The "Revolutions, Reforms and Democratic Transition in the Arab Homeland from the Perspective of the Tunisian Revolution" conference organized by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies began Tuesday morning in Doha. The conference opened with a lecture by the Center's Director, Dr. Azmi Bishara, titled "Arab and Tunisian Dimensions of the Tunisian Revolution" in which he discussed the causes of the Arab revolutions and the means of reform and transition to democracy, indicating that the success of the conscious transition to democracy in both countries-Tunisia and Egypt-will affect several Arab countries determining their destinies.
Dr. Bishara stated that Tunisia represents a test case, a laboratory-like situation for understanding the latest developments in the Arab world. He expressed the importance of bringing together scholarly and scientific analyses about this case in a book that can be of use to Arab researchers and readers seeking to understand the reasons for the eruption of revolutions in the Arab world, despite the historiographical difficulty in examining events of such a recent nature.
According to Bishara, academic and elite analysis focused on Tunisians at this stage can center on the need to integrate the great transformation in the Arab world into their analysis; a view opposed to the one common at the outset of the Tunisian revolution which held that the events in Tunisia were the result of a Tunisian (as opposed to Arab) specificity, attributing the revolutionary movement to Tunisia's links with Europe and pointing to the advanced state of Tunisian civil society as evidence of this specificity. Bishara emphasized that what has happened in Tunisia is objectively linked the Arab world as a whole, and that the region has witnessed the end of one stage and the beginning of another, the elements of which have yet to be made clear. Bishara also admitted that there was no scientific prediction of what would emerge in the wake of the stasis characteristic of Arab political regimes, indicating that the spontaneity of revolutions was a recurring historical question, the eruption of which cannot be predicted.
Bishara stressed the point that what happened in Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab countries points to the commonality extant in the Arab world, while the differences lie solely in the minor details. The Tunisian case, he stated, was one of an extended centralized state, despite the changes in the congruence of its history and geography; the modernization it underwent in the Bourguiba and Ben Ali eras and the separation of the civil society from the state government; and the assumption of clear roles and forms that allowed for the separation between the state and the regime. The latter becomes especially clear when we consider that the military acted on behalf of the state rather than acting on behalf of the regime or the authority of the individual or the royal family. This is indeed a particularly Tunisian specificity that was witnessed again in Egypt in which the separation between the state and the regime was evident.
Bishara dismissed the idea that the experiences of Tunisia and Egypt could be replicated in other Arab countries, explaining that other countries do not exhibit the same level of social homogeneity and thus no clear institutional separation as in the cases of Tunisia and Egypt. Bishara qualified this, however, by stating that the Arab regimes display a degree of structural similarity as it pertains to the impasse that they have reached, and the emergence of authoritarianism in the form of long-term ruling families. These characteristics, he said, are not uniquely Arab, indeed they exist in other countries in the Third World as in the case of North Korea, but are a common feature of the Arab states, and have contributed to the formation of a common motive for revolution.
Bishara also said that Arab republics' reliance on partisanship and blood ties to ensure loyalty was rooted in authoritarianism. He dated the beginnings of this phenomenon to the Sadat era, adding that another common feature of Arab regimes is the prevalence of political roles being played by leading military and security personnel which he characterized as a trait of the political decay common to a number of Arab regimes, further stating that "what at first took place in secret began to take place in public, and even boasted about. This was associated with a public corruption that has been paraded as a success."
Bishara added that a common feature of Arab regimes has been the rise of a new business class that did not emerge from among the existing bourgeoisie, but rather from direct relations and organic connection to the ruler. Bishara described this phenomenon as an old one that had been interpreted by Ibn Khaldun as the "transformation of chivalry to prestige, and prestige into money."
Bishara also indicated that with the emergence of open communications networks, the Arab citizen over the past two decades has developed a common consciousness that rejects corruption and the intercourse between business and political elites, a factor that has unified the Arab condition of opposition to these regimes. He also pointed to the spontaneity and popularity of the Arab revolutions, their lack of identifiable leadership resulting from the "eternalization" of the opposition, and thereby the waning in the power and effectiveness of this opposition. Bishara explained the latter point by stating that traditional opposition forces had, because of state persecution and repression, been detached from society, or co-opted either as a complementary part of the political system or into the regime itself. This situation raised the question of who could lead the change, or who would replace the current ruler? This was the case in most Arab countries.
