Saturday, May 13, 2006

The Quandary!

Ahmadinejad of Iran is with us because a certain large percentage of the Iranian population thought he can create jobs ad improve their livelihood.

The Syrian people had hopes in Bashar, because they, too, believed he can improve their living conditions. Rights were not the main thing on their minds.

Indeed, and in such desperate economic times, people across our haggard region seem willing to err again and again by backing existing regimes, for all their dismal human rights records and all their corrupt practices and authoritarian predilections, so long as these regimes seem to represent the more viable promise of a better future in the economic sense.

Besides, people are always afraid of change, but their fears are amplified even more when the heralded change purports to affect just about every aspect of their lives, and at a time when everything around seems to inform them to expect disaster whenever the status quo is challenged. The examples of Yugoslavia and Iraq are the oft quoted ones in this regard of course.

Moreover, the peoples of our region are diverse, and they have long learned to suspect each other and have ample historical justification for that, their historical memories in this regard being rather vast and expansive. As such, they are indeed quite aware of the implication of a collapse of law and order, no matter how momentary.

For all these reasons, most of the peoples of this region would rather support the status quo and endorse the ruling regimes, even at the expense of having to “tough it out,” every now and then, by undergoing a period of economic hardships and international isolation. People would rather blame the rest of the world for such developments and would still hold out hopes that their rulers will eventually "see the light" and be willing and able to deliver on economic reforms.

Reformers and advocates of change, therefore, have to contend with a very grim reality and have to overcome a huge amount of inertia in order to get where they want to go and drag their societies and polities along with them. Neither the regimes, nor the peoples of the region will endorse reform and change (for indeed, change will also challenge quite a few ingrained social and cultural attitudes as well, there are no such things as purely economic or political change).

But, if the Arab Human Development Reports produced by the United Nation Development Program in cooperation with Arab intellectuals, reformers, technocrats and activists underscore anything it is the need for change, drastic change. Studies and reports with regard to Iran paint no less a grim image.

So, what can reformers and activists do other than issuing such periodic warnings?

Not much really. In fact, the best they could do under these circumstances is to survive and try to keep a certain secular liberal and liberating torch alive in the midst of a seemingly inevitable mayhem when all different sorts of primordial forces and atavistic identities are bound to emerge and clash in a process complicated by the needs and interests of external actors.

But then, and in order not to come out as too resigned and fatalistic, a quality that tends to offend the liberal tendencies of those of us who are truly liberal in mind and spirit, some of us to watch for possible “windows of opportunity,” no matter how unlikely they appear to be, and try to push something through them, a reform or two, which could be used as the basis for future reforms.

But regional realities are frankly much harsher than to allow even for this kind of “opportunism.” The incestuous cliquish nature of some regimes often makes them so inflexible and oppressive that, sooner or later, a reformer or an activist ends up finding himself a marginalized and disgusted figure in an equally marginalized and disgusted (and, occasionally, disgusting) opposition.

In this new role, the activist-turned-opposition figure can call more loudly for reforms now, and might have the luxury of even sounding “unreasonable” in his demands. Then, and at a certain point, he might even advocate regime change, through a popular revolution of all things, albeit on the more flowery side – a Jasmine Revolution.

But this is a tough sell to the people, and the resources are little. The small team he puts together is itself unready and is as diverse and, hence, fractions, as the population that it represents. And the times, the times are unforgiving. And his tongue, oh, his damned tongue, is well-nigh beyond control.

So one day, the hapless activist-turned-opposition figure comes out of a hurried a meeting realizing that he will soon need to add the little title of “exile” to his growing list of well-nigh useless titles (author, blogger, poet, analyst, advisor, consultant, team leader, coordinator, director, fellow, etc. ad absurdum, ad nauseam. Ah, and lest we forget: son, husband and father, well, stepfather anyway).

Now, sitting in his little 2-bedroom exile, in a rather quiet suburb, not too far from the center of all alleged conspiracies and the focus of most existing conspiracy theories, our hapless activist etc. has now to deal with the awesome task of figuring some new purpose to his to life, so he can be relevant again. This is just not the right time for a return to the erstwhile bohemian subsistence.

So, how can we change a world that does not want to be changed, that militates against even, albeit change is what it needs most? How can we save a world from itself? Or do we? Or are we just destined to manage a never ending crisis, to minimize the losses, pull something out of the ashes and breathe life back into it, so it can disintegrate again, sometimes as we watch?

These are some interesting questions, don’t you think?

The view is really nice from my balcony on the fifth floor. The bits of Rock Creek Park that I can glimpse are rather alluring. But the keyboard beckons, and its appeal is still powerful enough to drag me back inside. I am not that tapped out yet. I still have some answers to find and the will to keep on looking for them. There is still a role for me to play here, and I won’t accept anything less than positive.