Opinion
December 21, 2012

Resetting the lens on the Arab Spring

Unprecedented realities demand new ways of thinking, new ways of seeing, and new ways of understanding. The Arab Spring, as it has been called in the West, demands not just our attention, but a reconsideration of our most basic assumptions about the region.

The Arab Spring is a historic and watershed moment; a phenomenon undoubtedly as equal in importance to Arabs as was the fall of the Berlin Wall to Europe and the Western world.

Ahmed Benchemsi, a leading Moroccan journalist and publisher and editor of the country’s two bestselling magazines (TelQuel and Nishan), believes the ideological fault line of the Arab uprisings is the struggle between secularism and Islamism; the common thread that ties the Arab uprisings from Egypt, Libya and Tunisia to Bahrain, Syria and Yemen. Benchemsi, an impassioned advocate of secularism in the Arab world, calls for a necessary distinction to be made between Western-inspired secularism and homegrown secularism; or “secularism from within,” as the journalist refers to it. He argues that for secularism in the Arab world to succeed, it must be a grassroots movement solidly built on a democratic doctrine and a political process that is developed from within, rather than inspired from abroad.

Though the youth of the revolution have not been loud enough in their calls for personal rights and freedoms and the strict separation of mosque and state, time still remains. But it is quickly running out. Others believe that it is too late, as religious-based movements across the board have leveraged their unrivalled organizational capacity, resources and religious credentials to win the race at the ballot box and forge ahead with the shaping of the new post-revolution governments.

Of equal importance is the search for the lessons that can be drawn from the Arab uprisings, especially regarding the durability of Canadian democracy and the health of its corps politique. Removed from the “Oriental” other that we have traditionally set ourselves against with respect to the Middle East, the events of the region should be likened to the sociopolitical evolutionary processes that took and are still taking place in Europe, North America and elsewhere.

As Rami Khouri, director of the Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, rightly states, the Arab Spring has compressed political and social processes that unraveled over a span of two to three centuries in the West.

Tyseer Aboulnasr, former dean of the School of Engineering at the University of British Columbia, has gone further in drawing parallels between autocratic regimes in the Arab world and nascent features within the Canadian political system. These connections touch on issues such as government propaganda and image-control and exclusionary practices toward minorities. While Arabs are struggling to plant the seeds of democracy, Canadians have a “tree of democracy,” but one that, in her opinion, is unfortunately in increasingly poor health. Aboulnasr asks Canadians to “connect the dots” and become engaged citizens so that we do not end up in the situation that the Arab world finds itself in today.

Thrown into the mix are questions raised by former Canadian diplomats, Ferry de Kerchove and Paul Heinbecker, about Canada’s abilities to play a larger role in the Middle East and North Africa without clearly articulated policies in the first place.

Yet, amid recent doubt and cynicism of Canada’s potential role as a powerbroker in the region, Lyse Doucet, international senior correspondent for the BBC, injects a sense of optimism and hope regarding the health and future of Canada’s foreign policy, in the Arab region and elsewhere. She argues that Canada’s role in the world is not the “muscle and brawn” foreign policy of the United States, but what distinguishes our guiding values is the intensity of community engagement that is taking place on a very granular level, close to the ground in all of the Arab states that have witnessed a revolution. Our own national fabric, whether as community activists, translators, peacekeepers, journalists or other, enables Canadians on the ground to make a real difference.

The Arab Spring is at its very core the stories of hardship, struggle, and adversity for the millions of Arabs who have endured years of government repression. Referring to the power struggle in Egypt and elsewhere, Doucet has warned that “the battle is not over, expect the unexpected” in this fascinating, important and ever evolving story.

The above opinions were presented at the 81st Annual Couchiching Conference: The Arab Spring Implications and Opportunities for Canada. Proceedings can be viewed at
http://www.couchichinginstitute.ca/2012-conference/sessions

Salim Rachid is chair of Couchiching Conversations & Roundtables for the Couchiching Institute on Public Affairs. He is currently a City of Toronto Urban Fellow and also a DiverseCity Fellow with CivicAction.

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