Arab Rallying Cry Is: ‘Dignity!’

John Bell, The Toronto Star, 1 February 2011

Tunisia has fallen, Egypt is on the verge, Jordan, Yemen and Algeria are feeling the tremors. Many commentators have mentioned that these revolutions are about bread, freedom and justice, and they also frequently mention “dignity.”

Having used that word frequently to describe Palestinian needs regarding Israeli occupation, I sought a definition of this “keyword” and found: “the quality of being worthy of esteem or respect.”

John Bell, The Toronto Star, 1 February 2011

Tunisia has fallen, Egypt is on the verge, Jordan, Yemen and Algeria are feeling the tremors. Many commentators have mentioned that these revolutions are about bread, freedom and justice, and they also frequently mention “dignity.”

Having used that word frequently to describe Palestinian needs regarding Israeli occupation, I sought a definition of this “keyword” and found: “the quality of being worthy of esteem or respect.”


A Palestinian shows his support for Egyptian protesters as he holds the Egyptian flag
during a demonstration in Jerusalem

This need for status and legitimacy is basic and universal, and can be disregarded only at considerable cost. Certainly Arab states have not offered their citizens this dignity, and now they are suffering the consequences.
 
 
Many Arab leaders have also failed to proffer dignity at another level. They are perceived as, intentionally or not, complicit in Israeli occupation, weak in standing up to Israeli actions — thereby striking another blow at the Arab need for dignity.
This reality explains the popularity of Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, who through his words and war machine against Israel provides Arabs with the dignity that most of their leaders have failed to deliver. This kind of “outward” dignity regarding an enemy trumps the need for internal dignity because, in the Arab world, the needs of the group supersede those of the individual.

Curiously, this may also explain why Syria, a tougher and more thoroughly oppresive regime than Egypt’s, may prove more resistant to revolution than other Arab countries. Beyond its ruthlessness, Syria’s “politics of Arab dignity” and support for resistance against Israel, as much as they are a facade, may provide a measure of immunity from popular revolt. Its refusal to “fold” to Israeli and American demands makes it much less susceptible to the “Dignity Revolution” sweeping the Arab world.
The Syrian people may still find their government sufficiently lacking in liberties to warrant a revolt, but the pan-Arab sense of a lack of dignity due to Israeli oppression will nevertheless not go away. Indeed, the more democratic Arab governments will be, the more they will demand of Israel an end to occupation.

If Israel had any foresight regarding the future of the region, it would rush to create a Palestinian state along durable and fair lines (i.e. not interim, not partial and not in denial of history) and so avoid decades of future confrontation based on this profound Arab need. Although not a sure bet, it is the best one available. The status quo is a guarantee of conflict.

The real question is what are the limits of this natural desire for dignity, and how does it take concrete form. Within Arab states, the need for status and respect will have to be balanced alongside that for bread and freedom, as well as the development of the necessary political culture and structures — a long-term proposition. Regarding Israel, the need for dignity will revolve around where Israel ends and Palestine begins in terms of borders, the status of Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees.

So far, Israel has rejected answering these basic questions, thus permitting radicals like Nasrallah to claim the need for dignity ad infinitum in terms of both space and time. The responsibility of countries like the United States will be to insist that the need for redress for Palestinian, and thus Arab dignity, is answered fairly and squarely, and soon, by defining the limits of an Israeli and Palestinian state and the other core issues of the conflict.

By doing so, it would nip in the bud a natural cause of Arab revolt and conflict against Israel for decades to come. All the bread, new political structures and development projects in the world will not make this basic, and universal, need for status and respect go away. Over time, the current Arab revolutions will only naturally look to ensure that the Palestinians are also “worthy of respect.”

John Bell is director of the Middle East Program at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid and co-author of The Missing Piece, a political blog on the Middle East .

2 comments
  1. Egypt and the Arab states

    Personally I do not think Arab states can handle what we call "democracy". Those words exist only in a utopian situation where the western ideology has created for itself. Even for the westerner a true democracy does not exist.  If ALL the concepts of democracy are applied there would be turmoil; however, we are closer to that concept more than any other state.

    There will never be a "democracy" in  Arab lands because their social fabric, customs and even their religion does not permit. In the Quran it is stated that people should be governed by a supreme being…there you are….call it  Allah (Sharia law) or a human  opportunist .

    Throwing away words like freedom, democracy, liberty does not mean anything to most Arabs for they do not understand the concept except a few. They only worry about their daily bread.

    Our western presidents are trying to apply "democracy" to these backward Afghans, Iraqis. It’s been ten years and we are still at it…does it look if we are going to succeed?

    Let’s see what we will do when, as Turks say, "when the knife hits the bone"? meaning when the West can not deal with bombers, attacks, opium Lords etc. ..there we GO….OUT…

    Let’s see when democracy comes to Egypt and  Muslim Brotherhood takes over…Let’s see how Sharia law will bring democracy? Let’s see how our 51st state of Israel will deal with them? Oh..Yes…bring on democracy….and a pile of  never expected horse dodo.

    Forget democracy  as we know it…..or maybe there should be another form of democracy invented for the Arab world….Like that we can proudly say that we support Arabic democracy….

  2.  Arab Progress

    Arabs in the Middle East and in North Africa need food, dignity and freedom

    Arab transformation is formidable, with increasing educational levels, rising middle classes and globalization of communication, technology, ideas, finance, and societies eager for change. 

    The ones that are more illiterate, support their oppressive regimes. That is why dictators want to keep their people in ignorance and poverty.

    Yes, Arabs can achieve a form of democracy and freedoms, and they do seriously try to practice that in Iraq, Lebanon, Tunisia, Palestine, etc

    In fact, Armenians should learn from them, instead of analyzing their "fabric" and society and Koran preachings. We all saw reactions to the 2008 Armenian elections in Diaspora and the Armenian Republic. We, Armenians, are at the bottom of the list of most undemocratic societies. We don’t like transparency, we don’t try progressive ideas, we don’t like diversity and don’t appreciate difference of thought. How democratic are our institutions in the Diaspora? They are often corrupt, old-fashioned, autocratic and one-sided.

     

     

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