It is already three years since the uprisings started in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region.
A street vendor in Tunisia eventually got fed up with his mistreatment by local officials and the rampant corruption in his hometown. So he set himself on fire as a desperate form of protest. But little did Mohamed Bouazizi from Sidi Bouzid know that his self-immolation would trigger one of the most climactic chapters in the contemporary history of this vast region. In fact, it no longer matters whether this chapter is labelled as an Arab Spring, an Arab Awakening or even a Christian Winter. After all, those grassroots uprisings started spontaneously and peacefully. The men and women who poured out into the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and at times Bahrain or elsewhere were claiming something so painfully basic and yet so painstakingly absent in their lives. They wanted a space where they could breathe freely and live with dignity rather than servility. They neither wanted to kill nor to be killed by anyone: theirs were decent outpourings across the region that should have been met at least halfway by the competent authorities.
But three years hence, it is clear that it was not meant to be, or is it? Tunisia was the easier 'achievement' in the sense that it was the quickest and least bloody of all those uprisings. Things started getting more violent with Egypt, far more international with Libya, and far more radical in Yemen. But the most painful calamity in human terms was beginning to unfold in Syria where a UK-licensed ophthalmologist-turned-president decided that the makeup of his powerbase disallowed him from brooking any criticism or opposition from his population. So President Bashar Assad applied summarily the message reflected in the slogans and graffiti in Arabic across the country that carried with them a stark warning to Syrians: accept to submit to President Bashar Assad or else face the destruction of the country! This was even more vicious than the megalomania voiced by Louis XV when he perorated famously, Après moi, le déluge - or after me the deluge.
I am confident that many of my readers are familiar with some of those developments. So instead of re-hashing the facts and recycling the ingredients of those uprisings, I would simply like to use those few lines to share seven of my own impressions about the dynamics of those uprisings between end-2010 and end-2013.
A) The peaceful demonstrations were gradually weaponised not because the protestors initially wanted to do so but rather because the MENA rulers refused to consider their demands or offer any concession and instead confronted them with unyielding violence. After all, why should they cede any of their powers to the rights-deprived human "dross" that constitutes the citizenry of their countries? This is alas the sad truth in some parts of the MENA region where rulers believe that they have a divine right to rule forever over the beleaguered citizens of those countries who are not allowed to voice any opinion that disacquiesces with those of their rulers. Impunity is an armour in the authoritarian political mind-sets of those men. In his research and writings, including his Erziehung zur Mündigkeit, the German philosopher Theodor W Adorno dealt extensively with this phenomenon as it applied to the German post-WWII context and studied how one frames a mature system and educates a political class to the concept of democracy as a bulwark against authoritarianism. I sometimes wonder whether such an approach that has transformed Germany into a leading nation-state after it was brought to its knees can somehow be mooted let alone applied to the MENA region too.
B) To date, the republics have fared much worse than the monarchies from those MENA uprisings since most of the latter are by and large younger entities that have less of an accumulated history and do not carry a lot of political baggage with them. Moreover, the Gulf rulers presciently poured a lot of money into their societies and undertook some reforms that would keep the people complacent. Despite the murmurs of discontent in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia and in parts of Bahrain, as well as the parliamentary lockdowns in Kuwait, the monarchies were much more placid politically - not least in the UAE or the Sultanate of Oman that have both come a long way toward meeting the demands of their Emirati and Omani citizens.
C) The West proved again that it has lost the plot and with it an ability to uphold the lofty visionary principles it often defines for itself. In a nutshell, it was unable to devise a strategy that would harness the future of this region. Interestingly enough, and as opined in the Washington Post recently, US officials such as Susan Rice who were firm proponents of the customary international law principle of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) have gone quiet. Despite this dearth of strategic clarity we in the West have evinced towards those uprisings, I would argue that Syria remains by far the worst abdication of our collective responsibility. I still cannot accept that we are wilfully silent when chunks of the country have almost been razed to the ground. The US Administration has been sorrowfully weak-kneed with its oft-contradictory responses. This war could have been ended 24 months ago, or even 12 months ago, if the appropriate levers had been activated at the time. Instead, the USA used the crass - and sadly anticipated - Russian and Iranian tactics of opposition, obfuscation and delay in the UNSC as a fig-leaf for its slovenly inertia. Those who claim that the choice was stricto sensu between another costly military adventure and diplomatic pragmatism are either naïve, untruthful or both. Moreover, the disarming of chemical weapons, much as it is a significant step forward, turns into a joke when politicians use it to prove that they have been proactive over Syria. 99% of the wholesale destruction is not related to chemical weapons, and so our towering success is over 1% only - unless we acknowledge that we do not assess success in short-term human deaths but solely in long-term regional interests.
