'The youth and the poor were ready for revolution in Arab countries'

When recently in Beirut and Cairo for Arab preparatory meetings for Rio+20, Diana Bronson had a chance to sit down with Adnan Melky, a long-time civil society activist from Lebanon, who has worked on environmental issues and democratic reform in Lebanon, and throughout the Arab region. Excerpts from their conversation are reproduced here.

Diana Bronson: What is your view of how the Arab Spring started and how do you understand it today?

Adnan Melky: The Arab Spring was an accumulation of social and economic factors that built up over decades, finally reaching the limit of oppression that exploded in this way. The people reached a point where they felt there was no longer any need to hide behind the wall of fear that separated them from their rights. It all started, of course, in Tunisia when Mohammed Bouazizi self-immolated. He was an educated man who could not find work in his field, which is a very common problem for youth in Arab countries. He was selling fruit on a portable cart, yet he was considered an "illegal worker" and was harassed by the police. He was not unemployed, he was underemployed. He had a job but no dignity and that represents so many Arab youth. His story was the same as the story of all those young people who just want to leave because they feel they have no future here. He lit himself on fire and it ignited not only his own body, but all the people in the Arab world whose problems he represented. Of course, each country is very different, especially Libya which is very different from Egypt or Tunisia, but this frustration of the youth is common to all.

D.B.: Of course, the first step was to force Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak from power. But the revolutions that we all admired from afar now enter into a much more difficult and complex phase. Can you talk about the role of the military in Egypt today, and other challenges that you see?

A.M.: I want to talk about the reasons for this. Some say the old guard has managed to kidnap the revolution and we need to understand why. I think it has to do with how ready civil society was for what happened. Our civil society is weak and not well organized so when Bouazizi broke through the wall of fear, people went to the street in an unorganized but peaceful fashion -- and, in that sense, it was a very enlightened revolution.

All our previous revolutions were armed conflicts but these ones were explicitly non-violent and they were led mainly by the youth in these countries. So they succeeded in forcing the regimes to leave -- and they refused when the president of Egypt wanted to leave the power to the vice-president, and then to the head of the intelligence forces. The people refused because they saw Mubarak's deputies as two faces of the same coin. The army was able jump in because there was a vacuum. The former opposition movements, which were led from the Left on the one hand and the Islamists on the other, were not really leading this revolution. They were not able to either contain it or to represent it and therefore the army had the space to step in during the transitional period. Electoral reform is critical in this transitional period, so that as soon as possible the power must be handed to those who really represent the people. The slow movement of change frustrates the youth, who are dreaming of a better future, and so they continue to go to Tahrir Square. This is very unique.

We need elections in order to move forward. We need real electoral reform and, so far, the developments in Tunisia have been more progressive than in Egypt. This is not an overnight process. We can see the light at the end of the tunnel but we do not know how long the tunnel is. The people's fear no longer exists. They express their thoughts even if it is painful, and as a result, the authorities are less and less authoritarian and I hope these reforms will happen fast. We need deep reforms that will affect the daily life of the people.

After decades of oppression, people may not understand the real meaning of politics, but they understand socio-economic realities. Without knowing all the terminology, they know there is a great gap between rich and poor, and even between rich and poor Arab countries. Even in the very rich countries, there are many deprived people -- youth, women -- and there are many problems in education. Poor and illiterate people are the most fertile soil for fanaticism. Our countries are culturally and historically very rich, and when you are in Cairo for example, you can walk about freely with no fear that someone will rob you or attack you. The peaceful way people fight against social and economic problems is part of our culture.

D.B.: What about the recent confrontations with the Copts in Egypt and the demonstration that resulted in two dozen people dead earlier this month?

A.M.: This is my personal understanding of sectarian conflicts, which is unfortunately growing within and between different religions. In Egypt, there is a historical conflict between Christians and Muslims but if you look back in history, you will see how religious differences have been manipulated. I am not saying there are no tensions. Right before the revolution, there was a similar incident with the church and later we found out that it was artificially ignited by the regime to contain the uprising. If you look and you compare what you saw, it is the same approach. People are killed in the same way as right before the revolution.

People were calling for inter-religious unity in the streets -- is this a common sentiment? Do you think religious extremism or intolerance will grow in the coming months?

Fanaticism grows in the soil of poverty, deprivation and illiteracy. And as long as we have this fertile soil, this monster will continue to grow. There are educated middle-class people who know about this and try to fight against it; they want people to look at the country as their nation irrespective of their religion. But there needs to be serious socio-economic change every single country in the Arab world to get rid of sectarianism. Otherwise, there will be fanaticism. It could take a tribal, ethnic or sectarian form -- all of these could be diluted through equity. We are wealthy nations in human and natural resources -- we could be advanced. Even before oil we were wealthy -- we were very advanced in science and astronomy. I hope that this revolution -- this youth spring -- will kick us ahead in our sustainable development.

