Skip to main content

Topic / Human Rights

The Birth of Politics and the Public Sphere in the Arab World

Rami George Khouri is a Palestinian-Jordanian and U.S. citizen whose family resides in Beirut, Amman, and Nazareth. He is director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. His journalistic work includes writing books and an internationally syndicated column, and he also serves as editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper.


The third year of the Arab revolts has presented several domestic and foreign challenges for the nations involved. Each nation has reflected the specificities of their local conditions, citizen grievances, and regime legitimacies and responses. At the same time, several common themes have emerged, such as the core underlying demand for a life of integrity, civility, and dignity, while also enjoying a basic set of universal human and citizen rights. Constitutional votes and the reorganization of state structures in Tunisia and Egypt will serve as the guiding lights for other nations still making their way toward reforms, though these remain hotly debated topics throughout each nation in the region. Though Islamists have risen to power, we have seen that their popularity is not infallible and is now fluctuating in response to their performances after assuming power. In the end, questions of “social justice” return as the main and enduring motivator for protesters in the Arab world, particularly when it comes to many of these countries’ socioeconomic disparities.


We are now in the third year of the series of rolling revolts and revolutions across the entire Arab world—from North Africa, through the Levant, and into the Gulf states—but this historic, epic wave of change is still in its early stages. More countries will experience significant domestic challenges to their political orders, power structures, and governance systems. A few will have to absorb the pressures of foreign or regional intervention, as has already happened in Libya, Syria, and Bahrain in various ways. All, without exception, will have to learn to respond to the legitimate grievances, aspirations, and needs of their citizens, whose activism ranges from demands for modest constitutional changes to all-out regime change. How the future will unfold remains to be seen. For now, in early 2013, we can review the landscape of widespread activism, note a few overriding themes that capture the substance of what ails this region, and discuss public policy and political priorities that seem to capture the attention of the Arab world.
Since Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor in Tunisia, set himself on fire in 2010 to protest his lack of rights and dignity as a Tunisian citizen, the past two years have triggered historic changes and conflicts across the Arab world. Each situation has reflected the specificities of local conditions, citizen grievances, and regime legitimacies and responses. Across the board, however, some common elements have also emerged. It is now more obvious than ever that there is no such thing as a singular “Arab world.” Every Arab country has followed a different path in pursuing its own political reconfiguration. What matters for them all is that, for the first time ever in their history, empowered Arab men and women are now driving political change, forcing their governments and foreign powers alike to respond to important issues. Indeed, we can now see with much more clarity the variety of identities, sentiments, legitimacies, and conditions in different Arab countries, each with its own character, nuance, and agency.
Among the variety, however, there are also some important commonalities in the grievances, attitudes, and aspirations of the 350 million Arab men and women across the region. The core underlying demand has been a desire to live a life of integrity, civility, and dignity, enjoying a basic set of universal human and citizen rights. Whether these are finally enshrined in new national governance systems that guarantee the citizens their rights via credible constitutions is the litmus test that continues to ripple across the region.
Several Arab states are already pioneering different aspects of political development and change in the region. Syria’s status will have the most profound implications in the short run, because its imminent regime change will be felt across all of Western Asia, due to Syria’s historical importance and its geostrategic and political ties with every major actor in the area. Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Bahrain represents a possible pattern that might be repeated in other parts of the Gulf (Bonner and Slackman 2011, A1). Iran’s support for Syria and Turkey’s support for anti-government Syrian rebels may be harbingers of more external interventions to come. Tunisia and Egypt, for their part, will have the most influence on other Arabs in the long run, as they are in the midst of the most important development that has emerged in the past two years: ordinary Arab men and women having the opportunity to define their national values and to validate their own constitution and state structure, thus shaping their domestic and foreign policies. Such drastic change represents a great public policy accomplishment, and its political importance will resonate as other countries structure their own new constitutions in the years to come.
The initial transition from revolutions to constitutions in several Arab countries has included major electoral gains by various Islamists, from mainstream Muslim Brotherhood groups to more hard-line Salafists. Their popularity has fluctuated in response to their performance once they assumed power, as we have witnessed most clearly in Tunisia and Egypt. Accountable incumbent Islamists have to earn their continued hold on public power by responding to citizen needs in areas such as jobs and income, health and education, security and stability, and legitimate foreign policy. These first two years have taught us not to exaggerate the power, wisdom, or political efficacy of Arab Islamists, some of whom, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, have fared erratically in translating their slogans into policies. Not surprisingly, since the launch of the constitution-writing processes in mid-2012, fellow citizens have increasingly challenged them—including some of their own voters or supporters (Al Jazeera 2013). These challenges surfaced in large part due to their disappointment in the Islamists’ unimpressive political performance or their fear that the Islamists will try to heavy-handedly dominate society for generations to come.
At one point during the first round of the constitutional referendum in late 2012, Egypt’s Islamists seemed to panic, resorting to trickery at all levels of national politics, from presidential action to street fighting (Black 2012). By trying to push through a widely controversial and rather crude draft constitution, the Muslim Brotherhood revealed some of its structural weaknesses and political immaturity. President Mohamed Morsi and his colleagues in Islamist groups damaged their movement’s credibility in Egypt and also momentarily weakened the standing and power of the Egyptian presidency.

