Never forget the Arab Spring

The tender-hearted part of the human psyche abhors oppression in all its manifestations, particularly when it is sustained through government-sanctioned acts of repression.

Such loathing is normally manifested through protests and revolutions. Lulled into a false sense of security, convinced that they have the populace in the palm of their hands, heavy-handed authorities have often been rudely awoken from their deep slumber by unprecedented and unforeseeable revolutions. Some of the revolutions that were huge in scale that have taken place in the world have one thing in common; the word ‘Spring.’ The Prague Spring of 1968 that was sparked by the self-immolation of a student resulted in protests that lasted over seven months. The Springtime of Nations that took place over 120 years ago in many European countries resulted in the unfortunate displacement and avoidable murder of thousands of people.

The end of last year marked the tenth anniversary of the onset of The Arab Spring, and to some extent, the socio-political atmosphere still carries the echo of disillusion. These social revolutions were sparked by the self-immolation of a 26-year-old Tunisian on the 17th of December 2010, in protest over confiscation of his ‘vendibles’ by government officials.

Perhaps, ill-advisedly wedded to Westley Moore’s notion, “Don’t let people that don’t matter too much, matter too much,” public officials felt that they would get away with their indiscreet act of rough-edged bullishness.

Little did they know that what had started as a seemingly inconsequential and isolated act of misguided juvenile bravado in Tunisia would soon gather momentum and create a ripple effect as an unignorable volcano of protests spewed its ash plumes across at least six Arab states.

This forced the global community to pay attention as day in and day out, reports of uncontrollable outbursts of rage, sustained protests, mass arrests, shootings and deaths were broadcast live on local and international news channels.  The protests that were launched with enduring persistence left in their wake four fatally wounded governments; Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. At the forefront of these protests were youths who strongly condemned their governments for failing to deliver on implicit clauses of their social contract.

They complained about these single-worded concerns; oppression, repression, tyranny, poverty, corruption and unemployment. Pivotal to the success of the protests was the social media.

This was not only used to co-ordinate local protests but proved to be an indispensable tool in raising awareness of the protests in real time across the global village. Asked what they sought to achieve through the protests, the youth are likely to cry out in unison, civil liberty and credible governance.

What is intriguing though is that a few Arab states such as the UAE, Jordan, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and Morocco were spared the grief. What accounted for this? Incidentally most of these countries are constitutional monarchies.

Their wealth helped them maintain a posture of responsiveness to the demands of the people. They used money to confront issues at the forefront of the minds of the protesters.

Apart from the concerns raised in the third paragraph, protesters were also unhappy with overdue infrastructural projects, low salaries and sluggish implementation of electoral and constitutional reforms.

The six states mentioned at the outset of the paragraph had money to splash on the problems. They committed to an appetising dim sum menu of initiatives, and this significantly contributed to enervating potential protesters and sapping them of their energy. In some cases, public sector salaries were increased, delivery of housing units promised, fiscally prudent austerity measures deferred, cash handouts offered citizens and plans for shelved infrastructural projects revived. This fostered the view that money was the solution to the problems haunting their people.

Placated by the foregoing initiatives, potential protesters warmed to the authorities and lacked the zing to commit to persistent national unrest.

However, the said initiatives were reduced to stop plug measures that only created an unsustainable veneer of normalcy.

What is striking in retrospect is that between 2012 and 2020, the countries which had succeeded in warding off The Arab Spring choked dissenting voices through judicial repression. Others sunk to the nadir of lynching. A blistering indictment if you ask me! Lesson? Used as a charm offensive, money can be thrown at problems with an acceptable but time-bound degree of success. However, there is a point beyond which money loses its effectiveness.

Revolutions come and go. No state can claim to be revolution-proof. Public demands will always roll inexorably forward, ballooning and evolving in complexity with the unfurling of time. What can governments learn from the Arab Spring? The importance of delivering on the social contract.

Throughout the world, the current crop of youth is a generation which is not well known for its forbearance.

In fact, it is notorious for its culture of entitlement and instant gratification. Many countries have a long and pedigreed history of proactively and decisively nipping in the bud acts of dissension and protests. However, the history of mankind suggests that this only tends to presage avertible unrest.

Social contracts compel governments to take an unambiguous and non-allusive stance of pivotal departure from business as usual and draw from their deep reservoirs of consultation. In common parlance, this spells out the growing need to constructively engage the youth and meaningfully address the big socio-economic themes peculiar to them.

In order to make strategic gains, these broad-based themes must permeate the national dialogue and serve as a functional stethoscope for listening to the heartbeat of the youth. Indifference can only set the stage for a fiery, expensive and uncontrollable blowback.

Here are some socio-economic headwinds that, if left unaddressed would likely place many nations in a challenging and precarious space, haunted by chronic inability to address important issues. Lack of serviced land or housing for the youth.

Misalignment of state sponsored education with skills required by the private sector. Unemployment, Retrenchment of the youth from the public sector under pressure from the likes of IMF and the World Bank. Self-willed and surly ruling classes enriching themselves at the expense of the citizenry. Concentration of resources and infrastructural developments in a few areas to the exclusion of many. Consideration of these critical elements will no doubt form the touchstone of an invaluable and functional social contract.

Anything else is likely to be perceived as redundant and inflammatory rhetoric.

Discerning governments forestall the next ‘Spring’ by emotionally engaging the youth and apolitically responding to relevant themes by revising vital clauses of their social contracts. The Arab Spring provides crucial lessons to all governments. To avoid complacency. To fight the natural aversion towards stepping out of regressive comfort zones.

To passionately adopt a disciplined approach to handling blind spots openly. To take 100% accountability for leading the public discourse. To refuse to accept feeble excuses and limp justifications for poor performance from apathetic technocrats.

To resist the temptation to blame the youth; remember the adage, ‘When the hyena wants to eat its children, it first accuses them of smelling like goats.’ Like Gina Greenlee, an American author, admonished, “Experience is a master teacher, even if it is not our own.”

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