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Arab democracy

January 27, 2011

The protest movement toppled the government in Tunisia and has rattled the regime of Egypt's leader Hosni Mubarak. A new era has dawned in the Arab world, says DW's Ute Schaeffer.


First it was Tunis; now it's Cairo. Are Sanaa or Damascus next in line? Will the entire Arab world be gripped by a general uprising of the people, ending in liberation from the authoritarian regimes in power and democracy? No, it won't be that simple.

The fact that the political uprising has seized one country after the next can be attributed to the reasons for the protests. They are comparable - as are the goals. The protest is aimed at the rulers and the elite which have placed the politics and economics of their respective countries in their personal service.

ute schaeffer
Ute Schaeffer is head of DW's Africa and Middle East program

For decades, and often in family circles, these rulers have sat in the comfortable armchairs of power - and lost sight of the people outside of the palaces. They have completely overlooked their political responsibility, namely that development does not mean development for a few, but rather for many.

The oligarchs in the royal palaces of the Arab world have lost touch with their country's reality and are not aware of the needs of their people. And these are, after all, strikingly simple: Can I pay for my bread? Can I find work? What is my personal perspective in life?

The power of the media

However, Tunis will presumably not become the Gdansk of the Arab world - a place where democratic revolutions are born and influence an entire region, such as the uprising of Polish shipbuilders in Gdansk in 1980. In contrast to the Soviet Union, centrally controlled from Moscow, the political centers of the Arab world do not lie under a common political leadership but are rather very heterogeneous.

There are certainly powers which elicit a sense of togetherness in Arab societies. These are powers which are now seeing to it that the anger and protest experiences are shared. First and foremost, these are pan-Arab media. Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya are perhaps the most significant engines for the movement, as they carry images and information from one place to the next.

Closing off the population from information may still function in Africa's tyrannies and destitute nations, but this is no longer the case in Arab countries. Civil societies in the Arab world may - in the opinion of their own political apparatuses - have nothing to say in their own countries. But through the Internet, in blogs and forums, these voices carry weight.

Egypt with its government-controlled television is still trying to compete with the powerful Arab competition. But the state-run propaganda machine has long since lost its credibility. In many of the region's countries, bloggers and journalists are under pressure because the regimes know that free voices can become dangerous for their grip on power.

A diversified movement

The social reasons for the protests can be repaired here and there. But it is questionable whether the people will allow that to buy off their courage and their will for change. The movement is as wide as never before. It isn't only students, not only intellectuals; it's not solely Islamic fundamentalists sustaining the protests. It's the normal teacher, the lawyer, the bank employee who is resisting. It's even - like in Tunisia - the rural population piping up after years of being forced to silently exist on the political fringe.

protestor in Cairo
Protestors are calling out for changeImage: picture-alliance/dpa

It could get tight for this year's planned undemocratic elections. In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh - already in power for over three decades - wants his office extended to life. Hosni Mubarak in Egypt - considered a partner to the West - has also had a grip on the presidential post for just as long. He already had the last parliamentary elections manipulated and now wants to run for office again. For his succession, he's already planning a family solution: his son, Gamal, is being reared to take over, similar to the Assad family in Syria.

How are these protests in the Arab world going to end? European media often foresee Islamic fundamentalists taking over the helm in the region. But the breadth of the protest movement contradicts this hypothesis.

It is the civil society being so courageous right now which is going to win. There will be regime changes here and there. Elections will become fairer; parliaments could possibly develop a stronger role and the range of political parties widen. All these are significant steps to more democracy.

Perhaps the most important lesson, which Tunisia and Egypt can teach the authoritarian rulers from Minsk to Harare, from Tripoli to Ashgabat is: in a globalized world, societies can no longer be isolated and information can no longer be arbitrarily stopped or filtered. The more the world grows together, the more pressure there will be on regimes to be accountable for their policies and allow change.

Author: Ute Schaeffer / sac
Editor: Rob Mudge