The stars were finally aligned and the right conditions were set for a perfect storm that manifested itself with a string of time bombs going off one after the other across the Middle East in a manner that caught so many people unawares, especially the deposed leaders themselves, but that a number of other observers, writers, intellectuals, think tank types and common ordinary men saw with the utmost clarity.
In his book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell argues that normally a jet liner doesn’t fall off from the sky because of one failure, barring obviously an explosion or a rocket strike, but provides evidence to suggest that a string of consecutive errors need to line up and produce a comprehensive failure which ultimately brings down an aircraft and its unfortunate passengers. What we have witnessed thus far this year is, in many respects, not dramatically dissimilar.
It was only a matter of time before the Middle East started to unravel. To be surprised by it is to have ignored that the history, politics and the economics of the region were building a growing dissatisfaction amongst its own people. Over the years, a number of countries in the region have witnessed rising unemployment, spreading poverty, a growing divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” an increasingly young and dissatisfied population, a growing level of awareness amongst an educated youth, diminishing prospects, favouritism, cronyism, a lack of accountability and an absence of recourse propagated by a select few that hogged power and wealth and behaved with impunity not answerable to anyone of this world and in this life, and we are still surprised?
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is an expression I have heard many times, and find that in as much as it applies to individuals, it certainly applies to populations especially when the disenfranchised communicate and compare notes and reach the conclusion that short of ceasing to exist, as Tunisia provided us with the example, there is only one way out and that is to end the suffering. It is remarkable to watch individuals overcome their own personal fears and start reversing their own fortunes- there are many examples we can all relate to- but it has been awe-inspiring, and not surprising, to see this unfold amongst large swathes of a population and even more breathtaking to see this tsunami engulf a whole region.
For decades the peoples of this region have acquiesced to authority, behaved as if they were mere chattel, their futures depending on the benevolence of their owners; this year we heard them saying “no more.” Every leader has been served notice and been given a loud and clear message – “you do not own your people and no matter how powerful and well supported you may have been, your position has an expiry date, for ultimately you are where you are by the consent of the people.”
Just as the telegraph’s time in shaping the future came in 1917 to the Bolsheviks, the audio tape’s time came in Iran in 1979 and the fax came of age in Eastern Europe in the late eighties, the internet, and specifically social media, all came of age earlier this year when these mediums propagated and amplified peoples’ sentiments.
It is not surprising that the above four major historical turning points have a few things in common: a wronged, misgoverned and abused population, a ruling elite that saw itself above accountability, a barrier of fear that has been overcome and a new mode of communication – social media. Though innocently making its way into our everyday lives, affecting everything from our personal to our commercial interactions, social media proved to be the ultimate stealth weapon creeping up on governments in a way no one anticipated. But when the dust settles and we have all gained more perspective, we will remember that it is people who bring about change, people who take great risks and leaps of faith without guarantee, fuelled by courage, using the new digital means available to them as a catalyst for change.
Social media as a communications platform remains ever fascinating. At an individual level our personal space is shrinking as we willingly put our lives on display for all to see, thereby staking a position, a claim and a mindset every time we broadcast ourselves. Through the use of social media many things have simultaneously crossed a threshold: the spread of information in a personal manner to like-minded people whose numbers rival the reach of some broadcast media channels, the pressure to be consistent in word and deed, the lending of voice to those who previously had to qualify for air-time and be paid attention to by journalists and the natural need for accountability. Facebook, Twitter and cyberspace may have given voice to man’s basic and natural social tendencies, but they have for the first time in history created an ecosystem of inescapable and potentially damning accountability that, like the law of gravity, spares no one … not even the high and mighty.
The physics of social media is equally as interesting for it has compressed time, or rather accelerated it, (Einstein would probably have given his right kidney to witness all this!), it has dramatically increased reach and has proven to possess a life of its own that cannot be cut or interrupted by an all-seeing statesman. Further it has forced the hand of traditional media in many cases so that it is now often left playing second fiddle to social media, echoing what was initiated there but also continuing to provide the comprehensiveness and depth of coverage and analysis that have always been its hallmark. And, just as life is additive and continues expanding, so is media in its ability to continuously generate and embrace newer and additional tools. Ultimately, the old and new will co-exist and complement one another. As of now though, the media spectrum has become wider and even more effective.
So, what will tomorrow bring? Where and who is next? What can we expect? What awaits the region? History is rife with examples of change, progressive and tumultuous change, revolutionary and evolutionary change. Whilst the watches and clocks we buy can be set back, life, progress and time itself cannot. So, there is no going back to where things were, at least not in the case of the Middle Eastern countries that have recently riveted our attentions. It is unclear how, when and what will emerge. At the centre of all this are aggrieved peoples; their rights and needs cannot be addressed in the short term. The economics need fundamental overhaul and fixing. Country rule and management require systems by people experienced enough to navigate. Sadly the last forty years have not seen the afflicted countries build and nurture that expertise and so restoration will be a medium to long term process as opposed to a quick-fix in the next year or so.
The next question is ‘is what has started likely to stop?’ Unfortunately, wherever there are disenfranchised youth with few prospects expect the same to happen. Those countries that have the advantage of more disposable wealth would be well advised to start getting their houses in order and start voluntarily practicing accountability lest it be forced upon them. The time of hereditary ownership is waning and it is being replaced by earned leadership based on performance and delivery, as opposed to intimidation, and held in check by accountability.
Let us also not underestimate the fact that we are experiencing a radical modernisation of everything from tools to times. History teaches us that every time humanity has faced such a fork in the road, the forces of extremism have gone on the offensive and made their presence felt. The best antidote for such a turnout is government performance that betters peoples’ lives in all aspects and brings prosperity.
Clearly, it is up to the people that have risen to shape their tomorrow. I sincerely hope it will be a flourishing and fairer one. With growing populations and more people demanding, rightfully, a stake, the need for accountability will continue to grow. Let’s hope that lessons are learnt and that we do not realise, with hindsight, that we have replaced one broken model with a newer dysfunctional one. As for social media, we will probably refer to it and its empowering role in twenty to thirty years with the same affection that the Eastern Europeans refer to the fax today.