The Middle East's freedom train has just left the station

By Rami G. Khouri

Wednesday, February 02, 2011


What a supreme irony it was for me to be in London and Paris between Saturday and Tuesday this week, as the popular revolt against the Egyptian regime of President Hosni Mubarak reached its peak in Cairo, Alexandria and other cities.


To appreciate what is taking place in the Arab world today you have to grasp the historical significance of the events that have started changing rulers and regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, with others sure to follow. What we are witnessing is the unraveling of the post-colonial order that the British and French created in the Arab world in the 1920s and 1930s and then sustained – with American and Soviet assistance – for most of the last half-century.


It is fascinating, if insular, to focus attention, as much Western media are doing, on whether Facebook drove these revolts; or to ask what will happen if the Muslim Brotherhood plays a role in any new Egyptian government. The Arabs are like a bride emerging on her wedding day to face people commenting on whether her shoes match her gloves, when the real issue is how beautiful and happy she is.


The events unfolding before our eyes in Egypt, after Tunisia, are the third most important historical development in the Arab region in the past century, and to miss that point is to perpetuate a tradition of Western Orientalist romanticism and racism that have been a large cause of our pain for all these years. This is the most important of the three major historical markers because it is the first one that marks a process of genuine self-determination by Arab citizens who can speak and act for themselves for the first time in their modern history.


The two other pivotal historical markers were: first, the creation of the modern Arab state system after World War I, at the hands of retreating European colonial powers, some of whom were intoxicated with both imperial power and, on occasion, with cognac, and who created most of the Arab countries that have limped into the 21st century as wrecks of statehood.


And second, the period around 1970-1980 when the European-manufactured modern Arab state system transformed itself into a collection of security and police states that treated their citizens as serfs without human rights, and that came to rely on massive levels of foreign support to maintain the rickety Arab order for decades more.


Now, we are witnessing the third and most significant Arab historical development, which is the spontaneous drive by millions of ordinary Arabs to finally assert their humanity, demand their rights, and take command of their own national condition and destiny.


Never before have we had entire Arab populations stand up and insist on naming their rulers, shaping their governance system, and defining the values that drive their domestic and foreign policies. Never before have we had free Arab citizenries in pursuit of self-determination. Never before have we seen grassroots political, social and religious movements compel leaders to change their Cabinets and re-order the role of the armed forces and police. This is a revolt against specific Arab leaders and governing elites who have implemented policies that have seen the majority of Arabs dehumanized, pauperized, victimized and marginalized by their own power structure. But it is also a revolt against the tradition of major Western powers that created the modern Arab states and then fortified and maintained them as security states.


The process at hand now in Tunisia and Egypt will continue to ripple throughout the entire Arab world, as ordinary citizens realize that they must seize and protect their birthrights of freedom and dignity. It is a monumental task to transform oneself from a condition of autocracy and serfdom to one of democracy and human rights. The Europeans needed 500 years to make the transition from the Magna Carta to the French Revolution. The Americans needed 300 years to transition from slavery to civil rights and women’s rights.


Self-determination is a slow process that needs time. The Arab world is only now starting to engage in this exhilarating process, a full century after the false and rickety statehood that drunken retreating European colonialists left behind as they fled back to their imperial heartlands.


It takes time and energy to re-legitimize an entire national governance system and power structure that have been criminalized, privatized, monopolized and militarized by small groups of petty autocrats and thieving families. Tunisia and Egypt are the first to embark on this historic journey, and other Arabs will soon follow, because most Arab countries suffer the same deficiencies that have been exposed for all to see in Egypt.


Make no mistake about it, we are witnessing an epic, historic moment of the birth of concepts that have long been denied to ordinary Arabs: the right to define ourselves and our governments, to assert our national values, to shape our governance systems, and to engage with each other and the rest of the world as free human beings, with rights that cannot be denied forever.


In January 2011, a full century after some Arabs started agitating for their freedoms from Ottoman and European colonial rule, and after many false starts in recent decades, we finally have a breakthrough to our full humanity.


Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.