By Brian Whitaker
"Women, bloggers and gays lead change in the Arab world." That is the headline of an article by Octavia Nasr for CNN's blog AC360°. "Several new lines are being drawn in the Middle East's desert sand simultaneously," she writes. "If they continue to be drawn at this rate longer and thicker, it's hard to foresee any governments, censors or jails being able to stop them."
Though Nasr sounds a bit overexcited about the existence of a feminist mag in Arabic in which "no one dares to advertise" and a few other developments which are interesting straws in the wind but scarcely signs of an imminent revolution, I think she has a point. If asked where change is likely to come from in the Arab countries, I would not put much faith in "reformist" politicians and opposition parties – they're mostly no-hopers – but I would definitely put feminists, gay men, lesbians and bloggers very high on my list.
It's important not to exaggerate what they are actually achieving at the moment, but let's consider their potential as challengers of the status quo and drivers of change. The "Arab problem" is mostly perceived in terms of the regimes: the lack of democracy, authoritarian rulers who trample over people's rights, and so on. That was the perception of the Bush administration in particular and it led to the simplistic idea that regime change was the solution.
It's now very clear (as I explain in my new book, What's Really Wrong With the Middle East) that this was a mistake. You can overthrow dictators, you can force countries to have elections and you can even insist on voting procedures that are reasonably fair, but that doesn't bring freedom unless it forms part of a much bigger social transformation.
What has emerged in Iraq, for example, is not so much a model for the rest of the Middle East (as originally intended by Bush and the neocons) but a model of it. As the smoke drifts away, Iraq is emerging as a fairly typical Arab state with most of their usual negative characteristics – a government with authoritarian aspirations, institutionalised corruption and nepotism, pervasive social discrimination and a rentier economy that produces little besides oil – plus, for good measure, resurgent tribalism and sectarianism.
Arab regimes, by and large, are products of the societies they govern and it is often the society, as much as the government itself, that stands in the way of progress. In Kuwait, for instance, it was not the hereditary emir who resisted granting votes to women, but reactionary elements in the elected parliament – and there are plenty of similar examples.
Khaled Diab, an Egyptian who contributes regularly to Cif, summed it up pithily when he told me: "Egypt has a million Mubaraks." In other words, the Mubarak way of doing things is not confined to the country's president; it is found throughout Egyptian society, in business and in families too. The Arab family as traditionally conceived – patriarchal and authoritarian, suppressing individuality and imposing conformity, protecting its members so long as they comply with its wishes – is a microcosm of the Arab state.
Changing the power structures within families (and in many parts of the Arab world this is already happening) will also gradually change the way people view other power structures that replicate those of the traditional family, whether in schools and universities, the workplace, or in government. This is where women come in. In an Arab context, demanding the same rights as men is a first step towards change. Asserting their rights doesn't mean that all women have to be activists for feminism. Even something as simple as going out to work – if enough people do it – can start to make a difference.
Contrary to popular opinion, most human rights abuses in the Arab countries are perpetrated by society rather than regimes. Yes, ordinary people are oppressed by their rulers, but they are also participants themselves in a system of oppression that includes systematic denial of rights on a grand scale.
In these highly stratified societies, people are discriminated for and against largely according to accidents of birth: by gender, by family, by tribe, by sect. Women, as the largest disadvantaged group, can play a major role in overcoming this and helping smaller disadvantaged groups to do the same. Once the equality principle is accepted for women it becomes easier to apply it to others.
Discrimination against gay people has only begun to be challenged in the Arab countries during the last few years. In a patriarchal system, where masculinity is highly prized, any deviation from the sexual "norms" and expected gender roles is not only subversive but is regarded as extremely threatening. The vigilante killings in Iraq are the nastiest example – not just of men who are thought to be gay, but others who simply don't dress and behave "as men should".
The third group driving change are the bloggers. A recent survey found 35,000 people blogging in Arabic, plus countless others who use Facebook, Twitter, etc, to communicate over the internet. There has been much debate about the extent to which this is reshaping public discourse and undermining censorship, but that is not really the main significance of blogging and the internet in the Middle East. The traditional "ideal" of an Arab society is one that is strictly ordered, where everyone knows their place and nobody speaks out of turn. Basically, you do what is required of you and no more. You keep your head down, don't make waves and let those who supposedly know better get on with running things.
The point about bloggers is that they want none of that. They are engaged, they are alive, and they'll speak out of turn as much as they like. Put all these elements together and you can see how, sooner or later, the edifice could start to crumble.
- Berkman Center for Internet and Society: Mapping the Arabic Blogosphere: Politics, Culture and Dissent