Let us dream for a moment. Although the future is uncertain and danger still lurks at every street corner, Arab society could be experiencing an inspiring moment of renewal. Spreading with contagious euphoria across the Middle East, popular uprisings are providing the Arabs with an immense opportunity, such as occurs rarely, perhaps only in every three or four generations. The opportunity must not be squandered.
Although much blood has been spilled — in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria and elsewhere — fresh blood has, at the same time, been infused into a senile and decaying political system.
Right across the region, the young and the not so young are united in long-stifled aspirations. Formulating the same demands for political freedom, economic opportunity and, above all, dignity, they call out to each other across national boundaries, copying each other, drawing encouragement from each other's experience. The Arab peoples are responding to each other as never before.
Satellite television and internet communications have undoubtedly succeeded in creating a sense of community, informing Arab societies about each other, ventilating common problems, linking Maghreb to Mashreq. Social networks such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have also played a role in bringing the Arabs together. Had it not been for such new inventions, the spark lit in Tunisia by the self-immolation of a young street vendor might not have set fire to the combustible, pent-up grievances of Egypt, which in turn inspired revolts in Libya, Yemen, Syria and elsewhere.
But something more profound is at work. As autocracies are brought down, the region seems to be experiencing a new pan-Arab moment. More genuine than that promoted in the past by individual leaders such as Jamal Abdul Nasser or his rivals in the Baath party, this incipient pan-Arabism is a union of peoples, rather than a union of leaders for their own geopolitical ambitions. Political pan-Arabism was a failure. Will popular pan-Arabism be more successful? Will Arab solidarity be more than an empty slogan?
The last time something of this nature happened was a century ago when the Ottoman Empire was defeated in the First World War. After four centuries of Ottoman rule, some Arabs saw in the empire's collapse an opportunity for a national awakening. Demands were formulated for freedom, self-determination and unity. But the nascent Arab nationalism of the time was brutally crushed — by the imperial ambitions of Britain and France; by the quest for statehood of the Zionist movement, which flourished under British protection; and also, it must be said, by Arab rivalries, which remain to this day a source of weakness and paralysis.
Today's revolution is primarily against internal rather than external colonists. The post-revolutionary period is bound to be chaotic. There will be instability, fierce infighting while new political parties are formed and new forces take shape, even attempts here and there at counter-revolution. Faced with popular uprisings, those Arab rulers still in place will inevitably look to their defences. But they should not miss the import of what is happening. They should embrace the new trend rather than fight it. It seems to me, and no doubt to many other observers, that three developments are necessary at this historic moment if the Arab Revolution is to succeed.
Curse of sectarianism
The first is that those Arab monarchies which have so far been spared popular uprisings must themselves introduce and implement far-reaching reforms. Ruling families need to open their ranks to ordinary citizens; representative institutions need to be created; shura councils or parliaments must be given real responsibility; accountability insisted upon; corruption curbed; arbitrary arrests and police brutality ended. In a word, power must be shared and the people's energies harnessed for the common good.
A second development will be even more difficult to bring about, but is perhaps even more important. Sectarianism is the curse of Arab societies. What does it matter if an Arab man or woman is a Sunni or a Shiite, an Alawi, an Ismaili or a Druze, a Christian or a Muslim? Political and religious authorities across the region should make a resolute attempt to consign sectarian differences and conflicts to history. What alone matters is that Arabs — whether male or female, rich or poor, and whatever their backgrounds or religious beliefs — should feel and behave as Arab citizens. It is surely time to launch an ‘Arab Union' based on common citizenship to match the European Union, which the Europeans managed to create over the past half-century.
A third necessary development is a recognition that oil wealth belongs not just to a few privileged Arabs but to all of them. It must be shared across the region. Generosity is, after all, the greatest of Arab virtues. The oil-poor countries will need help from their richer brothers. Solidarity is meaningless if it is not backed with cash.
Just as Western Europe pumped billions into the poorer parts of Eastern Europe after the Soviet collapse, so the oil-rich Arabs must urgently come to the aid of their poorer neighbours. With oil prices at near-record levels, it is a scandal that the great majority of Arabs still scrape a living on two dollars a day or less.
Youth unemployment is the number one problem of the Arab world. In country after country it has been the real motor of the revolution. A great bank or fund needs to be set up which, by tapping into Arab sovereign wealth funds, would be dedicated to creating jobs across the region. Countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Syria and others, need massive aid, well-directed and managed, if the democratic movement is not to collapse in disillusion and despair.
If it does, no one will be spared.
Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.