As the Arab uprisings enter their second year, a new political movement based on the concept and values of citizenship is needed.
A lacuna now exists on the Arab political scene. The Arab uprisings shattered the old order but have yet to coalesce into a clear model for the future. A movement of citizens, expressed in organized political parties with clearly articulated programs, would tap into the patriotic and ecumenical grassroots protest movements and ensure that a historic opportunity for progress is not squandered.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, its former republics remerged some as democracies and others as family dictatorships. Democracy has taken hold in Eastern Europe. Almost all of the countries in Latin America and much of East Asia have also replaced dictatorships with robust democracies.
The Arab world, which by contrast was immune to change for decades, has finally entered a period of dynamic transformation. It has traditionally been ruled by authoritarian regimes, ranging from brutal dictatorships to more benign monarchies sharing some of their wealth with their people. Typically old regimes bullied the opposition and blackmailed the West and their own people by positing only Islamist alternatives to their thuggish form of “stability.”
The impulse of rejecting repression proved strong enough to topple or threaten many regimes. Through their protests, millions of formerly subjugated Arabs asserted their rights and agency as citizens. Yet this potentially transformative moment could be squandered if its energies remain diffused, vaguely articulated and disorganized.
The powerful liberationist, patriotic and ecumenical energies driving Arab protest movements have not been harnessed by organized political parties. This would entail developing a new social contract based on democracy, good governance, transparency and the rule of law, and would constitute genuine liberation. This era of historic change should not degenerate into power struggles between autocratic generals and theocratic reactionaries.
Harnessing the energies and realizing the ideals of the uprisings will require a new narrative promoted by local parties throughout the Arab world that emphasizes the rights and responsibilities of the citizen. This means re-conceptualizing the relationship between the individual citizen and both the state and society. A broad-based Arab cultural identity exists, but a citizenship movement must produce a set of parties that can apply these principles according to local conditions in varying Arab countries.
Understanding individuals as citizens, and not subjects or wards of states, reframes the state as the guarantor of the individual and collective rights of the citizenry rather than the solution to all social challenges. The idea that governance requires legitimacy that can only be achieved through the consent of the governed has become widespread in the Arab world. Even many parties with authoritarian impulses accept this principle, at least in theory.
Citizenship-based systems would allow all political orientations to vie peacefully for political power within the framework of rules of the democratic game. But this must be done without any recourse to violence, in the absence of militias and armed gangs of any kind, and with full respect for the outcome of democratic processes and the regular, peaceful transfer of power.
The same citizenship rights that authorize political power for electoral majority groupings also protect minorities, women and individuals from the unjust curtailing of their rights by tyrannous majorities. Such a movement can transcend divisions between Sunnis and Shiites, Muslims and Christians, nationalists and Islamists, and left-wingers and right-wingers. Such a narrative offers everyone, without exception, the same legal and political status as equal citizens under the law.
This narrative must be placed within a historic, political and cultural context to reframe the relationship between the state and the citizen, and will require the development of robust and impartial rule of law backed by independent judiciaries. If the experience of the rest of the developing world is any guide, it should unleash powerful latent economic potential held back by sclerotic bureaucracies and indefensible state monopolies.
Systems that favor citizenship offer a clear path forward for post-dictatorship governance in countries like Tunisia and Egypt, as well as those with strong sectarian divisions like Iraq and Lebanon. In Syria, which is at risk of a devastating, sectarian civil conflict, a new movement emphasizing the rights of the citizen provides a unique way to restructure political relations that will allow all Syrians to participate and benefit equally from a democratic and pluralistic order. There is also nothing in this vision that contradicts constitutional monarchy as a legitimate form of government.
This movement would enable Palestinians to see themselves primarily as empowered citizens of a future independent state. It would open space for greater political pluralism. Dynamic participation by empowered citizens would create a more stable and representative political order, strengthen the constituency across the political spectrum for elections and good governance, and produce a more cohesive and effective movement for national liberation.
The Arab world is heterogeneous, diverse, multiethnic and multi-religious. This often both is seen and serves as a source of division and tensions. This diversity can be turned into a source of political, cultural and economic strength if Arab societies empower and protect the rights and responsibilities of individual citizens, including ethnic and religious minorities and women.
The Arab world is no more special or unique than any other part of the world. Arab societies must therefore join the rest of the world in applying universal values with regard to the rights of individuals as citizens. They cannot allow themselves to be shortchanged either by themselves or by others into accepting anything less than universal standards for human and individual rights, which politically means those of the fully empowered citizen.
With the region in upheaval and in search of solutions, Arab societies have a unique opportunity to develop a political, social and cultural movement – articulated by a range of local political parties addressing the particularities of each Arab country – that promotes a new social contract based on the rights and responsibilities of the individual citizen.
Ziad Asali is president of the American Task Force on Palestine. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.