The citizen action for change

By Auburn Daniels – iLEDA trainer

The developments in North Africa and the Middle East have engrossed viewers around the world. For some it may appear a rather sudden revolt in countries that are thought to be rigid and oppressive. These unprecedented events still pose the question, will  the people of these countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya succeed in bringing about sustainable change?

If a person was born in 1989, that person would now be a mere 22 years old. In the past twenty two years there has been a plethora of fundamental changes in the world around us. In South Africa alone we have witnessed the dawn of a new era, a constitutional democracy.

In the international arena, the changes were just as phenomenal. The fall of the Berlin wall was indicative of the collapse of a hegemonic Soviet empire. The September 11 attack exposed the vulnerability of the world’s only super power. The new millennium has brought a new Chinese economic heavy weight onto the scene.

However, it seemed one region was virtually unaffected by all these major changes in world politics. The North African and the Middle Eastern regions are notoriously known for their despotic rule and resolute resistance to democratic change. The citizenry of this region seemed to be held hostage by oppressive rule by morally corrupt leaders and lost any desire for democratic change.

The ubiquitous scenes of protesters and the bravery of ordinary citizens during uprisings first in Tunisia and later in Egypt, Libya and Yemen among others captivated us. These revolts seem to be spontaneous, without a clear leader figures at the helm.

The populace of these North African countries are known to be highly skilled and well educated; many have a relatively high standard of living. But disparities are widening and unemployment escalating.

What has transpired in North Africa is indicative that food or a roof over ones head does not translate into general contentment. People have a greater desire for freedom, a society that is more open and basic human rights. The past 22 years of silence and repression has culminated into a pressure cooker. People literally became fearless and tired of their controlled oppressive society and widespread protests erupted with a domino effect in the region. The young educated population, unprepared to defer their dreams of freedom, knew how to use new social media technology to its advantage. Facebook and Twitter have made the world a smaller place and have facilitated greater access to information from far beyond geographical borders.

Somehow the impression was created by the media that the revolt was spontaneous and without a recognizable leader at the helm of the protests. In Tunisia a man immolated himself in protest of being in a society without a voice and virtually invisible. He is the face of their revolution. In Egypt an IT consultant turned community mobiliser become a leader behind the scenes. In Libya clear leadership came to the fore to take up arms against Gaddafi. Therefore to state that the revolt was without leadership is just not true.

Western media not reporting on any protests in these countries does not mean that pervasive discontentment in the labyrinth of society was not present, yet deferred for the appropriate moment to arise. There may not have been a figure head in the mass protests but it is quite unlikely that no person or persons did not orchestrate and strategise to sustain the protest over weeks to achieve their objectives.

It is very difficult to predict what the outcome will be in the region but it is fallacy that this region is not ready for democracy. It will require a lot of support and guidance from the international community. However this support must be at the request of the people. And support and guidance can be requested not only from the West but also from young democracies with relevant experience in the South, from Africa itself. Democracy is not a commodity for export but a process and a culture that needs to be cultivated over time. The people and their leaders should be at the helm of engendering the culture of democracy. The international community at the same time is making concerted efforts not to repeat the mistakes of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Twenty two years may not be many years when growing from child to young adult but it would be a long period of time for a country in its trajectory towards democratic change.

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