Despite growing repression, democracy activists in the Middle East continue to push for change.
As democracy activists working in one of the most repressive regions in the world, we always knew that authoritarianism in our part of the world is a tough nut to crack. Our autocrats have everything at their disposal: they have full control of state institutions, including traditional and new media, unfettered access to resources, financial and material, and the internal and international legitimacy that comes with the exercise of power. We, on the other hand, have nothing but our conviction that change is necessary and that continuing with politics as usual will have dire consequences for the future of our countries and our region as a whole.
Domestically, our different ideological and political affiliations notwithstanding, we continue to fail to attract wider popular support for our demands. Repression by ruling authorities, lack of access to the media, inability to organize ourselves openly, our internal squabbles, and the inability to enunciate a clear vision for the future continue to impede our work. More importantly though, our peoples have grown weary of rhetoric and grandiose slogans and visions, and seem to be waiting to be inspired by an elite that can show an ability to act and to entice them into active participation through concrete visions and steps and not vague promises and condemnations, something that opposition and dissidents groups still need to work on.
Meanwhile, the best that the moral strength of our positions and our arguments seems to attract on the international level is a shy and episodic support that opens us to accusations of treason, espionage and serving foreign agendas, not to mention occasional manipulations by our benefactors, with little benefit to show in terms of credible and sustainable material support.
These days and following the rise of President Nicolas Sarkozy in France and Barack Obama in the U.S. with their emphasis on realpolitik, drive to engage and appease even the most rogue regimes in the region, and cynical about-face on democracy and human rights issues, the picture looks gloomier than ever.
Ruling regimes feel more empowered, and even justified in their defiance of the international community in regard to their internal policies of repression. As such, ongoing crackdowns against critics, opponents, and human rights and democracy activists in their midst hearken back upon the darkest days of the Cold War Era. Moreover, changing regional alignments, most notably the rise of Iran and Turkey on the scene to fill in the vacuum created by the Obama administration’s different approach to the region, combined with the weakening of the roles of traditional Arab power-houses, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who are caught today in internal power struggles, have served to empower the region’s radical regimes and movements, most notably the Syrian regime, Hezbollah and Hamas.
So far, this has served to heighten Israel’s threat perception encouraging her to fall back on her usual aggressive tendencies in the hope of sending warnings to all her unfriendly neighbors in the hope of staving off a potentially larger conflict.
In short, impunity rules the day. Still, we stand.
In Egypt, democracy activists are rallying around an assortment of opposition figures seeking to challenge President’s Hosni Mubarak’s hold on power and his attempt to impose his son as his would-be successor. Their positions are bold, their defiance of the regime’s legitimacy is clear, and recurrent crackdowns seem to have only strengthened their resolve.
In Syria, where the situation has always been more daunting, activists seem to have temporarily switched their challenge from the political field to the social one, and have mounted independent and aggressive campaigns to raise attention regarding a variety of critical issues, including honor crimes, personal status law and enforced disappearances of dissidents. Meanwhile, the recent attempt by Syrian President to downplay the possibility of internal turmoil, in statements made to an Arab media delegation, and his surprising acknowledgement, in his recent interview with PBS, that not all Syrians agree with him come as clear signs that something is brewing in this macabre police state.
Similar tendencies can be observed in almost every state across the region. For just as the ruling regimes seem to be entrenched, so is dissent. Deteriorating social and living condition, imploding infrastructure, chronic cronyism, corruption and underdevelopment are leaving little choice to dissidents. Failure to challenge the status quo when things are so dismal would render the whole concept of dissent meaningless and irrelevant. For all our divisions, our weakness and our domestic PR problem, if you will, regional realities are such they helped us create an entrenched niche for dissent, as more people listen and heed our defiant calls.
Our peoples’ deep sense of cynicism, nourished over the years and decades by so many failed promises, acts of official betrayal and systematic crackdown, is slowly eroding. The dissidents are beginning to offer some of the concrete ideas that people have been waiting for. Meanwhile, the deteriorating living conditions and the negative role that official policies seem to be playing in this regard in most cases, are serving to radicalize popular sentiments and to strip regimes of the last vestiges of legitimacy they have left. Yet, ruling regimes have become so dismissive of their peoples, they have come to believe the very lies they perpetrate about their endemic passivity. This hubris is our regimes’ blind-side and history has shown us time and again that such hubris is always punished at the end. And the end, it seems, is nigh.
Indeed, after decades of repression, dissent has become a way of life for not just individuals, but for entire families and communities. Memories of repression drive the desire for revenge, but so far, democracy activists have managed to channel all energies into a push for democratic change and a search for justice, rather than a violent and nihilistic rebellion. Still, should voices of moderation continue to be dismissed by the international community, regional implosion is in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Ammar Abdulhamid, the founder and director of the Tharwa Foundation, is a Syrian author and human rights and democracy activist who is currently based in Washington DC. He enjoys a global reputation as an outspoken advocate for social and political change in the broader Middle East and North Africa.