Our Top Ten Blog Posts by Readership in 2011
Originally published on March 3, 2011
Is it possible to 'technocrat-ize' a revolution that is still roaring? The Arab Spring has been a spectacular surprise that so-called experts around the world failed to foresee, yet the same experts are now rushing to impose their favorite frameworks/paradigms on it. I call it the Explanation Olympics. There are experts who are tremendously certain the Arab Spring is all about social media. Others are quite sure it is all about the price of food. Still others say: it is the youth bulge, stupid. A New York Times columnist has just thrown a whole bunch of other explanations into the mix, some of them a trifle baffling. (See: 'This is just the start' by Tom Friedman).
I suspect that the Explanation Olympics are only just beginning. They will soon move from the media to global conferences, and on to the pages of books so fat they can knock a grown man out. And the winner will not be clear for a long time, if a winner can ever be declared in competitions of this variety.
One can only hope that because we are witnessing a display of citizen agency on an epic scale, the Explanation Olympics will include what the brave souls leading the revolution, and paying the price for the effort, are actually saying. They are often asked: Why are you doing this? A word that keeps dropping from their lips is 'dignity'. They are fighting for 'dignity'. Now, it is quite likely that 'dignity' is a word with a rich layer of cultural meaning in the Arab world. I don't know what that is; so, let's treat is for what it is --- an English word. According to the Oxford Dictionary of English, 'dignity' means: "the state or quality of being worthy of honour and respect". That means that you have citizens of sundry non-demoracies (I am being polite!) saying their political communities have to treat them as worthy of honor and respect. They are not simply saying it, they are insisting. And they are ferociously determined.
What makes the insistence on 'dignity' so striking is that it makes the story of the Arab Spring a human story, a universal human story. I point that out because as an African living in the West I am often surprised by how many so-called experts in development expect Africans, or Arabs or the Chinese (the list goes on) not to care about their civil and political rights or liberal constitutional democracy. We are told to wait until economic conditions mature. Irritated, I would usually paraphrase Jeremy Bentham's riposte: Do you think there are people somewhere on this planet who just love, simply love, being oppressed? It is not a surprise, then, that when Charlie Rose  of America's PBS station was interviewing  the Algerian retired UN chief, Lakhdar Ibrahim, earlier this week and asked him what he thought was going on, Ibrahim replied; we Arabs are the same as everybody else! And I thought: I wonder why he felt compelled to point that out...
Therefore, as the unstoppable Explanation Olympics rage, I do hope there will be a space in there somewhere for the simple truth that inside all human beings there is a deathless yearning. As President Barack Obama once said (in Cairo, appropriately, in June 2009):
I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from people; the freedom to live as you choose.
Or, in the elegant language of the Arab Spring: Dignity.
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