The images streaming from cities in three countries in our region — countries that, tellingly, had sat out the 2011 Arab Spring — spell it out: Demonstrators are out in the streets and town squares protesting against the miserable social, political and economic conditions that have long bedevilled their lives.
There, they are not only giving vent to a national psyche choked by perennial hardships and thwarted dreams, but they are also asking their governments, as much as they are asking themselves, why it is that they have to live destitute, truncated lives while their political elite, imbued with a smug sense of entitlement are seemingly answerable to no one.
Though the demonstrators, to be sure, are from different countries, facing different obstacles, poll them and you will find that, at a seminal level, they are seeking the same basic — very basic — rights: The provision of job opportunities for qualified, able-bodied men and women; decent public services, such as electricity, water health care and education; an end to corruption, including kleptocracy and nepotism in high places; and the freedom for ordinary people to express their views in public, including in public squares, without fear of retribution by agents of the state.
The gathering together of Lebanese protesters in Martyrs’ Square in downtown Beirut, and elsewhere, of Muslims and Christians, conservatives and radicals, middle class and working class, young and old, all waving the Lebanese flag. An eloquent statement about national unity, I say.
It is sad that it has come to this in Iraq, Algeria and Lebanon, the three countries where the demonstrations are taking place. These are countries, let’s face it, whose ample resources should have endowed citizens with aplenty.
Iraq is Opec’s second largest producer, with 12 per cent of the world’s oil reserves.
Since protests began there on October 1, security forces have killed close to 300 protesters and injured thousands. Algeria, which possesses the African continent’s largest hydro-carbon reserves, has failed, since independence in 1962, to meet both the challenges of modernity and its people’s demands for equity. Peaceful demonstrations there, dubbed the Revolution of Smiles, will soon mark their 40th consecutive week.
And Lebanon, whose denizens are considered the most enterprising in the Levant, with a high literacy rate, took to their streets on October 17 in order to siphon off the discontent — perhaps it is the utter rage — they feel at seeing their country hollowed out by sectarianism and shattered by corruption, which explains the gathering together of Lebanese protesters in Martyrs’ Square in downtown Beirut, and elsewhere, of Muslims and Christians, conservatives and radicals, middle class and working class, young and old, all waving the Lebanese flag. An eloquent statement about national unity, I say.
Why should these countries, you ask, gifted with abundant material resources and/or social capita, be rendered bereft, and their people denied the right to an emancipatory movement, expressed in the streets, demanding the overthrow of elites that have ran their societies ragged, reducing them, effectively, to dysfunctional polities?
One thing is plain: These folks’ right to protest is not just a cornerstone of democracy and civil society, it is a universal human right enshrined in article 28 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human rights. And, no, they should not be made to put their lives on the line to exercise it, as they appear to be doing today in Iraq.
In political philosophy, especially in John Lock’s treatises, the right to revolt (“the right of revolution”) is understood to refer to the right, indeed the obligation, of citizens to call for the overthrow of a government that acts against the common interest. In the US constitution, for example, we read this: “When a long train of abuses and usurpation [occurs], it is [the people’s] right, it is their duty, to throw off such government”.
A new — and not just another — generation of young “have been to the mountaintop”, as Martin Luther King would’ve put it, and, since 2011, they have been challenging their culture to live up to their ideals. There is no going back. The genie is out.
Alexis de Tocqueville, the French diplomat, social critic and historian, said it best when, in his commentary on the French Revolution, he wrote: “Endured so long as it seemed beyond redress, a grievance comes to appear intolerable once the possibility of removing it crosses men’s minds”.
It may take time, but, rhetoric aside, the mass sentiment of the people, imbued as it is by the will- to- meaning, will prevail, given the fact that historical imperatives are on its side.
—Fawaz Turki is a writer and lecturer who lives in Washington and the author of several books, including the Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.