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Rami Khouri

Three paths to change in the Arab world Add to ...

The Arab world is experiencing three extraordinarily interesting models of political action and change this week - in Sudan, Lebanon and Tunisia - that share only a common problem, but do not offer insights into the best solution.

The problem is that the existing political and economic order in the Arab world is unstable and unsustainable, because it is unsatisfying to a majority of citizens. These three models of change - not to mention drastic others, such as invaded Iraq or shattered Somalia - provide very different transformational paths that attempt to narrow the gap between state and citizen, and activate to some extent the principle of "the consent of the governed."

In Lebanon, Sudan and Tunisia, the mechanisms for change - rather than their results - represent important new dynamics that reflect the increasingly desperate need among ordinary citizens for a better way to run their countries. Of the three, Lebanon is the most complex and troubling, while Sudan is the most sophisticated and heartening. Tunisia is the most dramatic and universal, and thus most likely to be copied in other Arab countries.

Lebanon is unique in the region and the world for three reasons: the nature of its governance system that requires consensus among 18 different sectarian and ethnic groups; the massive foreign interference in Lebanese internal affairs via willing local proxies and partners; and, the fact that achieving consensus is immensely more complicated due to Hezbollah being stronger militarily than the government and willing to use its weight to block government decisions it rejects (such as the Special Tribunal for Lebanon that will try those accused of killing former prime minister Rafik Hariri).

The simultaneous expression in the country of one-sided, strong-armed tactics alongside a perpetual quest for consensus by all parties is impressive, but probably unworkable. The move by Hezbollah and ally Michel Aoun to withdraw from the cabinet and bring down Saad Hariri's government is in keeping with how this system has been structured, allowing the majority or opposition to veto decisions that do not have a consensus. The cabinet's collapse triggers a new round of consultations to form a new government, which needs agreement on how to handle the tribunal, and in turn means that the struggle now is about the much deeper issue of the identity and ideological direction of Lebanon as a cosmopolitan, pluralistic, secular Arab, Islamic and Christian society.

The political battle now under way about the next prime minister, the tribunal and Hezbollah's role in Lebanon will be epic, probably prolonged and very messy. If the Lebanese consensus-based model of pluralistic governance can be made to work in these difficult conditions, using constitutional and peaceful means, we should all cheer.

The Sudan situation is unique in being a rare case of citizens of an Arab country enjoying the opportunity to vote to determine their future status. Two massive gaps in the modern history of the Arab world are corrected by this move, which will probably see southern Sudan emerge as an independent country: Self-determination by citizens of an Arab state who can define their borders, their national values and their governance system; and, a corrective mechanism that allows the countries and peoples of this region to reconfigure themselves into more natural sovereign states that correspond to their ethnic-national identities (as the former Soviet Union was reconfigured after 1990). This ideal model of change allows citizens, individually and collectively, to determine their fate, and give birth to more natural, democratic and productive countries that have a better chance of success than has been the case to date among Arab security states.

Unlike Lebanon and Sudan, the widespread demonstrations in Tunisia mirror a universal pattern of change by citizens who reach a breaking point and go out into the street to brave the bullets of the eternal ruler's many military and security services. When citizens are no longer afraid of the ruler's bullets, the ruler's days are numbered. I have been saying for years that we cannot predict when, where, how and by whom transformations from autocracy to democracy will start in the Arab world, but we know for sure that they will begin one day. It is possible that Tunisia will emerge as that starting point, just as Lech Walesa and the Gdansk shipyard electricians who started the Solidarity movement in Poland in 1980 ultimately led to the collapse and transformation of the Soviet empire a decade later.

The Tunisian regime of ousted president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali will probably try all sorts of creative and deceptive measures to remain in power, while liberalizing just enough to absorb the anger of its citizens. So this process must be watched closely to see if real change in the totally autocratic Arab world will start in Tunisia this year, as it did in Poland 30 years ago.

It is very satisfying, even spellbinding, to watch several Arab countries simultaneously grappling with their inevitable need to leave behind the dark world of incompetence, stagnation, disparity and autocracy, and embrace something more humane for their people.

Rami Khouri is editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star and director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.

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