.
The concept of dignity is familiar for liberals. They should be assisted in strengthening their voices as part of a more pluralist political landscape. There are some developments that highlight the opportunities for liberals throughout North Africa and the Middle East. While in Egypt a lot of work remains to be done in building a coalition of liberal fractions, in Tunisia, liberals are joining forces to take on the Islamist Nahda party in the upcoming June elections. Libyan liberals under Mahmoud Jebril, after winning the elections of July 7th, have successfully put their fellow liberal Ali Zidan in the seat of Prime Minister in the Libyan interim government. Islamists have suffered a serious blow after the attack on the US Embassy in Benghazi, where protests against their extremism resulting in violence have forced them away from the scene.
Despite positive developments, a lot of work remains to be done. One of the objectives European liberals should pursue, is to foster cooperation and communication between different liberal forces in all Arab countries. A first step in that direction was taken in September in Cairo when the inaugural meeting of a network of ‘Arab leaders for Freedom and Democracy’ took place. The participating leaders will support each other in order to change as many Arab countries as possible into free and democratic states, governed on the basis of the rule of law, while continuously looking for new partners. Another objective is supporting the establishment of civil society actors, who under the old dictatorships were never allowed to develop.
The outcome of any process towards self-determination and democracy is always uncertain. While we cannot force the adoption of our model, we can share Europe’s experiences of overcoming dictatorships and division. It is important to invest in the countries of the Arab world that face challenging transitions. The clear calls for dignity, which are clearly linked to aspirations of self-determination, deserve our ear. We need to explore what it means within different contexts, and how we can work with it pragmatically. There isn’t a single conclusion to be drawn yet from the impact of the uprisings that took place in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. The situation in each of these countries is unique and diverse. The need for basic respect for human rights remains a priority everywhere.
is a Member of the European Parliament (ALDE). She is a member of the parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs (AFET).
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Dit artikel verscheen in idee nr. 6 2012: Trust in people’s own power
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