Rhymes of the Past

News - 02/11/2017

As Mark Twain allegedly observed - History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. I frequently find myself pondering this supposition of late, especially whilst reflecting upon the conflicts that continue to blight many Arab regions today.

I find the quotation appealing, inasmuch as it seems to make what I consider to be an important implication. That is to say, rather than trying to learn specific lessons from history and apply them to the present, we should try to assess the present and identify the historical patterns that cause us to fail, particularly in the realms of politics, diplomacy and governance.

My specific curiosity concerns the Arab uprisings. I find myself asking why it is that, perhaps with the exception of my home country Tunisia, these nations have failed to deliver on the promises that were made during the Arab Spring, particularly with reference to economic opportunity and political pluralism.

I believe that our distorted view of history can take us a long way to answering this question, and as is often the case, the Middle East provides an excellent case study. The continuing instability we are witnessing in nations such as Egypt and Libya appears to prove that a new government administration does not automatically signal a new beginning, yet many analysts, observers and citizens profoundly believed that it could and would. I feel that this belief is flawed on so many levels and we only have to look at more established western democracies to see that this is so - new administrations rarely see through all of the promises made in their political manifesto. My concern in this essay, however, is not with the West but the Middle East.

The first fatal flaw in the theory that a new administration automatically results in change comes in the fact that the elemental conditions for a successful democratic transition were not in place in many Arab nations following the Arab uprisings. Well-intentioned idealism is not a substitute for in depth analysis or rigorously planned political policies. We cannot forget the past and blunder into the future without first drawing up a strategy that will identify and prepare us for the challenges ahead. Furthermore, as many western nations will testify, governments cannot simply impose their will on any given nation or negotiate with its people without first understanding the causes of their grievances and conflicts – causes that are often deeply rooted in the past.

Another critical reason to scrutinise the patterns of the past lies in the fact that failure brings in its wake huge costs, not only institutional, but more importantly the human cost that can be measured in terms of institutional collapse, war, economic depression and poverty. Therefore, governments must make it their priority for the good of their nations to strike the balance between public and private interests (transparency), ideals (accountability), and political policies (governance). I believe that this could be possible with the right support and the right people in the job.

Let us not forget that the political stagnation we are witnessing in some regions of the Middle East is causing the collapse of the very states themselves. The relationship between state and citizen is fragile at the best of times, but it has all but disappeared in countries such as Libya. There is a very real risk of its being replaced by radicalised groups intent on implementing an authoritarian political system that benefits and feeds its private and personal interests rather than forming an inclusive, legitimate government that seeks to protect the interests of its citizens and provide for a better future.

To paraphrase a young Arab woman speaking with reference to the regional instability, those who seek power in government should aim to protect the country rather than destroy it and protect their citizens rather than marginalise or push them towards extreme choices.

To conclude, we cannot rely on hope over experience and although I am fairly confident that our lands will one day find security and prosperity, observation of past experiences means that I do not, however, share the belief that all problems can necessarily be resolved to the satisfaction of all parties. The rhythms and rhymes of the past can teach us that compromise is necessary and rather than unleashing unchecked optimism in the hope of creating new ways forward, we should allow room for reflection and considered opinions based on historical facts and analysis.

The answer may always lie in the past but the solution is in our hands today.