Many progressive, nationalist, and secular parties in Egypt have started to work together through the National Salvation Front (NSF), which bands together some of the leading opposition groups in order to offer voters a credible alternative to the Islamists. Their combined forces took a hard stance against the draft constitution, the rushed referendum, and Morsi’s decree that gave him uncontested presidential powers. They succeeded in forcing the president to rescind his power-grabbing decree and subsequently mobilized their supporters to vote against the draft constitution in large numbers, especially in the larger towns and cities (Fahim and Kulish 2013, A7).
These and other actions indicate that we are starting to see the creation of an increasingly powerful public sphere in Egypt, which includes four main organized groups: the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafists, the secular opposition, and the old guard Mubarak-National Democratic Party supporters. The armed forces are currently in the background, though Egypt appears close to blurring the boundary between civil-military relations sooner than expected. This may be a harbinger of a new social contract that allows the military to maintain its privileges and economic activity, as well as its control of the defense ministry, if it stays out of direct politics. It is also available to step in and restore order in another transitional period should the current democratization process collapse into chaos.
Other elements of a public political sphere remain unclear for now. A mass of silent majority–type middle-class and lower-income Egyptians has yet to regroup into any kind of discernible movement or force. The revolutionary youth similarly have not coalesced into an identifiable group. The deep polarization among Egyptians that was evident during the constitutional referendum, combined with the intense contestation and public protests of the referendum process by many judges, indicate that we are in the early stages of what will be a complex and drawn-out political process (BBC News Middle East 2012).
The flawed content and procedure of the December 2012 referendum suggests that Egyptians will slowly and democratically refine their national consensus on key issues that are still vague and sharply contested, especially with respect to personal liberties, the role of religion and the military in state affairs, minority protections, the status of women, and other key matters.
Some of these same controversial issues are being actively debated in public in Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, and other Arab countries, where constitutional reforms are on the agenda to one extent or another. The constitutional processes underway are the heart of the Arab revolutions, because they bring all actors in the country to the table while addressing all issues of importance to the citizens. The crafting of a credible constitution may be the most consequential political process that has ever taken place in any Arab country in the past century.
Besides shaping credible and legitimate institutions of governance, this political process also captures key public policy issues that can be described as a series of balancing acts that citizens must define for their countries across several critical realms. The most significant balances to be negotiated and agreed are those between military and civilian authority, religiosity and secularism, central government and decentralized regional authority, the private and public sectors, tribal/sectarian and national identity, and indigenous and foreign values. Stability and development in these transforming countries will largely reflect whether, and to what extent, these balances reach a point of equilibrium that reflects a credible national consensus. The military-civilian and secular-religious balances are the two most important ones now being negotiated and defined.
Tunisia and Egypt have shown that the military-civilian balance seems well on the way to being defined in favor of civilian oversight of the military, though with continuing privileges for the military officer corps (Hanlon 2012). This is probably a consequence of the assertion of populist legitimacy that resulted from the shock of the overthrow of the former regimes by street demonstrations. This populist legitimacy makes it difficult for any one group—the armed forces, Islamists, judges, or old guard politicians—to try to unilaterally control political power and exclude other actors. Those who attempt to do so will quickly feel the counterforces of populist legitimacy, as both the armed forces and Islamists have experienced in Egypt and Tunisia.
The balance between religious and secular identities predominantly pits Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist groups against others that do not explicitly use religion to define their governing principles. (The secular-religious struggle is not only an Arab issue, as it is also evident in the three other powerful countries in the region whose majority population is not Arab: Israel, Turkey, and Iran.) All interested parties understand the significance of new constitutions that will define their national values and governance systems. Islamists in both Egypt and Tunisia are trying to shape constitutions and laws that give a special role to Islamic dictates and values in national life as well as in personal issues such as the role of women in society. Others, predominantly Muslims, who share a commitment to Islamic values but also see human rights and common citizenship rights as a guiding light in constitution writing, have started to organize against the Islamists. In Tunisia, for example, non–religion-based groups registered a meaningful gain with the decision to elect the president through a national vote rather than by parliament, where the Islamists of the al-Nahda party dominate (Lambroschini 2012).
Tunisia started the Arab revolutions, and it remains the country where the complexities of the transformations are most visible. In fact, on the second anniversary of the overthrow of the former Tunisian political regime, two significant events transpired that perfectly encapsulate the overall political condition of the country (and perhaps the wider Arab region). First, national leaders signed an important “social pact” during a National Constituent Assembly session in Sidi Bouzid, which is where Mohamed Bouazizi had set himself aflame in protest in December 2010. Second, and importantly, disappointed crowds threw rocks and tomatoes at the president and parliamentary speaker who had come to address them (BBC News Africa 2012).

