Soon after they began in Tunisia and then spread to Egypt and across much of the Arab Middle East, the political uprisings to demand political rights, basic respect for human dignity, and better social and economic conditions came to be referred to as the "Arab Spring." (A recent essay by Joshua Keating at Foreign Policy suggests that the term may have been coined, in fact, there.) Unfortunately, the "spring" metaphor opened the door to various and sundry commentators (many of them naysayers) to ruminate about the "Arab fall" and, recently, the "Arab winter" as demonstrators have been opposed, even killed, in countries like Bahrain and Syria, and, of course, Egypt, one of the "Arab spring's" hearths, where broad popular demands for change and free elections are being thwarted by a deeply entrenched class of high-ranking military officers who seem determined to sustain the almost 60 years of military control of the Egyptian state (as well as the wealth they've built up in the process).
But for months, the astute, prolific analyst and commentator Rami Khouri has been encouraging us to take the long view - to recognize and anticipate that the uprisings of the last year mark only the beginning - an "awakening" - in the process of the empowerment of Arab peoples. Khouri is channeling here, of course, the title of a celebrated book by George Antonius, published in the 1930as, that came to be regarded as an important signpost in the "awakening" of the pan-Arabism that reached its zenith with the meteoric rise of Gamal Abdul Nasser in the 1950s and 1960s. But the "awakening" of which Khouri speaks entails a long process, surely to suffer setbacks and interruptions, that, in his view, inexorably will lead to the establishment of a true sovereignty across the Arab world. That sovereignty will be founded on popular will, in a region that up to now, and even now in many countries, has featured governments - regimes, really - disconnected from their citizens (who barely merit that characterization; "subjects" might be more accurate, even if governments featue leaders with titles like "president") yet maintained in power by a West that has long valued stability, access to the region's petroleum, and the enabling of the region's baddest boy (the state of Israel) over the rights, dignity, and prosperity of the locals. As one of Khouri's latest essays notes,
Today, the Arab world is moving in a new direction. We may be witnessing the first tangible impact of the Arab uprisings, citizen revolts and revolutions on those Arab elites that still control most governments in the region. Arab regimes may be starting to pay attention to the sentiments and values of their people, who reject the killing of civilians that has taken place in Syria since March.
Khouri spotlights a development that, he hopes, marks for the Arab peoples an important re-rousing from their tortured slumber: the re-fashioning of the long-mocked Arab League as a meaningful, empowered instrument of Arab unity and purpose.
The other fascinating new development we see before our eyes is the continued rebirth and reassertion of Arab sovereignty, will and influence within the Arab world, after decades during which the incompetent and politically derelict Arab states largely surrendered their regional security and ideological functions to foreign powers.
The Arab League is now making decisions whose consequences are ricocheting around the region. Consequently, Israel, Iran, Turkey and the U.S. are responding to Arab initiatives, rather than ordering the Arabs around, as they had for decades. The Arab Awakening continues.
And as when any of us has been asleep too long, awakening can be very slow; nor will it look pretty along the way. Our heads fall back to our pillows; we take mini-naps, feel irritable and cranky, ask our spouses and friends to be patient with us, and we resort to the series of jolts that sequential cups of strong coffee provide. But in time, we are fully roused, awake and alert, dressed and geared up for action, ready to write the stories of our new day.
The Arab Awakening of which Khouri writes will likewise need the occasional nap and will tax the patience of friends. And it will be punctuated by cups full, not of strong coffee, but of the blood of heroes and martyrs.
But Khouri enjoins us to indeed be patient, for once fully awakened, the great Arab people will be poised to pen a saga that may captivate us all.