I had the pleasure this week of mingling with historians at a conference at Missouri State University. It was co-sponsored by Drury University and the universities in Oklahoma and Arkansas, and allowed me to share analyses with them on the ongoing Arab uprisings that are truly historic and others that are merely fleeting.
Using the narrative tools of the journalist along with the analytical lens of the historians, I suggested that we can already identify a series of genuinely historic, new and meaningful developments in many of the Arab states in transformation, after 21 months of the Arab uprisings. Here is my list of the five most important ones.
First, new legitimacies are coming into play, including legitimate governance structures, leaders and political actors, replacing their former counterparts that enjoyed incumbency but had long ago lost legitimacy. The transition from mass public humiliation to newfound legitimacy in national governance and the exercise of power is the single most important foundational change taking place in these Arab uprisings and national reconfigurations. These new legitimacies provide the foundation on which all other new developments occur, especially new national systems of governance and citizen rights.
Second, new actors now participate in the process of contested politics that will shape national governments systems and policies at home and abroad; these include, most notably, revolutionary and other youth, individual citizens with the power to choose and change governments and presidents, Muslim Brothers and more hard-line Salafist Islamists (some of whom lead or participate in coalition governments), tribes (some with militias), secular-nationalist political parties, the armed forces now engaging in open rather than secret politics, the judiciary, civil society groups and private sector interests.
We should note three important aspects of these new players. They all emanate from these Arab societies and did not parachute in from abroad, and now operate in public and with populist democratic legitimacy, rather than working in the shadows as many of them did before. This includes the military, tribal forces, the private sector and some Islamists.
They also reflect the important development that very few people are now excluded or marginalized, as was the case previously when the vast majority of citizens were shut out from the decision-making process.
And, they evolve and change, as they share or seek power via the consent of the governed. They soften or harden positions and clarify their policies in response to citizen demands, and so they act in a political manner, reflecting their need to remain legitimate and credible in the eyes of their supporters and the public at large.
Third, new accountabilities: Power is no longer exercised totally with abandon, but rather public decisions now are often held accountable to checks and balances by other legitimate actors and institutions in society. Among those who are now more accountable than they were before 2011 are some presidents, parliaments, ministers, and security-military officials, along with the private sector and foreign powers.
It seems clear now that no single group in Egypt, Tunisia or Libya can monopolize power and dominate the state decision-making process as did the former autocratic and dictatorial regimes that were overthrown; for if they do, they will immediately be confronted by countervailing pressures by others in society who insist on maintaining the pluralism that has been earned with the citizenry’s rebellion and blood.
Fourth, new rules: These have come primarily in the form of new constitutions that capture the legitimacy and accountability imperatives, and transform the concept of democratic pluralism and citizen rights into practical applications of the rule of law. The intensive consultations and contestations taking place now in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya over the drafting of new constitutions that reflect a genuine national consensus are the single most important political process underway in this post-regime change phase of the national reconfiguration projects underway. They capture the immediate gains of the revolutionary changes, which include free citizens and organized parties and other groups (civil society, religious, tribal and private sector forces) engaging in peaceful political dialogue and contestation in the public realm. This is both historic (it never happened before seriously) and historical (it will go on for decades or centuries).
And fifth, seminal new balances are being defined and negotiated in several crucial realms of public life that will shape national systems for decades to come. The most important ones strike me as the balance between military and civilian officials, between religiosity and secularism in public life, and between private-tribal-local and public-national identities. These balances required decades or even centuries to be fully agreed in other countries and to result in stable, credible political systems. The process to define them has just started and will take years to reach conclusions.
These five developments seem to me to represent some truly historic consequences that we can identity from the last 21 months of transformations in several Arab countries. They are also the reason why I remain optimistic that the future for many Arab countries will continue to brighten in the years ahead.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.