The Egypt-Tunisia freedom council

Western ‘democracy promoters’ misunderstand the region, now citizens are making their own futures.

Egypt Protests
Tunisians and Egyptians now have to build democratic governance structures based on local experiences [AFP]

The citizens of Egypt and Tunisia have resoundingly and comprehensively spoken against authoritarianism. From the joint efforts of the youth, dissidents and ordinary people, a whole gamut of potentialities was unleashed.

One may also add this occurred to the surprise of the gurus of democratisation cocooned in their ivory towers. Notwithstanding this state of disregard, these women and men’s unwavering energies for bottom-up democratic construction have proved their worth.

How can these two revolutions energise pan-Arab democratic learning?

The two revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia herald a new era of people’s democracy. This is the first time since the reforms introduced in both countries 150 years ago that a genuine opportunity for indigenous democratic construction and learning presents itself.

Egypt and Tunisia can lead the way to the inception of a creative democratic workshop of benefit to the wider Arab world. To this end, creative synergy, namely, in the form of a joint democratic revolutionary council, may be one way of seizing this uniquely democratic moment.

Democratic knowledge

The following aphorism may be a cliché; nonetheless it is one worth restating here. Democracy does not land from Mars.

Without exception, democracy is constructed locally. Recent and past lessons from the wider Middle East affirm that democracy does not easily travel from the West to the rest. However, this should not prevent the Arab world from willingly engaging with cosmopolitanism, the championing of shared humanist values as well as of cultural pluralism. This facilitates learning from democratic know-how available from global experiences.

Thus, democratic visionaries should be well-disposed to tap into the global civic heritage without ignoring local knowledge and values.

Both the US and the EU will continue to compete in the field of democracy promotion. I was in Tunisia recently learning all I could about the revolution’s dynamics there. I happened to be in a political party’s headquarters for a meeting with its president and encountered a group of energetic Americans already busy networking and looking for democratic students.

I inquired, with no insult intended, “Are you guys still in the business of exporting democracy?”

Of course, I was not fishing for answers to my rhetorical question. I satisfied myself with the blush that unmistakably coloured a face or two (in the retinue).

My point is that Western governments must reflect before they send their democratic envoys and mentors. The young lady dispatched from the US and who was taking residence in Tunis did not feel confident nor did she display fluency about Tunisia’s history, much less its politics.

Here silence and incoherent short interventions revealed all. The colleague she came to Tunis to replace would have been a much better choice. Is that all America can scramble for democratisation in Tunisia? Just like Bush invaded Iraq with a huge army of which only six spoke Arabic.

Not many of these envoys speak the local languages; not many venture outside the capital cities; and rarely does one encounter democratic messengers who seem to garner empathy with the idea of bottom-up democratic building.

The focus tends to remain on political parties and known associations. This bias reproduces the flaw inherent in Euro-American democracy promotion tending towards elite-elite dialogue.

Local experiences

Recalibrating the search of where to find the ‘demos’ is vital. As scholars, how much democracy we find or not will depend on where we look for it and whom we engage with in such an endeavour. Grassroots movements matter as far as mapping out a clear and purposeful democratisation research agenda in the Arab world.

In Tunisia, I learnt that the have-nots, the marginals, the low and medium-ranking union leaders are the ones who played a major role in leading the uprising and provided its foot soldiers.

I shall not name any names as I found myself invited to a meeting with the American trio in Tunis. I could not resist the temptation. After all, I was there to learn all I can about everything. The guru who was suggested to conduct training sessions in democratic transition in Tunisia was European. Fine.

What about Arab democratic knowledge? Al Jazeera, Kuwaiti parliamentary experience, Moroccan transitional justice, the bar associations of Egypt and Tunisia, the Islamists of Jordan and Egypt, women’s inclusiveness in Tunisia are all essential lessons in local democracy which should not be relegated to the margins.

This is the chief flaw in the now defunct Greater Middle East Initiative. It represents a quintessential example of a discourse of power relations attributing one-sided and top-down expertly democratic knowledge to the powers that be.

Arab states were initiated as, perhaps mischievous yet tolerated pupils into the school of Western democracy.
This must change. Even when one forgets about how many Western governments chose to waltz with Arab dictators and in some cases fund them to safeguard themselves, one cannot forget about Western think-tanks, from Spain to Washington DC, many of whom have for years pontificated about Arab democratisation without direct knowledge of the locale and of language.

