2011 In The Arab World: Change We Can Believe In – OpEd


By Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan

Regionally and globally we are coming to the end of a significant year. Manifold “awakenings” have altered the strategic, social and political context of a region I refer to as “West Asia North Africa” (commonly known as the Middle East and North Africa).

On a global level, profound stresses in the world economy – which are not solely confined to Western countries – have exposed a hyper-globalised age in which opportunity, equality, fairness and social mobility appear to have been compromised to an unacceptable degree. Deficits in national budgets around the world have created and accentuated a trust deficit, as well as a human dignity deficit in both the West and West Asia North Africa. This reality has resulted in the Occupy movement in London and the United States, and the “Indignant” movement in Spain, both of which were influenced by, and find common cause with, the Arab Awakening.

What we may be seeing is the birth of a new global rhetoric born in the West Asia North Africa region. This rhetoric essentially argues that human beings are “too big to fail”. In 2012 it will, however, require further articulating: none of the demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Cairo, on Wall Street in New York City, or elsewhere, have been intellectually or politically codified. The concept of human security has instead been vindicated by events on the ground: a critical mass, made up of a once-silenced majority, has surfaced.

But Tweeting – which is so closely associated with recent protests – is no substitute for thought, and passion no substitute for discipline.

We have become a region of a million accents; decades of divide and rule have rendered us incapable of speaking with one single voice. Because of this, others from outside of the region, too often do the talking for us.

Its time to develop new narratives – and a greater sense of unity. A year ago, on 1 January 2011, 21 people were killed in an attack on a Coptic church in Alexandria; 25 days later Muslims and Christians prayed beside each other in Tahrir Square. It did not last long – sectarian tensions have resurfaced in Egypt, in Bahrain and across the region as a whole. It did however suggest that the frictions which so often seem to split this region asunder are, in the final estimation, far more brittle than they appear.

The Arab world is often depicted as a place fighting against everything, particularly progress. But over the past few months it has been the men and women of this region who have led the way in fighting for what has been described as universal rights: for justice, transparency and accountability, for the right to have both a career and a family and for the right of Palestinians to become citizens in their own sovereign territory. The future of West Asia North Africa is being re-engineered, contested and heavily fought across a wide range of arenas. That future remains uncertain and its contours opaque – but its embers are glowing.

Our region requires a bill of rights that prohibits all forms of discrimination, but also outlines responsibilities. We need to engage what I refer to as ‘third sphere’ communities – made up of civic organisations, government and the private sector –to engender meaningful models of social cohesion and social inclusion. We need to invest in research and development – and incubate not just businesses but educated human beings.

In 1987, I was part of a commission which presented to the UN General Assembly a report which called for a “new international humanitarian order”. The report, entitled “Winning the Human Race”, argued that economic growth and national security were overwhelmingly dependent on individuals and community well-being.

The conclusions which can be drawn over the past 12 months seem to accord with the findings of this 24 year-old report. In a sense both suggest that the real “change you can believe in” comes not from governments, armies nor institutions – but from individual human beings.

His Royal Highness Prince El Hassan bin Talal is chairman and founder of the Arab Thought Forum and the West Asia North Africa Forum.


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