Revolutions raise a collective cry for Arab dignity

Thanks to "incessant infringement by these all-powerful states on the dignity of the Arab citizen, and their rulers' constant affirmation of their citizens' worthlessness", Arabs everywhere had internalised this view of themselves.

Andre da Loba for The National
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On the evening of May 22 this year, the plush, chandelier-lit Al Silia ballroom of the Grand Hyatt hotel in Doha was the setting for a spontaneous expression of solidarity with protesters who had taken to the streets of cities across the Arab world.

The occasion was a lecture organised by Georgetown University's Center for International and Regional Studies, and the man at the lectern was Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Arabic Studies at New York's Columbia University.

Khalidi's talk was entitled "The Arab Revolutions of 2011" and his audience - mainly academics and Arab students from across the region studying at the eight western universities in Doha's Education City - listened intently as the historian listed what he saw as the causes of the widespread upheaval.

There were, he said, specific issues common to all the countries where revolt had flared - "internal problems of democracy, the establishment of the rule of law, constitutions, inequality and social change".

On another level, he was certain, these were also a pan-Arab rejection of the post-colonial influence of western powers, "revolutions against the neoliberal world order and the free-trade market fundamentalist dogma underpinning it". The entire Arab regional system, he said, was "upheld by US power, whose support was crucial to the survival of many of the dictatorial regimes now trembling as their people challenge them".

But it was what Khalidi said next that straightened backs in seats.

"I would add that there was another demand of the people who in the streets have changed history in this part of the world; this was a demand for dignity - karama."

Up to this point, the traditionally dressed young Arab sitting to my left had been messaging on his smartphone. Now he set it down and fixed his attention on the speaker.

Dignity, continued Khalidi, was a personal and a collective matter. Thanks to "incessant infringement by these all-powerful states on the dignity of the Arab citizen, and their rulers' constant affirmation of their citizens' worthlessness - of their subjects' worthlessness", Arabs everywhere had internalised this view of themselves, producing "a pervasive self-loathing and an ulcerous social malaise ... part of the social problem in many parts of the Arab world".

Worse, these rulers had shown contempt for their peoples as a whole, regarding them as "immature, potentially dangerous if allowed free rein [and] definitely not ready for democracy".

Out of the mouths of the likes of Mubarak, Al Assad and Qaddafi had poured scorn. "These rulers," said Khalidi, "said openly what most Arab rulers believe: that their peoples are easily deluded and misled, that their peoples in fact have no dignity. This is the reason that people demanded karama, because they were being denied dignity by their rulers, on an individual basis."

The Arab region was one of the few parts of the globe unaffected by the democratic transitions of the late 20th century. Now, suddenly, the Arabs had shown that "they are no different from anyone else, and these revolutions have in consequence created a sense of collective dignity that was best reflected in the pride of Tunisians and Egyptians after the fall of their respective tyrants".

When Khalidi quoted the words chanted by the triumphant crowds in Tahrir Square - "Raise your head, you are an Egyptian" - his audience broke into spontaneous applause.

"This," he continued, raising his voice to be heard, "was the collective dignity of the Egyptian people, and with them of the entire Arab people, that was being asserted."

Earlier this week, the US President Barack Obama echoed Khalidi's theme when he called on Qaddafi to concede defeat. The people of Libya, he said, were "showing that the universal pursuit of dignity and freedom is far stronger than the iron fist of a dictator".

Yet few in the Arab world will have failed to see past the irony of that rhetoric. Arabs, as Khalidi said in Doha, "are well aware of the long-standing gap between the proclaimed ideals of the great western democracies and their cynical realpolitik policies ... The US has always been torn between its principles - support for democracy, human rights - and between its interests - including upholding dictators who do what is wanted of them".

American support for stability in such countries "in fact really meant support for repression, or corruption, or the frustration of popular demands and the subversion of democracy. It also meant the subordination of the Arab countries to the dictates of US policy and to the demands of Israel".

The demand for collective dignity, he said, was "a call to end this unnatural situation and for the Arab world to return to actually having agency in the face of outside powers, including regional powers like Iran, Turkey and Israel".

In the light of this woeful history, he added, "it probably would be a good thing if American and European statesmen would refrain from preaching to the people of Tunisia or Egypt, who have already engineered striking revolutionary change, or to others in the Arab world who are trying to do the same".

"These young revolutionaries know better what they need to do to achieve democracy and social justice than policymakers in Washington who, until a few months ago, were the closest friends of the dictators and the torturers in Tunis, Cairo, Tripoli and elsewhere and are still intimately linked to a number of other Arab despots."

What happens next is anybody's guess, but a great deal will depend on the hydra-headed protest movements in each country being able not only to coalesce into systems of effective governance that can tackle pressing social and economic concerns and pave the way to democracy, but also to end what Khalidi called the "servility towards Israel and the United States that was one of the key features of the stagnant Arab order ... which robbed the Arabs of their collective dignity".

All of this will be a tough task and much hangs in the balance. Speaking this week by telephone from New York, Khalidi urged caution; the Arab Spring, he said, could not yet be said to be an event as momentous as the fall of the Berlin Wall.

"We've had two and half transitions in 20-odd countries, why don't we wait just a bit and see how this plays out before we compare it to the Berlin Wall? That was enormously important and decades later we can see that it was just as momentous as it appeared at the time. I don't think we can say that yet about the Arab uprisings; they haven't yet succeeded."

In his speech at Doha, and again this week, Khalidi drew a comparison between the Arab Spring and the 1848 Spring of Nations, when social injustice and a hunger for human dignity lit the flame of revolution in countries across Europe. But it is a comparison fraught with an ominous warning.

"We have just passed a great turning point in the story of the world ... an actual passage from old things to new," reported The Times of London in January 1849.

"Questions hitherto discussed in the closet have been decided by armed populations. The majestic creations of policy or of time have been submitted to the suffrages of the casual populace ... princes, dynasties, constitutions, ranks, honors, privileges, everything venerable or effete, noble or debased, has had to plead for existence against opinion and passion ... "

The year of 1848 had begun "like the morning of an earthquake ... The surface was everywhere ruffled, though the several states were too much occupied with their private affairs to note the stealthy inroads of a general disorder."

So far, so 2011.

But, continued The Times, the final act of the drama had still to be written: "The questions propounded are not yet answered, the pledges given are not yet redeemed, the council has only been interrupted by disorder, the sitting has still to be resumed, and the decision proclaimed."

In Paris, where the storm had broken in February 1848 and which had "led the dance of revolution", there was now "every appearance that France under Louis Napoleon and an Assembly will be Louis Philippe and the Chamber of Deputies over again, with no difference but in names. Prussia, also, is falling back to her old military regime.

"To both nations the same order is given, 'As you were', and a year of revolution is forgotten."

In the event, little changed quickly in Europe - it was another 40 or 50 years before the kinds of reforms the revolutionaries fought for in 1843 were finally achieved.

Post-2011, says Khalidi, "The lives of many Arabs, I'm afraid, won't change as much as they hope", but, "If we are lucky, this may be the beginning of a process such as we saw in Europe in 1848.

"It may take less time - let's hope it does - but it may well take a long time before the things the people in the Arab countries, like everybody else, want - dignity, social justice, democracy, transparency, rule of law - come about.

"But there is no going back, this genie has been unleashed. The people know what they want and these are universal values; everybody accepts them now, whether they are Islamist or not."

And human dignity, as history has shown, will not be forever denied.