More than two years ago, the suicide of a Tunisian street vendor named Mohammed Tarek Bouazizi set off a string of protests that eventually led to regime change and promises of reform throughout the Arab world. Unfortunately, the root causes of Bouazizi’s frustrations have still not been addressed in countries like Yemen.
In 2011, after having his wares confiscated for failing to pay a bribe, Bouazizi succumbed to the pressures of poverty and desperation, committing suicide by self-immolation. This tragic act led to what later became known as the Arab Spring, arguably the greatest geopolitical realignment since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
But the millions of street vendors and others who work in the informal sector have not yet realized the promise of democracy. They remain vulnerable to extortion, harassment, and other forms of abuse. By not addressing the root causes of the Arab Spring, emerging democracies such as Yemen risk losing the popular support and legitimacy that are essential to a thriving democracy.
I remember walking on Bliss St. outside of the American University of Beirut (AUB) on the day of Lebanon’s 2009 parliamentary elections. As young people chanted slogans and waved the flags of their favorite political parties, I thought to myself “what a healthy democratic system Lebanon has”. But, as a local saying aimed at AUB students goes, “ignorance is on Bliss [St.]”.
Lebanon is a remarkably complicated society with an equally complicated history and political system, so the latest round of discussions for electoral reform may confuse some (it sure does me), or seem of little consequence to others, but to a great extent the fate of Lebanon rests on whether it can reform the electoral process. In principle, the Lebanese Republic is a democracy, but Lebanon’s religious-based confessional system has a strong self-perpetuating mechanism that prevents significant political change through electoral contestation.
The Arab Spring uprisings brought about unprecedented opportunity for change and reform to the Middle East and North Africa region. Since then, much has happened: new governments have come to power in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. However, with this change numerous challenges have confronted political transitions across the region as nations strive to build institutions, erect new political and legal frameworks, and lay the foundations for economic prosperity. In Yemen, security threats and humanitarian crises have frequently overshadowed the National Dialogue process, which, though marred by challenges such as sectarianism, security threats, and humanitarian concerns, shows great promise for helping to build a better Yemen.
The importance of economic reform was highlighted at an event sponsored by CIPE on January 25, 2013, entitled “Yemen’s Ongoing National Dialogue: Moving Forward” featuring Amat Al Alim Alsoswa, Former Assistant Secretary-General, Assistant Administrator and Director of the Regional Bureau for Arab States, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) & Former Minister of Human Rights for Yemen. Alsoswa emphasized that a successful democratic transition and security in Yemen will only be sustained if Yemeni citizens enjoy greater access to economic opportunities.
Lebanese men smoking in an outdoor cafe. (Photo: AFP/Anwar Amro)
One of Lebanon’s most successful films last year was Nadine Labaki’s W halla’ la wayn (Where do we go now?). W halla’ la wayn tells the story of a remote Christian and Muslim Lebanese village whose women try to protect their town from the violence that has broken out across the country by preventing their men from learning about it. Throughout the film, the fate of the entire village hinges on the tiniest of details: can the women break the town TV, the radio, hide the weapons? This film beautifully portrays the Lebanese capacity to cope with adversity by ignoring unpleasant realities — but also serves as an allegorical depiction of Lebanon’s fragile status quo.
On a recent trip to Lebanon, I kept finding myself thinking of the village in Labaki’s film while listening to people argue that a new smoking ban would seriously harm the economy – the fate of one resting on a radio, the fate of the other on smoking cigarettes. But unlike W halla’ la wayn, Lebanon’s economy is not a dark comedy set to music, it determines the fortunes of millions of Lebanese. If its prosperity is as fragile as Labaki’s village, then surely the causes of this fragility need to be addressed.