How to Rejuvenate the Arab Renaissance

How to Rejuvenate the Arab Renaissance

El Hassan bin Talal
Published in Muftah, July 3rd, 2014


While exhorting his troops to victory in Normandy during World War II, U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote the soldiers an evocative letter. Using stirring words that alternated between fact and poetry, he reminded the Allied forces of the gains made during the war and told them that “the tide had turned.”

In early June, as the world celebrated the 70th anniversary of D Day, I could not help but wonder if I was remiss in hoping the tide could turn for the Middle East – or if one were to use a more factual term less remnant of the colonial era, “West Asia and North Africa.”

Has the Arab Spring set in motion forces that will deliver economic, political and social justice for all the region’s citizens? Or has it, like the European Revolution of 1848 –referred to, at the time, as the Spring of Nations, a European Spring if you will – sputtered briefly only to fail?
While largely forgotten today, the 1848 revolutions remain to date the largest political upheaval in European history. People in France, Italy, Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Belgium, Switzerland, Ireland, Poland and Ukraine rose against the prevailing political leadership of the time demanding political and economic rights. Within a year, however, the uprisings were largely put down. At the end of the revolution, over ten thousand people had died. By the spring of 1849, the incumbent power structures were still in place. Save for gains in Austria, Denmark, and France, people achieved little in the way of improved living conditions.

Historians have largely dismissed the events of 1848 as a failure. As Priscilla Robertson writes about these events, “the test of whether a revolution is successful is not if a new power with a new name exercises the same restraints as before, but whether some new group has won some important new freedom – economic, political, social or religious.”

At first glance, the similarities between the events of 1848 and the Arab Spring are startling.

Across the region, various governments responded to the Arab Spring protests with measures ranging from brutal crackdowns to thoughtless appeasement. In general, there was and continues to be little in the way of delivering new freedoms to the most marginalized sections of society.
The gap between the haves and the have-nots in the region has increased in recent years. A 2013 Thomson Reuters Foundation poll on 22 Arab states revealed that three out of five Arab Spring countries were at the very bottom of the rankings in terms of respecting women’s rights. Meanwhile, the empowerment of religious minorities across much of the Arab world can at best be described as a work in progress.

That said, if history can underscore our failures, it can also remind us of those times when we set aside our differences and worked together to accomplish seemingly impossible tasks. This kind of careful reading of history can provide the West Asia and North Africa region with a roadmap of hope.

Europe – 1950: A Model for the Arab World
To truly deliver on the promise of the Arab Spring, we need to look not at Europe in 1848, but rather to events on the continent in 1950 – a   momentous year that laid the foundation for peace in Europe.

It was the year that saw the founding of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). While the ECSC was established on economic grounds, its greater objective was to make war unthinkable between countries belonging to the union. Over the years, collaboration between ECSC member states coalesced through various small confidence-building measures, and helped create today’s European Union.

It is this kind of supra-national cooperation that can offer a template of hope for the Arab World. Take for example, the instability in the region resulting from the Syrian uprising. Today, according to the most conservative estimates, one out of every three people in Syria, nearly 9.3 million people, are in need of urgent humanitarian aid. More than 2.5 million refugees have fled to neighboring countries, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan. Since, as UNHCR has observed, most refugees remain displaced for as long as seventeen years, can we continue to think of these individuals as only a Syrian problem?

Can we condemn them to living in refugee camps for the long term future – human islands that isolate these people from their host countries with no access to basic legal rights? Or should we instead take a regional perspective and develop a unified policy to provide these individuals with access to a justice system that guarantees and protect basic human rights?

Or take the case of the hundreds of millions of people in the region who are deprived of the basic human right of water. Water scarcity was, in fact, one of the primary causes of the Syrian uprising – because of limited water resources, as many as 250,000 Syrian farmers were deprived of their livelihoods during the year protests against the Assad regime broke out.

Can we afford to continue ignoring the fact that 70 percent of the water resources in the Middle East are shared? Will the Euphrates, Tigris, and Jordan rivers, the sustainers of our most ancient civilizations, change their course to accommodate the whims of Sir Mark Sykes and Frances George Picot, or for that matter their leaders Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau, who to satisfy their imperial goals thoughtlessly carved up the thrice promised lands of the Middle East almost one hundred years ago?
Today, we must look beyond these artificial boundaries and focus on what H.G. Wells called the “natural boundaries of mankind.” As in Europe, cooperation across national borders will help us discover an authentic regional voice and enable us to overcome seemingly unsolvable problems over the course of the next few decades.

Securing Access to Legal Justice – the WANA Forum
It is this impetus to regional cooperation that inspired the West Asia and North Africa (WANA) forum in Amman from June 11-12, 2014. Leaders, academics, policy-makers, civil society, and religious officials from all over the Arab world attended the event. The conference looked specifically at how governments could work together to enable access to justice for people with no legal recourse, like women, children, refugees, and migrant workers, to protect their most fundamental rights, while also conceptualizing and developing grassroots solutions to these problems.

Access to justice is the principal pillar of legal empowerment. Not only is it a fundamental right, it is also a bridge to upholding other rights. It is not a black and white concept; the extent to which access to justice exists may apply differently to different groups, in different locations, or in different areas of law. In Saudi Arabia, for example, access to justice for wealthy men is quite good. However, for women, state laws that prevent them from leaving the house or pursuing legal matters such, as obtaining a passport without their husband’s permission, mean that access to justice is severely restricted.

Another example is the Israeli Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law, which explicitly discriminates against Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The law restricts family unification for Palestinians, leading to a denial of residency rights, and obstructing the functioning of the Palestinian justice system.

When analyzed through this lens, it is unlikely any country that can boast equal and universal access to justice for all. It may be better, therefore, to understand access to justice in terms of progression along a continuum; a continuous journey marked by hills, delays, and expected detours.
Because the issue of legal access has largely been ignored, the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s), which are due to be completed by 2015, have largely been ineffective in qualitatively improving the lives of marginalized people in the Middle East. This is why I co-signed an urgent appeal earlier this year with 40 other world leaders, asking that access to justice be made a part of the Sustainable Development Goals – which will build upon the MDG’s and converge with the post-2015 development agenda.

Governments in the West Asia and North Africa region need to begin to collaborate across borders. We can start with issues like legal justice and water. Over time, we can establish a social charter for Arab citizenship. It is how we will turn the tide. It is how, regionally and globally, we will deliver on the promise of the Arab Spring.