These two symbolic events aptly reflect the delicate moment that several Arab countries are facing as they simultaneously institutionalize new, legitimate, accountable, and pluralistic political orders while trying to address the difficult social and economic disparities throughout the region. These twin challenges accurately portray the grievances that ultimately led Bouazizi to the end of his life: citizens’ inability to enjoy the basic material needs of life (income, food, housing, health care, education) and the parallel lack of political rights.

The populist-driven revolution in Tunisia in the past two years has opened political space for everyone in the country to compete for a share in power and governance and to reach consensus on the new constitution and other historic changes. This same open political and social arena allows others to assert their views, including groups of vigilantes in Tunisia (allegedly linked to the dominant Islamists), who have gone around beating up other citizens whose views they reject (Gartenstein-Ross 2013). The assassination of a leading secular opposition figure in early 2013 is a warning signal about the potential for the transition phase to include organized political violence and crimes (Marks and Fahim 2013). This process of inclusive nation building now taking place includes the potentially very significant social pact that was signed in January 2013 during the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly by then–Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali; Houcine Abbassi, the secretary general of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT); and Wided Bouchamaoui, president of the Tunisian Union of Commerce, Industry and Craft (UTICA) (ITUC 2013). It is one of the few examples to date of attempts to launch political initiatives bridging the twin demands of social justice in the realms of socioeconomic and political-citizenship rights.

“Social justice” best captures the many dynamics that prompted and still define the ongoing Arab revolutions, for “social” captures citizens’ socioeconomic rights and “justice” captures their need for political participation and respect. The Tunisian pact comprises five sections that deal with economic growth and regional development, employment and vocational training programs, working conditions, social insurance, and the institutionalization of the social tripartite dialogue. The dialogue envisages creating a “national discussion board” with representatives of the three signatories of the social pact, as a mechanism for political dialogue on issues that will persist for years, especially economic progress (Seghaier 2013).

