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Hard lessons in liberty for the Middle East

With pro-democracy struggles in trouble in Iran and in the Arab Spring, opposition figures now realize that unity against tyranny is easier than unity in favor of democracy. Many see the need for a change.

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    UN Special Envoy Angelina Jolie meets Syrian refugees in Jordan Sept. 10. More than 23,000 people have died in an uprising that has lasted more than 17 months.
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For three years, the world has watched the people of the Middle East rise up against dictators. First came Iran in 2009 and then the Arab Spring in 2011. Almost all of the revolts – either active ones as in Syria or successful ones as in Egypt – have since ended, stalled, or hit rough spots.

Why?

One reason is that those who ignited the protests have since learned it is far easier to unite against tyranny than unite in favor of democratic values, such as respect for the opinions of others. Opposition leaders have too often split over egos, the role of Islam, the use of violence, or differing views of what democracy means.

Now, however, there are signs that many who first sought freedom have learned an expensive lesson from their own experience and from history in what can happen during a revolution. Even the American Colonists in 1776 were more united against King George III than united for democracy.

Ultimately, an affirmative identity for these movements based on democratic principles will be far more lasting for the Middle East than a negative identity, or what a group opposes. Positive ideals help form bonds across faiths, ethnicities, and classes. And only when Arabs and Iranians see that pro-democracy leaders respect their views might they grant authority to them.

One example of a possible shift toward affirmative unity is a document signed by more than 100 Iranian intellectuals who live outside Iran. Called “Charter 91,” the document rejects violence and embraces basic rights and a new civic culture for Iran. Their statement of principles is based on similar “charters” by dissidents in Soviet-era Czechoslovakia and today’s China.

In Syria, new attempts are being made to unite the rebels fighting the Assad regime. The reasons have become all too clear as the country descends into more violence.

For one, the West and other Arab states have been reluctant to provide much assistance with so much disunity among the opposition. Radical jihadist groups are filling a vacuum of leadership and may be taking an upper hand in the civil war. And President Bashar al-Assad has begun to paint the protests as simply Sunnis against Shiites. His tactic plays to fears of sectarian strife rather than hopes for freedom.

With assistance from France, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, many of the pro-democracy Syrian groups are trying to set aside differences and unite under a single leader.

In Egypt, the pro-democracy liberals who united to overthrow Hosni Mubarak have since failed to unite to win elections. The result is the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power. But with a parliamentary election coming up, at least six of the secular political groups plan to back a single candidate in each district, setting aside differences for now.

Libya’s revolution remains a model of sorts for Arabs in how protesters should unite during and after a revolution. While the transition from the Qaddafi regime has been difficult, Libyan protesters did form a transitional council under a respected defector, Mustafa Abduljalil, and were able to form a united rebel force.

At a deeper level, many in the Middle East see a need for more unity among the region’s many religions as the basis for a peaceful transition to democracy. Last weekend, for example, Turkey hosted an international conference in Istanbul called “Arab Spring and Peace in the New Middle East: Muslim and Christian Perspectives.”

In a joint declaration, the conference of religious leaders stated: “While state systems may be different, equal citizenship, the rule of law and protection of freedoms are the basis of a strong and vibrant civil society.”

One attendee, Patriarch Theophilos III of the pan-Orthodox church in Jerusalem, said in a speech to the conference: “We believe that conflict, prejudice, hatred, and injustice can be turned into peace, mutual respect, love and righteousness.”

As the cradle of so many religions, and now the latest crucible in the advance of democracy, the Middle East needs to keep an eye on the uplifting values that unite all people.

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