The Middle East needs to carve out its own path

by Omar Naboulsi

Since the current waves of Arab uprisings first began just over a year ago there has been not only uninvolved interest from spectators in the Western world but also genuine feelings and expressions of sympathy and solidarity with Arab struggles against tyranny.

For the most part, these have been touching, much-welcome reminders that we are citizens of the same planet with the same human drives and desires. This is particularly the case when this solidarity comes from citizens, rather than from national leaders, many of whom coincidentally made decisions to stop backing their favourite tyrant at the exact same time his people began braying for his blood.

There is no doubt that the vast majority of this outpouring of empathy is well-meaning and has the noblest of intentions. The Arab Spring was sparked by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a man who embodied the injustices felt by millions. But what exactly it is that has been taking place across the Arab world since is near impossible to know for certain.

People remain driven by the same needs, for freedom and sustenance and lives worth living.  However, the Arab Spring is no longer a straightforward rush towards freedom, all of whose aspects are to be unquestioningly admired and encouraged. The world at large soon adjusted to the dynamics of revolution and the bravery and willpower of the people was quickly sullied by the encroachment of the geo-political struggles of old.

Even those peoples now officially declared free remain caught in the uncannily familiar throngs of poverty. Toppling a figurehead is no guarantee for a better life. Part of the problem lies in the fact that many Arab countries lack any form of opposition truly capable of taking over. For this reason the post-revolutionary periods so far have consisted of former members of tyrannical cabinets desperately trying to find new masks, while the countries’ resources continue to be siphoned off. Here special congratulations are in order to the members of NATO on their luckiest of windfalls, the entirety of Libyan oil.

The so-called Arab Spring, in its current narrative, is defective. Popular demands are being simply incorporated into the pre-existing toolkit of geo-political manoeuvring. Decrying the aid, be it rhetorical or military, afforded by Western leaders to the uprisings might be labelled ingratitude. But one cannot help but wonder why it was that a procession of tyrants was put in place across various Arab countries in the first place and supported for decades by generations of Western leaders. Indeed, why is the Arab world split into bit-part nation-states at all, in the way that it currently is? Was the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire the final act in the conflict between West and East, finally putting paid to old enmities with the consolation that divided was as good as conquered?

However one might wish to answer such questions, it remains hugely unlikely that change facilitated and enabled by those very same entities to whose advantage has been partition and tyranny is in any way representative of real change.

If this sounds like hyperbole, consider the possibility that, by some otherworldly miracle, the Arab world unites, stretching from the Atlantic ocean to the foothills of the Caucasus, friendly to the West but also an economic and intellectual rival, with its own distinct culture and mores. Would such an eventuality not alarm a good many of those who today trumpet the Arab Spring?

The very notion of freedom is heavily loaded. What sort of revolution do foreign sympathisers of the Arab Spring have in mind, and what sort of revolution do the people of the Arab world desire? The overthrow of dictatorship might be the Arab Spring’s primary focus but its huge momentum carries with it all kinds of change. And while the Arab world might indeed be in need of development, overseas support for revolutionary movements becomes more contentious when Western audiences start to expect (and encourage) Arab social change to be squarely in the direction of imitating the social vogues of the Western world.

There appears to be a real notion that the Arab world might emerge from its dark ages and be accepted into the the modern world through mimicry of the West. I make no commentary on the superiority of either culture over the other. Rather, I seek to question the notion that the only natural means of progress is to blindly follow in the footsteps of Europe and the United States.

If there is to be a real revolution, any new Arab order must spring from within its own cultural environment, under the auspices of its own people, and not through well-meaning members of another culture, under the impression that they know better than those people do themselves. Nor is any true revolution going to happen under the paternal guidance of any current leading political powers, Western or otherwise. To be truly heard, the Arab people have to develop their own voice.

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