Unsurprisingly, most have got it wrong. Bread riots, for instance, were crying for attention and were rarely studied systematically. Interest in democratisation is largely filtered through a security mind-set, not as an ideal in its own right. Lots of money went into posh hotels and conferencing. It was a waste of resources. Very few could see, much less appreciate forms of bottom-up resistance and new forms of new media, including blogs and al Jazeera. The handful of scholars who were spot on go mostly ignored.

It is on record that Tunisia was going to be a one-off event! Thhis Orientalist outburst that proves my point. The world looks a lot different through the eyes of the inhabitants of Sidi Bouzid, Alexandria or Manama. 

Engaging atmospheres

Part and parcel of the local interconnections of the Middle East, the travel of ideas, know-how and even slogans from Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis to Tahrir Square went uninhibited.

The cyberspheric lines of dialogue and exchange were opened, which locked Tunisian and Egyptian bloggers into common struggles for a common cause.

The French term degage made its way from Tunis to Cairo to signpost a joint demand for dismissal of their tyrants. Just as the Egyptian poetry of the brilliant Ahmed Fouad Najm found its way to the streets of Tunis and Sana’a.

The revolutionary verse of Tunisia’s Abu Al-Qasim Al-Shabbi about destiny’s receptivity to people’s choice of freedom travelled to Cairo and beyond. The civic pride co-learnt in both revolutions about cleaning and protecting neighborhoods all displayed the potentiality for Arab-Arab democratic co-learning.

The onus is now on Egyptians and Tunisians to safeguard their civic triumphs and people power revolutions by transcending the narrowness of territoriality and parochial nationalisms. The youths of both countries who shared the virtual space of the blogosphere can now meet more directly to sustain co-learning through joint civic initiatives and institutions.

Tunisia sets out to benefit a great deal from Egypt’s rich civic capital. Bourguiba’s Tunisia may have rightly resisted the export of Nasserism and the military revolutions that proved contagious in the 1960s in most of the Arab World (Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya), a rare instance of a negative domino effect in Arab geography.

Today, nothing stops Egyptians and Tunisians to establish joint councils for their democratic revolutions. In the absence of intra-Arab democratic co-learning, voices critical of those exporting their own democratic values and goods to the Arab world will not possess convincing arguments. For, they have not proposed an alternative accounting for local knowledge and contexts.

Grassroots activism

What would contribute to a lively bottom-up activism is the formation of a joint senatus or majlis, a forum not only for the wisest of the wise to congregate, but also a shared space where youth, parliamentarians, journalists, academics, political parties, NGOs, politicians and leaders share ideas with humility towards co-learning.

That is, a quasi-democratic commonwealth of Arab citizenries where they deepen democracy and jointly impart common learning, by committing to culture-sensitive communal democratic values.

The pan-Arab community which the military revolutions of the 1950s and 1960s failed to realise by decree or force, Arab citizenries can today construct through a democratic common sense of purpose.

This would encapsulate the common dream through transfer of democratic knowledge. Common tribunes, councils, associations and sub-networks become resources where democratic knowledge is invested as well as tapped into for the purpose of distribution and renewal.

Moreover, as far as the wider Arab World is concerned, democratic knowledge transfer would widen as other democratised Arab communities join in to further mobilise, network, and diffuse democratic know-how to other Arabs who assimilate, apply according to their local specificities and in their turn impart their own learning.

Beyond Egypt and Tunisia

Two revolutions have already transformed the face of the Arab region. The prophets of the “New Middle East” wished to construct an order ripe for business communities at the expense of values of equality and self-determination, especially for the Palestinians.

Now, a new order is unfolding: the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions are moments of sovereignty – Arab magna cartas written with blood, tears and courageous resistance against tyranny by Arab men and women.

Grassroots activists and movements in acts of cyber-sabotage aimed at organising and informing Arab citizenries were the key to unlocking the bolted doors of the seemingly boundless power of their states. Today the paralysing fear of the security apparatuses of the state has dissipated. A self-affirming faith in civic cooperation and unapologetic demonstrations of dissent has taken over.

What is certain is that Tahrir Square and Habib Bourguiba Avenue are not going away. The concerned Arab citizen in the role of the moral protester will time and time again take to the street to keep politicians honest and to unseat future tyrants.

This is the beauty of the sovereignty earned by Egyptians and Tunisians. They will involve an element of instability, and that is what democracy must always mean – renewal not routine. The defence of these revolutions may in the future require new mini-revolutions. 

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratisation: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004), forthcoming Hamas and the Political Process (2011).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

More from Author
Most Read