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>> The Daily Star


POPULAR AGITATION SWEEPS THE MIDDLE EAST

The Daily Star - June 5, 2013

by Rami G. Khouri

I have been in Jordan for a few days and have been following events there and in Turkey with continued fascination.

The contrast between Jordan and Turkey could not be greater in almost every dimension, whether scale, governance systems, national and individual identity, economic performance, regional roles, and many other factors. Yet simultaneously both countries have been experiencing important social and political developments that reveal a reality defining all the countries of the Middle East: the link between citizen and state is still being negotiated in almost every country in the region, even in those countries such as Jordan and Turkey that have enjoyed relatively stability and improved living conditions for a long period of time.

The full impact of the sudden demonstrations across Turkey against the policies and style of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government will become clear in the weeks ahead. Social media has given the world a more complete picture of events on the ground, along with high-quality analyses by Turkish and foreign analysts that clarify the many reasons for the protests, in contrast with mainstream media in Turkey that shamefully have censored themselves.

In Jordan, three simultaneous developments have highlighted the parallel complexities, nuances and contradictions of developments that reflect the diversity of political attitudes in the country. These are the outbreak of recurring demonstrations and limited violence in the southern town of Maan, the government’s shutting down of 300 news websites that did not comply with a new legal requirement for them to be licensed by the state, and the launch of a new initiative by King Abdullah, through the King Abdullah II Fund for Development, to promote democratic values and practices among Jordanian youth.

These developments mirror the inherent tensions between a desire to promote gradual, controlled democratization from above, and the determination of citizens at the grassroots level – whether tribal chiefs in the south or young bloggers everywhere – to assert their identities and their strong perceptions of their rights as citizens to live in dignity, which they define in many different ways.

The loose parallels between events in Jordan and Turkey reflect the wider reality across the Middle East of citizens and states that have not fully defined their relationships through social contracts that both the citizens and the state shape and see as legitimate. We have seen this in every country in the region, without exception: in Arab countries suffering from their own modern legacy of dysfunctional statehood and citizenship and in non-Arab Israel, Turkey and Iran.

I am repeatedly amused and saddened by governments across the Middle East that react to citizen activism by claiming that any street effervescence not controlled by the government is the work of a small minority of thugs or foreign agitators, or is an inherent evil from the Twitter-sphere. A more accurate and mature view of street and digital activism would be to grasp that citizens are using every means of expression available to them to overcome what they see as exaggerated controls imposed by the central authorities.

Many legitimate grievances persist in the hearts and minds of hundreds of millions of citizens across the region, including in countries with strong economies such as the Arab Gulf states, Israel or Turkey. Even well-off citizens deprived of their right to express their social or political views, or manifest their cultural or national identity, will insist on expressing their discontent in a peaceful way.

The issues at hand are always immediate, specific ones – removing some trees in a central Istanbul square, tribal quarrels at a university in Maan, police brutality in Cairo, heavy-handed legislative agendas by Islamists in Tunisia, tax policies in Tel Aviv, election controls in Tehran, and many others. These trigger much deeper sources of discontent that remain largely unaddressed and unresolved throughout our region, and are related to a common, overriding dilemma: What is the relationship of power, identity, rights, and responsibilities between the individual citizen, on the one hand, and the state, its government, and its vast security services, on the other?

This is not a peculiarly Middle Eastern issue; it exists in states everywhere. Occasional demonstrations and riots break out in countries such as Sweden, the United Kingdom, and France, even, among citizens (usually immigrants) whose relationships to the state and its economy have not been satisfactorily defined.

The difference in the Middle East is that the disgruntled citizens who have never shaped their social contract with the state usually make up a majority or a plurality of the population, rather than a small minority in isolated periurban poverty belts. Marginalization of small groups is a problem in Europe, while marginalization of the bulk of the citizenry is the problem in the Middle East.

So it is no surprise that every country in the region is experiencing some degree of citizen agitation, from low-intensity demands for constitutional reforms to outright revolutionary revolts that overthrow governing families and elites.





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[ Diritti Umani, Civili  & Politici ] [ Giordania ] [ Medio Oriente ] [ Turchia ] [ Unione Europea ]

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