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The Daily Star - February 28, 2013

by Rami G. Khouri

In the midst of experiencing history on a daily basis, as has been the case in many Arab countries during the past two years, it is important now and then to step back and try to understand more clearly the motivations that drive ordinary people to do extraordinary things. Two developments during the past week fall into this category, and give us better insights into why the continuing agitation by citizens for human rights and a legitimate political order across the Arab world is likely to go on for some time. I refer to the demonstrations by Palestinians against the mistreatment of prisoners in Israeli jails, and the latest round of demonstrations against President Mohammad Mursi’s government in several Egyptian cities. In both cases, thousands of ordinary citizens have taken to the street to challenge the policies of the government and to demand that those policies change. The significant thing is not that people are out demonstrating in the streets and risking being jailed, injured or killed, for they have done this for years. The important thing is that many men and women who are not political activists have taken part in these public demonstrations, and they have also started to adopt nonviolent civic disobedience as a major tactic.

Hundreds of Palestinians in Israeli jails have gone on hunger strike recently to protest their mistreatment at the hands of the Israelis. Sometimes they strike for a symbolic few days and in a few cases they refuse solid food for several months at a time. One Palestinian young man, Arafat Jaradat, died in jail last week after a week in detention, with his autopsy suggesting to his family and to Palestinian authorities that he died as a result of being tortured by Israelis.

Thousands of Palestinians have clashed with Israeli occupation troops in different parts of the West Bank in recent days. In some cases they have been motivated by support for jailed Palestinians on hunger strike, such as Samer Issawi and three others who have not eaten since August and are in precarious medical conditions.

In Egyptian towns like Port Said, thousands of citizens have also taken to the street in recent weeks to challenge the Mursi government over a series of issues including the killing of over 40 local residents last month. Private sector and government employees have joined the strikes that have shut down government offices and services. Citizens in Alexandria and Ismailia have protested in solidarity.

These two are not isolated developments. In Iraq, similar mass protests, mostly by aggrieved and alienated Sunnis against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government, have taken place regularly in the past month, especially in Ramadi and Fallujah, but also in Baghdad and Mosul. A central demand there is also that the government stop its policy of detaining hundreds of citizens on flimsy grounds, or of allegedly promoting pro-Shiite policies.

In many parts of Syria, citizens who have fought their regime for nearly two years are starting to organize alternate service delivery systems to citizens, in places where the government of President Bashar Assad no longer operates. Similar protests and clashes with government troops have occurred in Bahrain for the past two years, and in recent months frequent protests against the government’s imprisonments of (mostly Shiite) political activists have occurred in parts of Saudi Arabia, especially the Eastern Province.

Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates have imprisoned dozens of citizens whom they accuse of engaging in activity detrimental to the security of the country (mostly statements via social media). In fact, in Oman 35 activists were tried last year and sentenced to six to 18 months in prison, and 17 of them started a hunger strikes last week to protest their situation. Other prisoners joined them in solidarity hunger strikes this week.

Something important is going on when ordinary men and women risk their lives to stand up to strong governments in countries like Egypt, Palestine and Israel, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. The common thread in these and other cases across the Arab world today is more than merely the spectacle of many citizens who are no longer afraid of risking their lives to express their grievances and demand changes in existing government practices or policies. It has become clear in the last two years that millions of ordinary men and women have crossed the threshold of fear that governments across the Arab world had used for decades to maintain docile populations in corrupted, mismanaged and under-achieving states.

More significantly, it now seems, more and more Arab citizens are challenging the very legitimacy of the autocratic ruling authorities, and in fact going a step further and claiming that true sovereignty rests in the hands of the citizens.

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