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November 23, 2011, Wednesday

Cautious optimism coming to the Arab Spring

Within a month, the events in the Arab world will celebrate their first anniversary. The bill of the first year will be a mixed one, as expected. With thousands dead in Libya, Yemen, Syria, Egypt and elsewhere and thousands more injured and arrested, the Arab people have already paid a big price for a better future. Alternating between revolutionary zeal and sinking pessimism, they will have a moment of reflection on the first anniversary of the Arab Spring. A healthy dose of cautious optimism will be helpful.

This is not because the revolutions will die out. No, I think they will continue at a different speed and with a different scope and intensity. Success stories will be recorded, frustrations will soar, clashes will happen and probably with sadness people will continue to pay a painful, high price for an uncertain future. But the real challenge will not be the date of the next election or new legislation. Important as short-term political changes are, the real challenge will be to turn uprisings into revolutions and revolutions into transformation. The herculean task is to make all this happen in peace and maturity and with vision and integrity.

A seasoned journalist friend of mine who has spent a good part of his life covering the Arab world recently remarked that Egypt did not have a “revolution” but an “uprising.” As he was referring to the recent events in Egypt, it got my attention. He went on to say that what we saw in Egypt was an uprising against Hosni Mubarak, not a revolution against the regime. Mubarak was the window face of the real power wielders in Egypt, i.e., the army, and now it is showing its real power.

My journalist friend is right in his down-to-earth assessment of where things have come to in recent weeks in Egypt. But will it stop there? It will not. True, the tug-of-war between the SCAF and the people in Tahrir Square is about specific issues, such as the election date and the handing over of power to civilian authority. But it is also about keeping the spirit of the revolution going and not sacrificing it to internal politicking.

This is the main issue the Arab world faces today. A true revolution is more than holding elections. It is about changing the way things are done. It is a difficult process of overcoming the bunker mentality that has incapacitated Arab societies for decades. It is about setting new priorities.

Often, political hustle and bustle tends to overshadow the deeper transformation that a society goes through. Revolutionary transformation entails a rethinking of the key components of a society and how it defines such cardinal issues as the individual person, identity, loyalty, communal relations, pluralism, politics, education, culture, economics, justice, equality, dignity, security and freedom. Political leadership has a key role to play in any social transformation. But the real source of change is the conscience of a society.

Political revolutions must be complemented and followed by revolutions in two other areas: economic and institutional-cultural. The future of Arab democracies is contingent upon generating and maintaining a well-functioning middle class as the backbone of electoral politics and a system of checks and balances. The widening gap between the rich and the poor in most Arab countries must be overcome to mobilize all sectors of society to contribute to a nation's economy. Economic justice must be felt in the daily lives of the people so that they continue to believe in the revolutions they have carried out.

What is even more important is the cultural and institutional revolution whereby the old ways of doing things will have to change in substantial ways. Arab and Muslim societies need to develop a new cultural and civilizational discourse to overcome such old binaries as tradition and modernity, Islam and the West, the individual and society, religion and science, Islam and democracy, and so on. A truly cultural revolution means mobilizing the traditional values of Muslim societies to chart a new future. It is to be grounded in the tradition so that we can keep our horizons open.

It is important to maintain the political momentum in the Arab world and move ahead with a positive political agenda. But the bigger challenge, we should remember, is to turn revolution into a positive force and bring about long-term and substantive change in the minds and hearts of people.

Tunisia has been leading the way so far. With the new government in Libya, it will join the caravan. We shall see how Egypt and Syria will follow.

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