My opinion about the Arab spring, originally written and posted here for a project for the Swedish Institute.
I have mixed feelings about the so-called Arab Spring. On one hand, there is a hope for a true democratic breakthrough in the region, while on the other hand there is a fear of failed revolutions, where the outcome is yet again autocratic regimes with extremist ideologies. There is also some sadness in my heart for all the violence that has erupted in those revolutions, and for all lives that have been lost fighting for freedom and equality.
People of Europe and the western world seem to be in awe of the Arab youth. I felt their admiration and encouragement myself at the Tällberg global environmental convention in Sigtuna in July. In reality, things are more chaotic on the ground; even in those countries where there is a consensus that all traces of the old regime must be removed, there is still a power play between different groups trying to gain control.
The newfound belief in the power of their own voices has encouraged people of different shapes, colors and ideologies to rise up and demand what they see as just. This is great, as long as there is a democratic system in place that caters to all players; when a proper system is lacking, things can go awry.
For me, as a sexual freedoms activist, things are even more complicated. Toppling an autocratic regime has no direct effect on my battle. Sexual freedoms in the Middle East are more restricted through cultural norms than through state laws. Conceivably, democracy could empower some to restrict personal and sexual freedoms even further; but democracy could also give sexual freedom activists a legal framework within which they can continue their battle. Overall, the quest for sexual freedom still has a long way to go. It is a continuous battle, where ideas should be seeded and nurtured slowly.
In Jordan, we have had street protests every Friday since January. People have not been asking for regime change but for reform. Reform has different meanings to different groups, and while those protests have been persistent, they have never been able to gain ground among the masses in Jordan. I think the main reason is that the state has not reacted to the protests with violence; instead, water and juice was distributed to protesters on various occasions, and some of their demands are actually being considered.
One a Friday morning, I joined a group of my friends and headed downtown, hoping to add some color to the protests. We didn’t last long as we soon realized that the demands of many people there were a far cry from what we hope for in Jordan. Their voices called out for the annulment of the Wadi Araba peace treaty with Israel, and the freeing of Al Daqamseh, a Jordanian prisoner who shot dead several Israeli teen girls a few years ago.
Revolutions may have been a necessity in some Arab states, where conditions were too bad. In others, like Jordan, an evolution was needed and welcomed, and the state seized the chance to accelerate much-needed reform towards democracy.
Jordan has often benefited when crises have hit the region, and the Arab spring is no exception. We didn’t just gain some constitutional amendments and the promise of a more representative electoral law; we also were welcomed into the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and received foreign economic aid to help us through these tough economic times.
In the meantime, Jordanian citizens and journalists have seen improvements in their freedom of expression. People have stopped letting fear restrict their voices, and have broken through many so-called red lines. Unfortunately, many online news outlets have failed to take their journalistic responsibilities seriously. Fake and inaccurate stories have dominated the online space, either to generate more traffic and ad revenue or else to tarnish the reputation of an enemy or to propagate racist ideas about the origins of Jordanians.
This is where I believe countries like Sweden can jump in to help. With our new found freedom of expression comes a responsibility to determine the credibility of a news story. We are desperately in need of an independent entity that ranks our media outlets based on credibility, and which pushes for more accountability among journalists. The state doesn’t need to regulate the media space; natural selection should work, with the help of an entity that gives credibility the needed advantage.
It has been a tough year for the region and for Jordan, but maybe it was necessary for a better future for all of us.