On the same day the social pact was signed, the urgency of addressing socioeconomic and political rights simultaneously was dramatized by protesters in Sidi Bouzid who threw rocks and tomatoes at Tunisia’s president Moncef Marzouki and parliament speaker Mustapha Ben Jaafar (BBC News Africa 2012). The protestors mainly sought to express their frustration in marginalized rural areas at the revolution’s failure to deliver material benefits. Some in the crowd shouted, “The people want the fall of the government,” or greeted the president with shouts of, “Get out! Get out!” (“Irhal, irhal” in Arabic), the rallying cry of the revolution that toppled former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

The underlying revolutionary drivers of socioeconomic disparity and politically frustrated citizens remain active across much of the region, though they are more obvious in poor countries like Tunisia and Egypt than in the wealthier oil-producing states. The Arab uprisings have not seriously touched the Gulf region other than in Bahrain, where indigenous political, civil rights, and sectarian tensions have long simmered beneath the surface. The new signs of citizen activism in several Gulf states, mostly via social media, may represent the most profound new development of the past year in the Arab world. Especially striking are the street demonstrations in Kuwait that directly challenge some of the emir’s policies related to parliamentary election rules (GulfNews 2012). Small numbers of citizens in wealthy Gulf states are making big demands related to political power and citizen rights, including more participation and accountability, more freedom of expression, greater equality among citizens, and less heavy-handed government manipulation of political systems. Most Arab uprisings and revolutions since December 2010 have been driven mainly by a combination of low-income and middle-class citizens who feel marginalized from power and decision making (Saif 2011). Kuwait represents something very different, because the public protests comprise mostly wealthy, pampered citizens who take to the streets and openly demand a clearer and constrained definition of the powers of their heads of state. Small demonstrations or social media protests have also occurred in Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The fact that some Arab citizens demand political rights in the midst of material plenty should help us understand the explicitly political and human rights dimensions of the ongoing uprisings, alongside the material grievances that define the lives of millions of Arabs in low-income states.

As the Arab revolutions and uprisings enter into their third year, the agenda of political and public policy changes in the region will continue to expand. No country will be spared, though the pace of change, the nature of demands, and regime responses will continue to vary widely. More significantly, all this will increasingly play itself out in the new public political sphere that is the first achievement of the Arab revolutions and uprisings.


Al Jazeera. 2013. Morsi supporters and opponents clash in Egypt. Al Jazeera, 29 March.
BBC News Middle East. 2012. Egypt judges refuse to oversee Morsi referendum. BBC, 2 December.

BBC News Africa. 2012. Tunisia’s Moncef Marzouki faces Sidi Bouzid protest. BBC, 17 December.

Black, Ian. 2012,. Egypt opposition alleges referendum rigging as Islamists claim victory. Guardian, 16 December.
Bonner, Ethan, and Michael Slackman. 2011. Saudi troops enter Bahrain to put down unrest. New York Times, 14 March.
Fahim, Kareem, and Nicholas Kulish. 2013. Opposition in Egypt urges unity government. New York Times, 30 January.
Gartenstein-Ross, Daveed. 2013. Springtime for Salafists. Foreign Policy, 26 March.
GulfNews. 2012. Kuwaiti demonstrators denounce elections., 8 December.
Hanlon, Querine. 2012. Security sector reform in Tunisia: A year after the Jasmine revolution. Special report 304. United States Institute of Peace, March.
International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). 2013. ITUC welcomes social pact in Tunisia. ITUC, 14 January.
Lambroschini, Antoine. 2012. Tunisia sets dates for polls after compromise. AFP, 15 October.
Marks, Monica, and Kareem Fahim. 2013. Tunisia moves to contain fallout after opposition figure is assassinated. New York Times, 6 February.
Saif, Ibrahim. 2011. The middle class and transformations in the Arab world. The Cairo review of global affairs. Carnegie Middle East Center, American University in Cairo, 2 November.
Seghaier, Roua. 2013. Prime minister, major unions sign social pact on revolution’s anniversary. Tunisia Live, 14 January.