On November 28, Haiti will go to the polls, and there is an internationally famous name amongst those registering for the Presidential elections, singer Wyclef Jean. At 37, he has released seven solo albums, is a multi-millionaire, and has even set up his own foundation, funding projects around Haiti. However, it seems that all this is not enough for the hip hop star, who now wants to have a crack at running the Americas’ poorest country.
Whatever your opinion on a musician with no political experience attempting to run a country, and there have been voices of dissent from Haiti and beyond, a high profile global celebrity prepared to take on the role of President is surely a sign of a society where people feel that they can change things. A society where people understand they have a role to play in the development of their nation, where people feel a sense of duty to change the country they live in, and not just complain privately and then carry on as they were. Wyclef Jean follows in the footsteps of celebrities-cum-politicians such as George Weah and Ronald Reagan.
Would this happen in the Arab World? Perhaps Cheb Khaled will return from France and take over from Bouteflika in Algeria. Maybe Lebanon’s countless communities will unite under the leadership of President Ajram. Will Premier Kadem Al-Saher end Iraq’s misery. And to top it all off, Amr Diab singing his way to the Abdeen Palace in Cairo.
I will spare you the nightmares, the Arab World has not got to the level of reality television politics, yet. However, there is an important issue that needs to be addressed here. These celebrities are civilians. Arab rulers are not. From retired generals (and colonels) who have shed their military fatigues for suits, and tribal leaders who have grown rich on oil profits and choose to run nations as family businesses, they are severely lacking in the democratic credentials department.
The so-called republics are more or less following in the footsteps of their monarchical cousins, creating royal ‘republican’ dynasties. Bashar al-Assad took over from his father in Syria, and it would be a brave man who would bet against similar eventualities in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. The fates and aspirations of millions of people have unfortunately become intertwined with the whims of the ruling families in most Arab countries. Wasta has taken on a whole new meaning.
Most of the world has moved on from this backward thinking, and yet in the cradle of civilisation it persists. The question that needs to be asked is: why? Why does a country as great as Egypt seem to be sleepwalking into the new Pharaonic dynasty of Mubarak? Why do all the contenders to follow Gaddafi seem to be from his offspring? Why is it that tribal sheikhs still dominate Yemeni political life when the rest of the world seems to have moved into the 20th and then the 21st centuries.
The Arab World, excluding the Gulf, seems stagnant, and one only has to look at the political structures that exist to see why. In countries where the rulers seem to purely look out for number one, it is not surprising to see the citizens do the same. Arab civil society is impotent. The ‘Arab Street’ is loud and angry, but has no outlet, and eventually returns home to his wife’s cooking and Star Academy. The Gulf is not much better, the world’s biggest skyscraper the latest of their follies. Every decade political scientists predict revolutions that do not materialise. Is there a reason for this lack of change?
Some would say that the average Arab cares not for politics and is more interested in getting food on the table and a roof over his head. Politics is for the elites and is not their concern. I would say that anyone with even a passing knowledge of the Arab World will know that this is not the case. Go to any cafe in an Arab country, or even on London’s Edgware Road, and you will find countless political discussions, from the latest developments in Palestine, to the ramifications of the latest speech of Hassan Nasrallah. These things do matter to the average Arab, and it is a case of there being too many restrictions placed on free speech in Arab countries which prevents these energies from being utilised to further develop the various countries and societies.
It is not all doom and gloom, however. The plethora of media outlets sprouting up around the Arab World are increasingly presenting views that are not state sanctioned. The widespread grassroots support for Mohamed ElBaradei in Egypt, is an example of this slow transformation, with an emphasis on slow. ElBaradei is hounded by the government media for having spent too much time outside of Egypt, as if that makes him any less qualified than Gamal Mubarak. Protests are still rare, and the world of the internet and mobile communications is having to resist attempts at censorship by Arab governments who have been hitherto slow to react.
It remains to be seen whether the next generation of Arabs will see change in their countries. Democracy seems to have swept the globe but the Arab World remains in an era of 95% election victories. For me, it is vital that the Arab media continues on the road that it has taken. Satellite television is now ubiquitous and media outlets like Al-Jazeera have the power to form opinion. It is therefore vital that they remain free and independent of government interference. The momentum exists, the masses no longer care for government propaganda. Nevertheless it remains to be seen whether they will overcome the huge barriers placed in front of them, internally and externally. They are not the first generation to have these aims, their revolutionary predecessors are now almost gone. Perhaps, it is more likely that, for the foreseeable future, Amr Diab will carry on producing his records, Mubarak and co will continue to rule, and normal service will resume.
Views expressed in articles are the author’s and do not represent Comment Middle East
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