Talking about a (Arab) revolution Yukon Damov

Over 9000 km away from Tahrir Square, three men convened in the George Ignatieff Theatre last Thursday to discuss the Arab Spring. Using the philosophy of Isaiah Berlin as a reference point, Michael Ignatieff and Iranian-born, U of T professor of political science Ramin Jahanbegloo explored the recent revolutions in the Middle East. Together with moderator Professor Mark Kingwell the three made for a lively and engaging performance, soon to be aired on TVO’s Big Ideas program.

The speakers addressed the causes of the revolutions, the definition and construction of democracy, the impact of social media, and how the Arab Spring has led us to examine the condition of Canada’s democracy.

Telling the story of a Tunisian vegetable vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, Ignatieff argued that the Arab Spring was the product of years of shame and humiliation inflicted on the population of authoritarian regimes. Bouazizi was fined and faced confiscation of his trade cart for selling vegetables without a license. When he tried to pay the fine, a police officer slapped him, spat in his face and insulted his deceased father. That this local official was a woman made the incident all the more humiliating for Bouazizi. On January 4, 2011, Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of police headquarters in protest. His self-immolation is now generally regarded as the event which sparked the Arab Spring. Using Bouazizi’s story as an example, Ignatieff said that the revolutionaries are trying to expunge the shame and humiliation from citizens’ daily and theoretical relationship with the state.

The speakers acknowledged that the attempt to transform this basic relationship has an uncertain ending, but it also helps to remind us of the value of democracy. As Mr. Ignatieff said, democracy “validates every person in a unique way, and it’s the only system that does that.” It gives each individual a sense of agency and a sense of moral significance -- a concept that is perhaps so familiar to us that its importance is diminished.

As Professor Jahanbegloo noted, the revolutionaries are young and are not politicians. With the help of social media, these tech-savvy protestors have worked from the ground up. Social media enabled citizens to become civic actors, to organize and to communicate in and around the state. The Internet facilitated the spread of Gene Sharp’s guidebook for non-violent resistance, From Dictatorship to Democracy.

Jahanbegloo cited Isaiah Berlin’s “national consciousness” as an enabler of the revolution. It is a kind of nationalism that provides a sense of belonging and a collective identity. As opposed to a more strident and divisive nationalism, “national consciousness” is based on empathy. For Kingwell, this point was very important. “Democracy has no purchase unless and until we can see the other as worth caring about,” he said to the newspaper.

Ignatieff added that there must be a secular way of overcoming religious, tribal and ethnic differences, and of integrating minorities into these new societies. “Islamic Egypt must emphasize the ‘Egypt’ as much as the ‘Islamic.”

Each speaker agreed that carving out this space for minorities will be one of the struggles of this project in democracy. Another problem will be how the privileged class, the group that has enjoyed power in the past, will be involved in the regime change and in the new society. Because, Ignatieff said, this middle-class of old elites is not going away, the question becomes whether the “youthful forces that created the revolution will be able to consolidate the revolution.”

As these Arab societies strive to construct viable forms of democracy, participants in Thursday’s discussion recognized how the Arab Spring reflects back on us, which provoked questions about the nature and use of “old” Western democracies. “We must democratize our democracies,” said Jahanbegloo. Rather than being messy models of success, Western democracies, as well as attempting to propel change in the Middle East, can learn from the Arab Spring.

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