The Arab Spring Was Seminal and Will Not Be Replaced by an Arab Winter

It is too easy to be overly influenced by the brutal daily news stories of radical assaults on freedom in this part of the world, and to form a conviction that the Arab Spring was little more than a sudden and very short-lived breath of fresh air.
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Has the brilliance of the Arab Spring been quashed by the horrors of an Arab Winter, as evidenced by the murder of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi, Libya, the coming to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the rising prominence in Tunisia and beyond of the radical Salafis, and the brutality of the Syrian regime?

Has all the hope of tens of thousands of Arabs in early 2011 to secure a measure of dignity and self-respect and oppose illegitimate governments been transformed into a series of nightmares?

No. This would be a misreading of the events in the Middle East. It is too easy to be overly influenced by the brutal daily news stories of radical assaults on freedom in this part of the world, and to form a conviction that the Arab Spring was little more than a sudden and very short-lived breath of fresh air.

The Arab Spring was a seminal event and it is important to fully understand this and remember that its impact will be a lasting one. It inspired public protests from New Delhi to New York and from Minsk to Moscow. Tens of thousands of Tunisians and Egyptians started it, risking their lives and overcoming their fears to denounce their illegitimate governments.

Now, people in many countries are taking action on an unprecedented scale in what is emerging as a war on the abuse of power. They are standing up for their dignity and for integrity. They are demonstrating for justice and for honest government. They are confronting corrupt leaders and elites.

The hundreds of thousands of protesters in many countries know that the journey will be long and hard. Few of their aspirations are likely to be achieved in the short-term. Building new, accountable and strong institutions of justice, civil society and democracy will be difficult everywhere. As we see so vividly in parts of the Middle East today there are set-backs on the journey towards more open societies.

However, the voices of anger have risen in many countries and they will rise still higher, to confront the vile conspiracies between crooked businessmen and crooked public officials. Moreover, the protests were not and are not just directed at the masters of grand corruption at the zenith of power. They also express the frustration and anger of hundreds of millions of people who routinely are the victims of extortion at the hands of mid- and low-level police and other officials who should be serving the public, rather than serving themselves.

Trust among people to take heart, to overcome fears and go to the streets was built via Twitter and Facebook and other social media. Many of the developments that now give the anti-corruption cause such vigor have been long in the making and did not suddenly arise as a result of the Arab Spring. But that singular event symbolized the coming of age of the anti-corruption cause and gave it vital momentum.

Today, for example, thanks to myriad media channels and new technologies, what was long opaque in government and business is becoming transparent. In this new age, the public is becoming increasingly well-informed on the practices of the powerful.

The eyes of the world are now more focused on the deals that governments and businesses do together, on the ways in which public procurement contracts are determined and who benefits, and on those actions by people in power that have hitherto not been sufficiently subject to public scrutiny and oversight.

Every day sees an increasing number of media reports on corruption in some part of the world. This week the New York Times carried a front page story on corruption in Italy; on Sunday, the BBC ran a major story on the corruption villains in China.

And it is not just the media that is increasing the focus on abuse of power. It is, for example, a powerful theme in the remarkable work of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, whose massive one-man show opened at Washington D.C.'s Hirschorn Museum on October 7.

The message that is coming through ever more loudly through every form of media is the one that was so simply proclaimed by brave, ordinary citizens in Tunisia and in Egypt as they launched the Arab Spring. It is the message that the public's tolerance for abusive governments is declining, and public demands for transparency and accountability in government is rising.

I do not for a moment underestimate the determination of ruthless, corrupt leaders and their ability to mobilize all manner of illicit and fanatical forces to do their dirty work. But as more bad news hits the headlines from the Middle East, as it surely will, we should not forget the seminal significance of the Arab Spring, nor underestimate the strength and resilience of those in this region and beyond who will continue to fight for justice.

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