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The Pessoptimist’s Arab Revolution: A Mismatch Between Social Evolution and Political Revolution

The article argues that of the three structural problems of the Arab world, as enumerated in the UNDP Arab Human Development report, freedom, knowledge, and women’s power deficit, the Arab Awakening has only tackled the first one, and with mixed results. The speed of social change has not matched that of political change. Firstly, the authoritarian model of government is still replicated in the society, especially in state sector institutions. Secondly, the notion of citizenship has not been sufficiently developed and the role of intellectuals in the Awakening has been less than expected. Thirdly, the social and political changes may both be slowed down or even reversed if the economic grievances of the Arab world persist. Lastly the article shows how ambiguous and multi-faceted the US’s and the EU’s reaction has been to the Arab Awakening.

The Pessoptimist s Arab Revolution A Mismatch Between Social Evolution
A woman walks past graffiti showing December 17 clashes along Mohamed Mahmoud street near Tahrir Square in Cairo.
 

Sa’id the Pessoptimist, a character created by Emil Habibi in his famous novel on the peculiar nature of the Palestinian existence, is a classic protagonist in Arabic literature. In the novel Sa’id did not discriminate between pessimism and optimism and saw this as a “blessing which separated his people from all others”. This metaphor could easily apply to the whole Arab world. There was always a lot to cheer about and a lot to cry over in Sa’id’s life, and this could be extended to what has happened in the Arab Awakening so far—the people have awoken but they’re not yet up and running.

In the second year of the transformations in the Middle East it is high time to go beyond an analysis of the roots of the Arab uprisings and the overpowering enthusiasm to consider the scope and possible impediments to the current political transitions. In other words, to examine the relationship between political and social change. Has one preceded the other, or have they coincided? Will political developments beget a social transformation, or will social deficits impede—and possibly reverse—political progress? What has not changed?

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