D.B.: Many civil society organizations have participated in process towards elaborating an Arab position towards Rio +20. We have seen quite a wide variety of groups participate in meetings, and just the last few days you and I have participated in a consultation with Arab governments. How do you see the Arab position developing as we head into the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro?

A.M.: The Arab region is a mosaic. The Gulf is different from the Middle East, which is different from the Maghreb. And even among those regions, each country is different. Yet we all need serious reforms. Now is the chance of civil society to bloom. Diversity amongst us is very important. We do not need a unified position across the Arab world. We must encourage our governments to take a leading role, involving ALL people, and I mean all -- women, youth, farmers -- should be involved in the planning, implementation of the plans, as well as in monitoring and evaluation of progress.

Civil society should not take on the role of government or public sector. The government should encourage civil society to play an active role -- this is how we can peacefully get to sustainable development. We need to invest in education, we need to look at agriculture as a social sector, not merely a productive one. We need to focus on primary public health. We should invest in research and focus on the three pillars of sustainable development -- the economic, the social and the environmental. This is what we need to do ourselves -- as individuals, as communities, including the private sector and the governments. Co-ordination is needed.

There is a big gap between the different nations. We have some NGO networks and institutions like the League of Arab States but we need to work together to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor. Industrialized countries need to fulfill the commitments they made in 1992. Negative things that happen in our countries will affect them. The 2008 crisis showed that the economic problems are global. As Arab nations, we need to make our own reforms, and the international community must take brave steps. It may be even more difficult for them. They need to learn from the crisis that has increased the number of poor people around the globe, the conflicts around the globe, how to contain it and get the wheel rolling towards the future in a better way. Wealthy countries need to fulfill their commitments from the 1992 agreements -- Agenda 21.

As civil society, we had our fears about globalization, but it is a fact. We live in a global village. We are affected by each other and it is a closed circle where each and every one of us, from the individual to the multinational bodies, we are all part of it. It is either a win-win or a lose-lose situation. We tried the win-lose and it did not work.

D.B.: You have defended the concept of food sovereignty in the consultations in the last few days. The Arab region has vast regions of deserts. How do you see this concept being applied in this region?

A.M.: Traditionally we only talk about food security, which really only concerns how many calories are consumed in a given day or whether the population has enough purchasing power to get the calories they need, regardless of the source. This is not sustainable.

We can see nations that have suffered economic boycotts but that have fed their populations because they had food sovereignty. Yet we have seen others that are very vulnerable because they cannot feed themselves. In the Arab context, we have fuel abundance and renewable energy potential, but we have scarcity in terms of water and fertile soil. If you look at food sovereignty, the two major components are water and soil. Southern Sudan was our water and soil reservoir and now South Sudan is no longer part of the Arab world. There are other outside sources, like Turkey for instance. If we look at the occupation of Palestine, in the West Bank and Gaza, there is discrimination that has to do with their sovereignty.

Recently, we are more and more deprived of these sources of water and fertile soil. We need to prevent scarcity, not cure it. We need to better manage the limited resources we have. If we go back hundreds of years, we were managing our water in a very efficient and sustainable way. We did not even use the underground reservoirs. We need to respect those traditional ways. We can catch our rain water, we can re-use our water, conserve it, going back to traditional crops that are resistant to drought rather than using GMOs that require a lot of water. We should not deplete our reservoirs to water vegetables that are grown for export as we are doing in the Gulf. They are depriving future generations of these natural resources in order to export products that do not even belong in this region.

We need to return to some of our older more sustainable ways, for example terraced agriculture that conserves water. We should not abandon all new technologies but we need to grow crops that tolerate our conditions. We can do it -- it is very feasible. It would reduce the use of chemicals and the price of the crops that are appropriate for our region, such as carob, cactus, palm. We need to invest in that kind of development. Part of the reason we have the brain drain is that our education systems fail to prepare the skills that we need.

D.B.: The Arab Spring inspires many Canadian activists. What would you like to say to them?

A.M.: I am glad to hear that the Arab Spring is an inspiration. I know the distance between Canada and our world. Probably the main things they know are from TV, which only shows the negative things. We never see the good things on TV. I know for example that there is Islamophobia in the West and this is a big barrier to inter-cultural understanding. I believe that there is a need for a change in the mindset and I would ask all those who read this interview to be our advocate. Do not have believe stereotypes about who we are. At the core, we are all human and we need to invest in that. A poor uneducated Canadian is equal to a poor uneducated Lebanese or Saudi or Chinese person. Once there is real equity between people, between nations, and all people are treated equally around the globe, our differences will no longer matter and we shall have peaceful and sustainable world.

Diana Bronson is the program manager at ETC. Group in Montreal and a rabble.ca board member.

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