Arab uprising proved that when united, people can upstage oppressive regime – Odion-Akhaine
It has been a decade after the Arab spring. In this exclusive interview, Professor of Political Science, Sylvester Odion-Akhaine assesses the state of the region and reveals why the uprising may not have achieved the desired intention of the people. INIOBONG IWOK brings the excerpts:
How would you describe the state of the Middle East a decade after the uprising?
You can’t say there has been transition to democracy with what we have; they have not achieved democracy, if you are charitable you can call it pseudo-democracy because you hear the slogan that they are holding elections, but elections must be free and fair for it to be legitimate.
Elections must hold in an atmosphere of freedom not in an atmosphere of siege. So, those things are important for Egypt, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi is there and he is going to remain in power for some time to come. I don’t know how many people contested with him in the last election.
I have not followed Tunisia lately; there is still some level of election there. In Libya it was last month that two groups decided to reach an accord and even that is shaky because we have Turkey backing the transitional government of Tripoli on one side, Russia on the other side backing general Khalifa.
So, for Libya, democracy is a far cry. Right now, you can’t talk about democracy in Libya at all. What you should be talking about is post nation building. Syria is not out of civil war, the same forces that were active in Libya are active there.
The United States was involved, I remember when Hilary Clinton was the secretary of state; she told Assad that ‘we can do without you’, but Assad replied, ‘if you people think you can do without me the whole Middle East would be under fire’.
Look, when Assad said that he never knew that it would lead to the influx of migrants towards Europe. So, you can see, what happens in these countries is not just a natural event taking its course, but rather you have the influence of indigenous social forces, the international community and the state itself.
Why is it difficult for liberal democracy to take root in the Middle East?
You know that regimes there are dynasty in nature right from time; liberal democracy is just a form of government; there are other forms of government the west has just managed to tell us that democracy is a good form of government and by the logic of international balance of power they have managed to mainstream democracy across the large chunk of the globe that is why we are talking about it.
Who told you the Arabs are yearning for liberal democracy? That is western definition. That you want basic freedom does not mean you want liberal democracy.
We do say that liberal democracy is limited on the fact that it is operated on economic structure that is exploitative; that is capitalism.
So, how do you achieve the highest happiness for the greatest number of people under capitalism? That is the issue.
So the Arab people may be asking for more, like freedom of speech, freedom of expression, but asking something more than that by more for their general wellbeing.
I mean the people want bread on their table and capitalism would never put bread on your table. So we can’t put words on their mouth.
But there was an uprising; but the outcome has not been democratic; rather it has aggravated the chaotic essence of the state compared to pre-uprising.
Obviously, the uprising brought some gains. What are the gains?
Yes, there is a consciousness now, but it is wrong to say that the uprising engender that consciousness, because the social forces that were anti-regime before the uprising wanted to govern themselves; they want to have a say in government at the end of the day what we can say is that the uprising may have accentuated that feeling that we need to be part of the political process not that it is the origin of that consciousness.
For instance, the Islamic brotherhood that has been organising for several years, do you say that it was the uprising that brought about that consciousness? Where they have been providing food and taking care of the welfare of the poor people in Egypt in their various communities.
The revolution demonstrated that power belongs to the people and that when the people are united, they can upstage an oppressive regime; that is the lesson and that is the enduring lesson of all revolutions and revolts anywhere in the world. It sends a message that change is possible, either truncated or successful. It is though underlining the lesson of history because what happened though significant; was not new.
Are we ever going to see liberal democracy take root in the Middle East?
Well, maybe, at some point we cannot foreclose the process of history. What is permanent is change, but we cannot say because there is democracy now there can never be in future. I cannot tell you the nature of the state that would come up there in future, but what I can say is that people would always resist whatever oppression anywhere.
The fundamental thing about the Arab spring is to what extent does it alter the relationship of the Arab world to the Jews and to Israel? Because that is principal actors to the crisis, Israel have occupied the land of Palestine and agitations is growing there and the diplomatic momentum does not appear to be there since the Arab spring even though the presence of Mohamed Morsi and Tayyip Erdogan Edorwan in Turkey raised the hope that Israel would be pressured to concede some development spaces to the Palestine. But what has happened since then? But because of the involvement of the US, and Al-Sisi is there for the US; he was blocking the access Palestine used to have through Egyptian corridor into Palestine, in terms of bringing in goods and the rest.
That is the most significant event that has altered all the hostile relationship that Arab countries had towards Israel; now I hear UAE and Turkey are normalising relations with Israel that were not there.
That would not have happened if Edorwan and the rest still have the power, there would have been more pressure on Israel. The uprising has changed the dynamics in terms of Arab-Israeli relationship.
What are the lessons for our leaders in Nigeria?
Nigeria as a country confronts its own peculiar set of problems; I do tell people that Nigeria suffers from foundational crisis.
Nigeria has not agreed on the structure of the state, talks less of the structure of government; that is why people are talking about restructuring; so Nigeria is suffering from a foundational crisis. Without that you can’t even have a plain discussion or deal with governance issues because we don’t have a national grid that binds Nigerians together; we still talk in terms of regional voices and identity politics, South-south, South-west, etc.
That is why some people say that the only thing that binds us together is the green passport, without that the bond is not there.
There is no covenant among the people that this is the way we want to run the country. So, Nigeria has a problem on how to run the country. So, if we have that kind of Arab type of uprising it is to reconstitute the state.
And there has not been an attempt to correct this because Nigeria is under what we can call; internal colonisation by the state nation.
The concept of state nation occurs when in a country with many nationalities, one nationality dominates the others; that is the concept of state nation.
Kukah said it; Umar also said it sometime ago. So Nigeria is under the oppression of a minority ethnic group that dominates and imposes its policies and preferences on the other part of the country.
What future lies ahead for the Middle East?
What we can say may be they can transit to some form of functional democracy, given the fact that the new generation of Arab are more metropolitan and highly cosmopolitan than the generation that would be passing away.
So, within that context it is possible that they can move toward democracy; but the dynamic of their future would not be determined by themselves alone, but the whole of the international community matters.