Collective rights came with a cost for the individual


How do libertarians everywhere respond to the so-called Arab Spring? For a political and social movement that coalesces around the notion of personal liberty, the upheavals in the Arab world during the past year, which have been directed against tyrannical, absolute and predatory regimes, would seem to vindicate their ideals.

And yet is that true? For American libertarians, the Arab world in the last decade has embodied everything they stand against. Isolationist libertarians by and large opposed President George W Bush’s military intervention in Iraq. Those more willing to spare a moment for Mr Bush’s “democratisation” project were yet unable to persuade themselves that it would work in Arab societies, which have a different outlook on life, religion and individual freedom than Americans.

But beyond America, there are libertarians (present company included) who take a less parochial view of freedom – who feel that it has special value in all societies, and who loathe the overbearing weight of the state wherever it manifests itself, from Los Angeles to Pyongyang. But as we watch the Arab revolts and take delight in the resistance to state oppression, we can lament the fact that, until now, there has been relatively little thought given to how individual freedom should be enhanced in the societies concerned.

No surprise there. The uprisings have been vast collective enterprises; so too has been the way these societies have managed the aftermaths. Outcomes have been defined by tribal and regional relationships (in Libya), sectarian solidarity (in Syria), or in more cohesive societies (as in Egypt), the interplay between corporate or political entities, including state institutions. But where is the individual in all this?

Let us take the latest developments in Egypt. This week it was announced that the Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate, Mohammed Morsi, would face Ahmed Shafiq, the candidate of the old regime, in a run-off next month. Were Mr Shafiq to win, many would regard this as a reversal of the gains of the revolution.

But does that mean that Mr Morsi personifies the liberalising urges that led to President Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow? Many would have trouble saying such a thing about the candidate of a party that was never a bastion of free expression, let alone one sympathetic to the refreshing intemperance often underlying personal liberty.

Only in Tunisia has there been mention of individual liberties, mainly in reference to the rights of women under the personal status law. However, this has been more the exception than the rule. In Libya, one of the first decisions taken by the transitional council was to permit polygamy. In Egypt, the fall of the Mubarak order did little to curtail the abuses perpetrated by the army and the security forces.

And amid the ongoing carnage in Syria, the mere thought of broaching matters of personal liberty, no matter how valid, seems terribly out of touch with the magnitude of the tragedy.

For those on both sides of the divide in the Arab world – those who seek to be rid of authoritarian leaders and those defending previous orders – the focal point of consideration continues to be the state. In Egypt, as in Syria or Tunisia, there has been no substantial effort on the part of one-time opposition groups to radically cut back the role of the state, which is still regarded as an instrument of deliverance. Statist impulses remain strong in the Arab world.

Only in Libya and Yemen have there been fundamental challenges to the centralised state. Yet the motivation has not been the augmentation of personal liberty, but rather the assertion of tribal or regional agendas for autonomy or independence. Indeed, more often than not such agendas impose internal unity to achieve a common goal, reducing the margin for dissent. This unanimity is evident, for example, in Syria, where the latitude of Alawites to question the leadership of Bashar Al Assad has hit up against the exigencies of communal survival.

Syria is interesting for another reason. The conflict has unleashed centrifugal forces in the society, so that it is difficult to imagine a return to the unitary Syria of the recent past. If the regime of President Al Assad falls, Alawites may well contemplate a plan to fall back on their communal heartland in north-west Syria. On the other hand if Mr Al Assad prevails, he will surely struggle to convince the Kurds, whose rights have been trampled for decades, as well as others, to return to the status quo ante of early 2011.

Such dynamics, existential in nature, cannot benefit the individual in search of personal emancipation. Nor have there been sustained demands by citizens for – to borrow from an American concept – a bill of rights in Arab societies in ebullition. Instead, democratic change, pluralism and reform, from Morocco to Jordan, from Egypt to Bahrain, are primarily perceived as consequences of a top-down mechanism, derived from the state and extraneous to the individual.

This is understandable, but the flip side of that proposition is that it affords tremendous influence to those controlling the apparatus of the state, against whom citizens become helpless. This has been despairingly true in Egypt, the Arab country where the state is arguably the most powerful, but also where society is less riven than elsewhere by ethnic and religious divisions. State authority has outlasted the Mubarak era, and will likely stay dominant, whether it is the army, the Muslim Brotherhood, or anyone else who is ruling.

Arab societies favour collective over individual rights, some might point out. Maybe, maybe not; but the first and last bulwark against the suffocating state is the individual. Until individuals learn to say no, in defence of their liberties as individuals, the Arab revolutions will be open to manipulation by its enemies.

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