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The conundrum of government

Dec 16,2018 - Last updated at Dec 16,2018

In 1972, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai was asked about the impact of the French Revolution of 1789. With typical long-term view of history, he replied: “Too early to say.” Arab analysts would do well to take a similarly patient view of history before they dismiss the Arab Spring of 2011. 

The Arab Spring, I posit, was probably the greatest single event in Arab modern history because it was the first time that Arabs came out in demonstrations, not carrying poster-sized photos of someone and pledging to him their souls and their blood, but asking for their rights and dignity. That was the moment when Arabs started to transition from subjects deifying their lord and master to citizens claiming their rights.

Moreover, the Arab Spring was the first of the modern revolutions. It set the pattern that repeated itself in other revolts, from the 2013 Euromaidan protests in Ukraine, to the 2017 anti-corruption protests in Romania and the present ”yellow vest“ protests that started in France and spread to other Western European countries. 

In all these movements, social media were used to mobilise the people; but the social media did not create the movements. People came out to express deeply felt anguish and frustration with the status quo.  

At the root of this discontent is the perception that the social contract, that one moves up in life through hard honest work, has collapsed. People who have lived by it have lost out, and in many countries they struggle to make ends meet. Everywhere, the middle class is being pauperised, the gap between rich and poor is expanding and hopelessness casts a heavy shadow. 

The specific grievances of protesters are different because there are big differences between these countries in their levels of political freedoms and representation and even bigger differences in their economic living standards. But there are common themes that revolve around a feeling of marginalisation and total separation between the public and the ruling cliques. 

Dialogue, where it takes place, tends to be largely meaningless. In the eyes of the public, they are given empty promises that aim to win their votes or to assuage their anger and end their demonstrations, while politicians, whether elected, appointed or hereditary, focus on serving business magnates and multinational special interest groups.

Another emerging and dangerous public perception is that the authorities are responsive to the demands of citizens only if they disrupt public order and become a threat. For as long as demands are expressed peacefully, as authorities wish, they will continue to be ignored totally. 

Therefore, to avoid escalating violence, politicians need to become more responsive to their constituents. Experience everywhere shows that this happens only when politicians have no other choice. 

So the conundrum is how to create mechanisms of direct public intervention and censure, whereby citizens can oblige politicians to respond to their interests, without creating a populist entity guided entirely by the immediate whims of the public, to the detriment of any long-term interests of the whole community.


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