[Viewpoint] A new French Revolution?

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[Viewpoint] A new French Revolution?

The unprecedented democracy movement in the Arab world can be compared, on the surface, to the crumbling of the Berlin Wall in the late 1980’s when an antigovernment uprising in one communist state led to toppling dominos in all the other communist states in Europe. In both cases, the people mustered the force to challenge decades-old autocracies and pave the way for democratic societies.

But the rebellion in the Middle East and Africa more accurately resembles the French Revolution of the late 18th century. The civilian uprising that began in 1789 did not merely end a centuries-old monarch and aristocratic privileges, but eventually established the principles of individual rights and social equality through defying hierarchy and tradition. The movement generated an immense impact on history and respect for human rights far beyond Europe because it was more than a class struggle in one society, but a revolution of ideology.

The protests that are spreading in the Islamic world have not simply been sparked by opposition to dictatorship. In a broader historical context, the Muslim population is beginning to question the deeply rooted principle of patriarchy, which has been central in many civilizations and still remains strong in many parts of the developing world.

Patrilineal and patriarchal legacies are particularly strong in Islamic culture due to its roots in desert nomadic life. Unlike established settlements, male heads of the family had to arm themselves to fight and protect water and food resources. Absolute leadership and authority was bestowed upon the eldest male of the family.

Other members of the tribe had to be completely submissive to the command and authority of their leader in order to survive. Islam is based on this tradition developed by male scholars, which strengthened male autocracy and dominance in Muslim culture.

In many Arab states, the regime in power remains intact even after the ruler dies. Oil-rich Gulf states are ruled by absolute monarchs from royal families - the al-Saud in Saudi Arabia, al-Nahyan in the United Arab Emirates, al-Thani in Qatar, and al-Sabah in Kuwait.

Parliamentary republics in Muslim societies in the Middle East and Africa are little different. Military-backed rulers were able to govern their countries until their deaths.

Elections and representation existed purely in name. A successful father-to-son power transfer in Syria inspired similar attempts in Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

Despite such a long legacy of single-man dictatorships, there were almost no civilian uprisings in the 5,000-year-old Arab world. Only Iran, a Persian state that gained independence after World War II, experienced a civilian revolution led by Islamic groups seeking higher religious authority.

The unprecedented uprising in the Arab community portends the end of the social tradition of male dominance. The Muslim female population has been living under rigid restrictions and oppression under the pretext of protection while authority was held solely by males. Former Palestine leader Yasser Arafat and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein favored the appearance of domination, dressing in military outfits with a holster around their waists.

Sons and brothers of the king traditionally attended British schools and took up posts as policy agency chiefs or defense ministers. But more and more women are now joining politics and acting as a force behind the power transitions in Arab governments.

The wave of democracy in Arab nations will likely to go on for some time.

The French Revolution lasted for several years, and the overthrow of centuries-old religious, cultural, social and political traditions, especially patriarchy in Arab society, may be a long process.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarch states could be the next Tunisia and Egypt.

Our economy depends heavily on the Arab world. We should keep a close watch and prepare appropriate countermeasures to meet the changes there.

*The writer is a professor at the Graduate School of International and Area Studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.

By Seo Jeong-min
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