D) As the fighting has continued, and as the casualties have mounted hand-in-hand with the bilious anger of ordinary men and women, so did the number of radical or exclusivist ideologies. Al-Qaeda affiliates (and even worse) such as Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS have mushroomed in the region and parts of Syria (Raqqa for instance comes to mind where two abducted bishops, as well as Fr Paolo Dall'Oglio and other clergymen, let alone Razan Zaitouneh, Samira Al-Khalil and the nuns from the convent of Ma'alouleh are purportedly kept) are now totally controlled by men who feed their supporters with eschatological opium and who also aspire to turn Syria into a caliphate. Some other parts are controlled by a dictator and his homicidal henchmen. The majority of decent men and women - and they are the majority, make no mistake about it - are caught up in the middle of this tug-of-war and are terrified from an unknown and grim future. As the Italian-Syrian Jesuit priest Paolo Dall'Oglio opined in his book La rage et la lumière: Un prêtre dans la révolution syrienne, there is an infernal hermeneutical circle in Syria whereby fears legitimise repression, which in turn creates extremism, that subsequently justifies those fears.
E) The smaller communities (often referred to as minorities or aqaliyyat although they disagree with such a misnomer that they would deem 'disempowering') have disproportionately suffered the consequences of a hugely polarised region. The indigenous Christians in Iraq, Syria and Egypt or some other parts of the MENA have been caught between a rock and a hard place. Theirs is a classic Hobson's choice! What is a better freak show: a rabid dictator or an Islamist fanatic? Neither, of course, but those smaller communities have been paying dearly the price of the wars of others. No wonder that Christian communities are haemorrhaging in droves from Iraq and Syria whilst the rest of the world expresses vocal outrage but precious little else! The austere Islamicisation of Syria and the wider region would be as much of a tragedy as the sustenance of dictators since both will catapult its peoples into ever-morphing sectarian conflicts and less conviviality. This is why I support those efforts that tend to strengthen co-existence within communities in those countries but I do not support the fear-mongering attitudes of some politicians or clerics who use the 'Christian card' for their wider religious, ecumenical or political agendas. In this context, the pithy observations by Dr Antoine Courban from Lebanon on his Facebook page are wise and sharp obiters in a region that often feeds on bigotry.
F) Although many pundits look at the region and aver that this is a historical war being played out between the implacable foes of Sunni and Shi'i Islam, I would suggest that those confessional labels and religious differences (such as over the succession to the Prophet Muhammad) actually have less to do with religion and more with politics. Who controls this region is the real question! What some people misdiagnose as a fight to the death between Sunni and Shi'i Islam (or alternatively between Iran and Saudi Arabia over the purity of Islam) is actually a geo-political war of calculated interests by different actors using the heterodox interpretations of Islam as a way of marketing or justifying those proxy confrontations.
G) The Arab peoples in the MENA region are seeking their dignity. After all, the initial protests were famous for brandishing posters and slogans with the three-pronged demand for 'bread, freedom, social justice'. And as a result of their human and material sacrifices to date, the men and women of the region are slowly but surely forcing a re-definition of the concepts of statehood and citizenship for their countries. R/evolutions do not succeed overnight and those movements have willy-nilly become unstoppable. No matter how hard or awry, no matter the soaring numbers of deaths, casualties, refugees or internally-displaced persons, the region cannot come out of those ructions without some compelling changes. The status quo ante is no longer tenable anymore. A genie has come out of the bottle: it has shifted its shape over the past three years and will not go back into the bottle again no matter the coercive powers of the regimes or al-Qaeda terror tactics.
Seven short but inter-related end-of-year personal reflections suggest why I often posit to my colleagues that they must not forsake hope about the future of this region even when its visible signs are eerily absent. If we look at the way Egypt seems to be setting the clock back from its revolution of 25 January 2011 let alone the coup of 30 June 2013 (also described by some analysts as a counter-revolution) with its déjà-vu stand-off between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, or the way Syria is quashing the uprisings with an increasing confidence in its public barbarity and TNT detonating barrels, or even the other MENA countries such as Yemen, Libya or Tunisia where political parties of different religious or secular persuasions let alone tribal clans are jockeying for power, one might well be forgiven to conclude that the glass looks woefully half-empty. But that half-empty glass is only the mirror image of a half-full one. After decades of colonial misrule and mismatch, coupled with imperial hegemony, thuggish behaviour and deplorable levels of violence, nepotism, oppression, corruption or lack of education, those sacrifices are the valve that could eventually usher in reform. Mind you, I might well be proven wrong as I have in the past, and I have not even touched here on the suppurating wounds of countries like Lebanon, Morocco or Jordan. But we are definitely in for the long haul with no easy or neat solutions, and I would argue today that the road ahead remains open albeit bumpy.
So to my readers I leave a small afterthought: just like Nero with Rome, parts of the MENA region today are ablaze. Yet, its local ruling despots are fiddling and not relinquishing their autocracies whilst some zealots are equally trying to spread their own abusive ideologies. But the day of change must surely come to the MENA region, just as it has done in Africa and Latin America let alone across our own European continent earlier, since within those uprisings are imbedded the seeds of a different future - of genuine statehood and citizenship.