In Bishara's view, the Revolutions, Reforms and Democratic Transition in the Arab Homeland conference will examine the progressive role that can be played by traditional structures in Arab society, such as civil groupings and family networks in the various regions and areas, in sparking social uprisings or revolution. This was the role played by the family of Muhammad Buazizi when they set out to demand their son's rights, and in Dar'a in Syria when the families protested the army's harassment of their children who themselves were reenacting what they had seen of the Arab revolutions on television screens.
Bishara clarified that the suicide of one person or several people will not in itself result in revolution, and that what brought about the revolutionary situation was the total sense of impasse: that the ruler was no longer able to continue with the traditional methods of governance, and nor were the ruled any longer able to bear the methods wielded by the regime.
Bishara stressed the similarities between Tunisia and Egypt in the periods since the revolution with regards to the gradual nature of the transition to democracy. Revolutions, he explained, do not lead to a ready-made democracy. Bishara praised the two revolutions and their role in forming a democratic consciousness that will determine the fates of several Arab states, because the success of democracy in both countries will affect several other Arab states and the orientation of existing Arab regimes.
Bishara also stressed that the ongoing protests in city squares may not lead to the toppling of a regime, pointing out that the "cloning" of the Tunisian and Egyptian experiences in an unconscious manner may lead to disappointments and disasters. He stressed that there are differences between Arab countries and between the east (mashreq) and west (Maghreb) of the Arab world, especially with regards to social homogeneity, that must be taken into account. The mashreq, he explained, is non-homogeneous and quite diverse-with regards to sectarianism-the colonial power having played a major role in the formation of minorities. This is in contrast to the maghreb which seems more homogeneous despite the strong presence of both Arabs and Berbers.
Bishara said that the clash with the regime creates a rift in the society if a part of the society is structurally linked (or linked by interests) with the regime. He stressed the importance of taking the specific compositions of each Arab society into account in order to understand the Arab revolutions and their chances of bringing about change.
He pointed out that the revolution is not always the event that will take the people from the ideal to the real as was the case in Egypt. He added, however, that a popular revolution, as witnessed in Egypt and Tunisia, is a force that cannot be countered, and that what took place later in Libya, Yemen and Syria where the regime sought to instill the fear of a civil war in order to quell the uprisings was insufficient to persuade the people to quietly remain under the yoke of authoritarian rule.
As for the way forward, Arab regimes in Bishara's view, can either begin to reform or be forced to reform, noting that in the case of the mashreq, revolutions have little hope of success in the current context given the potentialities for tribal or sectarian strife. Bishara considered the real alternative for the mashreq as the necessity and inevitability of reform.
Bishara also raised several questions about the future of the countries in which regimes have been toppled regarding consciousness of Arab issues in general and the Palestinian struggle in particular, and about the issues in which the youth who led these revolutions believe.
The session was chaired by Dr. Fares Braizat, head of the Public Opinion Program at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies. Dr. Braizat welcomed all the participants to the cognitive and academic demonstration that is the first of its kind in the Arab world devoted to research on the Arab revolutions, asserting that what is currently happening in the Arab world has imposed on Arab regimes two possible courses of action: the establishment of true democracy in the republics, or constitutional monarchies in the states with hereditary transition of power. He pointed to the importance of these revolutions in the revival of pan-Arab sentiment, and in fostering unity against oppression and tyranny.
The conference will continue for three days at the Intercontinental Hotel and the Diplomatic Club in Doha, including the presentation of twenty research papers dealing with four main issue areas surrounding the Tunisian revolution: 1) causes and background of the revolution; 2) the success of the revolution; 3) the challenges of democratic transition; and 4) the Arab response to and interaction with the revolution. The third and final day of the conference (Thursday April 21) has will be devoted to live testimonies from participants in the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, and for the leaders of the Tunisian political parties to share and discuss their views on their country's path to democracy after the fall of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's regime.