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The Multidimensional Character of the Arab Revolutions, Part 1

This is Part 1 of a 5 part series. Watch for Part 2 on Monday, July 11, 2011.

Mordu Serry-Kamal

Beginning in the latter part of 2010, a wave of vigorous and sustained civil unrest was suddenly galvanized and unleashed against the governments of certain Arab states in the Middle East and North Africa. By virtue of the initially slow and uncoordinated responses to the protests, the affected governments appeared not to have expected such widespread disturbances to be directed against the established status quo. This was probably because of an apparently prevailing societal sentiment that the Arab people will never overwhelmingly rise up against their governments.

However, based on certain statements clamored by some of the protesters, it seemed as if the primary reason underlying these upheavals had been rooted in the persistence of the political cultures in these countries which have, as a result, prompted widespread demands for radical political change. This is evident by virtue of the slogans expressed, through the international media, by some of the protesters. For example, early in the Tunisian Revolution, a protester vented his frustrations through this statement: “We want no food, no jobs, and no opportunities. We just want him out”. This was, apparently, a veiled reference to the then president and the entire political apparatus of that state. Further, within an identical political climate, a teenage protester in Egypt directed his disdain at the then president who had refused to tender his resignation, as the protesters had demanded, by posing this question: “Does he not have any dignity?” Still others, in various countries in the regions, carried hand-written signs with inscriptions that suggested a determination for a comprehensive and an immediate political change: “Game Over”, “We are Tired”, “We Want Freedom for All”, “Go Out”, “Facebook”, and “Twitter”. The latter two clamors were suggestive of the significant role which certain social media had performed in undercutting the authority of these Arab governments to make the rapid assembly of protest crowds possible.

The sum total of this type of political behavior which has included marching, clamoring, fighting, and dying, constituted a negative popular reaction to the domestic policies of these governments in their respective jurisdictions. Additionally, the eruption of this political activity was accompanied by a platform of articulated general demands from the protesters. Among these demands were: one, that since the existing political order was no longer acceptable to the masses, all those who had been an integral part of that order must leave office now as a measure of the beginning of change; and two, that there must be an immediate transformation of the existing political order to the formation of democratic institutions, popular elections, and the rule of law. In an attempt to demonstrate their resolve, the protesters threatened that the upheavals and other forms of challenge will continue, unabated, until these articulated radical political changes were realized.

James Q. Wilson et al in their book, American Government: Institutions and Policies, define political culture as “a patterned and sustained way of thinking about how political and economic life ought to be carried out”. Therefore on this basis, it can be stated that the masses of people, who had for decades suffered from political, economic, and social deprivation, attempted to engender meaningful reforms toward addressing their plight, by suddenly reacting robustly in the form of civil disobedience against the established order. The concept of civil disobedience had originally been propounded by Henry David Thoreau, in his 1849 essay entitled: On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, in which he had implied that the masses of people do have a moral obligation to disobey the laws of their governments if such laws were deemed inequitable and unjust regarding any one or a combination of the population’s political, economic, and social welfare.

The three historical examples, which follow, fall within the realm of perhaps the most notable civil disobedience efforts toward prompting radical government change. One, the 1848 revolutions in Europe in which the oppressed masses, as one of several political factions, sought reforms that would improve their political, social, and economic conditions. These revolutions do have more in common with the Arab revolutions in the sense that they involved populations in several states within a particular geographic region. Additionally, their primary focus was the reform of the existing political order, the effort of which was expected to address effectively the existing mal-conditions of the affected populations. Two, Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent political movement in India which, in 1948, contributed significantly in bringing about India’s sovereignty from British colonial rule. Three, Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights Movement in the United States, which fostered the passage of the civil rights laws that began the assimilation of minorities into the mainstream of American political, social, and economic life. Therefore, taking these examples into consideration, the Arab revolutions have certainly not been without historical precedents.

Purpose of the Study
By virtue of the analyses stated above, this writer shall attempt to elaborate on the major historical and contemporary factors underlying the upsurge of the entrenched Arab revolutions. These factors, which are multidimensional, will be addressed through the positing of general analyses regarding the social, political, and economic conditions that prevailed in these countries for a prolonged period of time. According to Albert Hourani in his 1991 book, A History of the Arab Peoples, three [multidimensional] factors are identified as having been responsible for the polarization of the populations in these countries. These are: one, the prevailing ethnic and religious divisions; two, the growing rift between the rich and the poor; and three, the oppressive treatment meted out to women as a category in society. On the basis of these models, this writer postulates that the festering of these polarizing conditions eventually caused the political eruptions which have typified the Arab revolutions. This is demonstrated below through a brief itemization and analyses of what this writer shall refer to as the Hourani models.

Mordu Serry-Kamal is an associate professor public administration and political science at Winston-Salem State University in Winston-Salem, NC. Email: [email protected]

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