Cards on table

A man reads a newspaper near a statue of youth activist Gaber Salah, also known as Gika, who died last month during clashes with riot police and near sit-in protesters' tents, during the anniversary of his birthday at Tahrir Square in Cairo December 29, 2012. (REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

From time to time, pundits and observers warn that the Arab Spring is turning into an “Arab Winter.” They often focus on conditions in a given country that has experienced a popular uprising and highlight the violence, chaos or disappointment that has followed an initial burst of energy or optimism.

On the one hand, these analysts and commentators have a valid point, based on the rhetoric that people hear, and the developments in various Arab countries.

But on the other hand, the era of Arab uprisings should be given credit for delivering this supposedly bad news. In the past, politicians and the media had a great deal of freedom when they discussed the Arab street. After all, they didn’t have to worry very much about election results, or the detailed policy platforms of opposition groups and political parties. Even when elections did happen, one could ignore the data, citing the un-free conditions under which the polls took place, whether it was at the level of Parliament, or even professional bodies and civil associations.

But after the eruptions of street protests of 2011, this method of dealing with the Arab world has steadily become less valuable. After decades of being in the shadows, Arab publics and their actual political orientations are becoming clearer and clearer. In the past, one might have spoken in vague or general terms about political, religious and sectarian divisions in a given country, but these days, this situation is becoming clearer with every passing day. In some cases, there is reason to fear, while in others, the alarmist scenarios of the past have failed to materialize. Some political groups have begun strong, and ended up weak. Others have experienced slow starts, but are now becoming stronger. Experts and analysts are now obliged to refine their opinions, because of the new information that appears on a regular basis. The process might not be particularly smooth, but it’s certainly better than people’s sentiments and political opinions being hidden from view.

People in a number of Arab states are rapidly gaining the practical experience needed to put forward their demands and declare their core principles. Political leaders have less room to maneuver because they are facing increasing pressure to respond to the public.

As people have seen in Egypt, a political party founded by invoking religion enjoys no guarantee that it can avoid criticism when it takes power. The general mood in the Arab world, thanks to the popular uprisings, is that no person or group is exempt from accountability. The wall of fear that used to exist in this part of the world is either rapidly disappearing, or has vanished entirely.

Some experts have spoken about the “labor pains” that are being felt in a number of Arab countries, which is probably the best description of the process. If one hears shouting and screaming, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the outcome is going to be bad. Whether one is talking about citizens, their representatives or government officials, there is less and less room for making excuses, such as “we don’t know what people want.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 03, 2013, on page 7.




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