Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Democratic Protests in the Middle East: A Conflagration of Historic Proportions amid a Constancy in Human Nature?

Perhaps by looking back on one's own time as though it were already historical, it is possible to assess whether what one is witnessing on the global stage is truly significant from the standpoint of human history or merely of that which history is replete. In the context of the popular protests in the Middle East in early 2011, the question is perhaps whether the world was witnessing a Hegelian burst of freedom or merely more of the same in terms of political revolutions. According to The New York Times, popular movements were "transforming the political landscape of the Middle East" in the wake of the protests in Tunesia and Egypt.  For example, in Bahrain, "as in Tunisia and Egypt, modest concessions from the government [were] only raising expectations among the protesters, who by day’s end [on February 15, 2011] were talking about tearing the whole system down, monarchy and all."  The prime minister, Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, the king’s uncle, had been in office for 40 years. Accordingly, the protesters were asking not only for the release of political prisoners, but also "the creation of a more representative and empowered Parliament, the establishment of a constitution written by the people and the formation of a new, more representative cabinet."

The New York Times placed the protests in Bahrain in the wider context of the protests that had recently occurred in Tunesia and Egypt. The Bahrain protests, "inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, have altered the dynamics in a nation where political expression has long been tamed by harsh police tactics and prison terms." (italics added)  However, it was not clear at the time of the protests whether the thread of inspiration was determinative to such an extent that the landscape of the Middle East itself would be transformed as a result. In allowing the protests, the king of Bahrain may have assumed that he could stay in control and thereby reduce the strength of the "inspiration" by giving the protesters some space to do their thing and presumably get it out of their system. However, Ibrahim Matar, an opposition member of Parliament who joined the crowd of protesters, said, “Now the people are the real players, not the government, not the opposition.” It is interesting that he dismissed his own movement (i.e., the opposition) rather than trying to take credit for the uprising.  If Matar was correct, the spread of protests throughout the Middle East had the wherewithal to fundamentally change the means by which people would be governed in the region. That is, the protests could have been a transformative wave wherein people finally had within their sight the possibility that government could be of and by the people. The revolutions in Tunesia and Egypt would not have been isolated incidents in a long world history of sporatic revolutions without autocratic government itself being expunged from the tired face of the earth. The question that captivated the world watching the Egyptians protest was whether something different might have been going on. 

Whereas the twentieth century had hosted technological change on many fronts, political development was not among the areas of progress. When the twenty-first century had gained enough of its own years to claim its own time, the question may have become whether the human race was  ripe then for a leap in political development. If so, the trigger would not be in the democratic nations that preach representative democracy; rather, it would be in the people themselves who had lived under autocratic rule. It is as though there were a spreading suddent awareness that they didn't have to take the abuse anymore; they could simply say no--though "simply" is the wrong word here as saying no in a state such as Iran, for example, was at the time still prompting a barrage of bullets from government soldiers. It was clear that the autocratic governments had different strategies with respect to the protests.  The question was perhaps whether the thrust of the wave had rendered the choice of strategy nugatory. In other words, was the world witnessing the beginning of the end for autocracy or dictatorship as a means of governing human beings, or merely the latest round in a series of revolutions that have been an intractable part of human history?  Did Tunesia unleash a burst of freedom that can be placed in a Hegelian progression of human history wherein human spirit comes to realize itself in greater freedom, as per its nature? That is to say, were we witnessing a Hegelian moment? Can the protests in the Middle East in 2011 be interpreted as marking a fundamental political change or even a new awareness in humanity?  I suppose the answer would depend on whether the protests spread like a forest fire across highways and byways such that no dictator would remain standing not only in the Middle East, but, moreover, in the entire world as well.

Lest we get too carried away in celebrating the salubrious evisceration of autocratic government, we should not forget that representative democracy is far from perfect. Left without any viable competitors, this system of government could be more subject to abuses from within. If representative democracy is the beneficiary of the extinction of autocracy, might democracy as an ideal be like capitalism in the wake of the demise of the USSR (and communism in China)?  In other words, might the hegemony of representative democracy ironically make it more likely that the drawbacks of such democracy gain in force, or at least become more transparent?  Just as the financial crisis of 2008 rather than the USSR demonstrated that the market mechanism itself is flawed in how it accommodates increased volatility (by freezing up rather than accommodating it), perhaps once the world is populated by republics we might come to see the internal flaws in what the U.S. Founders called "excess democracy."

The protests in the Middle East reminded the world that history is not very predictable. Similarly, history can be quite ironic, given the fixity inherent in human expectations. As we the West welcome our brothers and sisters in the Middle East into the family of free nations, let us not get too self-congratulatory, for our institutions are far from perfect.  We are all human, all too human. Yet in spite of human nature as its constant, human history may contain a progression wherein humanity the world over comes to realizations that insist upon or inevitably lead to greater self-realization. Humanity's realization in the early twenty-first century may involve political development. I suspect that the next turn will concern religion. After that turn, the world will be quite different than for those who lived before even the technological revolution in the twentieth century.  In other words, modernity may well be characterized in terms of succeeding intervals of technological, political and religious transformation--altogether evincing a huge amount of change even as human nature remains constant.  The question might be how much change is possible given the constancy of our nature, or do some change elements change human nature? In the context of the protests in the Middle East, human nature looks pretty much the same as it has been for eons.  Yet the future change may shift the basis-point in human biology and psychology such that even more change becomes possible.


Michael Slackman, "Bahrain Takes the Stage With a Raucous Protest," The New York Times, February 15, 2011.