Early in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, it seemed that winning was understood by the massed demonstrators to mean getting rid of the hated leader, of Ben Ali in the Tunisian case, and Mubarak in the Egyptian. But as the process deepened, it make clear that more was being demanded and expected, and that this had to do with restoring the material and spiritual dignity of life in all its aspects.
Without any assurance as to what ‘winning’ means in the setting of the extraordinary revolutionary uprisings that are continuing to rock the established order throughout the Arab world, it is likely to mean different things in the various countries currently in turmoil. But at the very least, winning has so far meant challenging, by determined and incredibly brave nonviolence, the oppressive established order. This victory over long reigns of fear-induced pacification is itself a great transformative moment in 21st century history, no matter what happens in the months ahead.
As Chandra Muzaffar, the widely respected Malaysian scholar, compellingly argues, the replacement of the old order by electoral democracy, while impressive as an accomplishment given the dictatorial rule of the past in these countries, will not be nearly enough to vindicate the sacrifices of the protestors. It is significantly better than those worst case scenarios that insist that the future will bring dismal varieties of ‘Mubarakism without Mubarak,’ which would change the faces and names of the rulers but leave the oppressive and exploitative regimes essentially intact. This would definitely be a pyrrhic victory, given the hopes and demands that motivated the courageous political challenges embodied in withstanding without weapons the clubs, rubber bullets, live ammunition, and overall brutality, as well as the uncertainty as to what the soldiers in the streets would do when the order to open fire at the demonstrators came from the beleaguered old guard.
What is needed beyond constitutional democracy is the substantive realization of good and equitable governance: this includes, above all, people-oriented economic policies, an end to corruption, and the protection of human rights, including especially economic and social rights. Such an indispensable agenda recognizes that the primary motivation of many of the demonstrators was related to their totally alienating entrapment in a jobless future, combined with the daily struggle to obtain the bare necessities of a tolerable life.
There is present here both questions of domestic political will and governmental capability to redirect the productive resources and distributive policies of the society. How much political space is available to alter the impositions of neoliberal globalization that was responsible for reinforcing, if not inducing, the grossly inequitable and corrupting impact of the world economy on the structuring of domestic privilege and deprivation? Not far in the background is an extended global recession that may be deepened in coming months due to alarming increases in commodity prices, especially food. According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, the world Food Price Index reached a record high in December 2010, a level exceeded by another 3% rise in January of this year. Lester Brown, a leading expert on world food and environment, wrote a few days ago that “[t]he world is now one poor harvest away from chaos in world grain markets.” [International Herald Tribune, Feb 23, 2011]
With political turmoil threatening world energy supplies, oil prices are also surging, allegedly further endangering the uneven and fragile economic recovery in the United States and Europe. Global warming adds a further troubling feature to this deteriorating situation, with droughts, floods, fires, and storms, making it difficult to maintain crop yields, much less increase food production to meet increasing demands of the world’s growing population.
These impinging realities will greatly complicate the already formidable difficulties facing new leaders throughout the Arab world seeking with a sense of urgency to create job opportunities and affordable supplies of food for their citizenries. This challenge is intensified by the widely shared high expectations of improved living circumstances. If the autocratic prior regime was held responsible for mass impoverishment of the many and the scandalously excessive enrichment of the few, is it not reasonable to suppose that the more democratic successor governments should establish without much delay greatly improved living conditions? And further, how could it be claimed that the heroic uprising was worthwhile if the quality of life of ordinary citizens, previously struggling to avert the torments of impoverishment, does not start improving dramatically almost immediately? An understandably impatient public may not give their new leaders the time that need, given these conditions, to make adjustments that will begin to satisfy these long denied hopes and needs. Perhaps, the public will be patient if there are clear signs that the leaders are trying their hardest, and even if actual progress is slow, there is some evidence that the material conditions of the populace are, at least, on an ascending slope.
Even if the public is patient beyond reason, and understands better than can be prudently expected the difficulties of achieving economic justice during a period of transition to a new framework of governance, there may be still little or no capacity to fulfill public expectations due to the impact of these worsening global conditions. It is quite possible that if the worst food/energy scenarios unfold, famines and food riots could occur, casting dark shadows of despair across memories of these historic victories that made the initial phases of each national uprising such a glowing testament to the human spirit, which seemed miraculously undaunted by decades of oppression and abuse.
It needs also to be kept in mind that often the slogans of the demonstrators highlighted a thirst for freedom and rights. Even though there is little experience of democratic practice throughout the region, there will likely be a serious attempt by new governing institutions to distinguish their practices from those of their hated forebears, and allow for the exercise of all forms of oppositional activity, including freedom of expression, assembly, and party formation. Unlike the problems associated with creating jobs and providing for material needs, the establishment of the atmosphere of a free society is within the physical capacities of a new leadership if the political will exists to assume the unfamiliar risks associated with democratic practices. We must wait and see how each new leadership handles these normative challenges of transition. It remains to be seen as to whether the difficulties of transition are intensified by counterrevolutionary efforts to maintain or restore the old deforming structures and privileges. These efforts are likely to be aided and abetted by a range of covert collaborative undertakings joining external actors with those internal forces threatened by impending political change.
And if this overview was not discouraging enough, there is one further consideration. As soon as the unifying force of getting rid of the old leadership is eroded, if not altogether lost, fissures within the oppositions are certain to emerge. There will be fundamental differences as between radical and liberal approaches to transition, and especially whether to respect the property rights and social hierarchies associated with the old regime, or to seek directly to correct the injustices and irregularities of the past. Some critics of the Mandela approach to reconciliation and transition in South Africa believe that his acceptance of the social and economic dimensions of the repudiated apartheid structure have resulted in a widely felt sense of revolutionary disappointment, if not betrayal, in South Africa.
There will also be tactical and strategic differences about how to deal with the world economy, especially with respect to creating stability and attractive conditions for foreign investment. It is here that tensions emerge as between safeguarding labor rights and making investors feel that their operations will remain profitable in the new political environment.
This recitation of difficulties is not meant to detract attention from or in any way to diminish the glorious achievements of the revolutionary uprisings, but to point to the unfinished business that must be addressed if revolutionary aspirations are going to be able to avoid disillusionment. So often revolutionary gains are blunted or even lost shortly after the old oppressors have been dragged from the stage of history. If ever there exists the need for vigilance it at these times when the old order is dying and the new order is struggling to be born. As Gramsci warned long ago this period of inbetweeness is vulnerable to a wide range of predatory tendencies. It is a time when unscrupulous elements can repress anew even while waving a revolutionary banner and shouting slogans about defending the revolution against its enemies. And a difficulty here is that the enemies may well be real as well as darkly imagined. How many revolutions in the past have been lost due to the machinations of their supposed guardians?
Let us fervently hope that the mysteries of the digital age will somehow summon the creative energy to manage the transition to sustainable and substantive democracy as brilliantly as it earlier staged the revolutionary uprisings.