It may be unwise to make a judgment about history while it is still unfolding. But 2011 compels me to claim that 2011 marked the beginning of the Age of the Citizen. This is seen most dramatically in the Arab world – but democracies too, beware!
When Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself in December 2010 and sparked democracy uprisings across the Arab world, there was no organised force, or unified ideology, or geopolitical configuration supporting the call for change. To the contrary: organised force was the privilege of the repressive states against which people revolted; ideologically the demonstrators ranged from secular liberals to salafists; geopolitically they effectively had a world of economic, political and security interests against them. But ordinary citizens’ calls for dignity and democracy prevailed; and while the outcomes are far from clear, these have already shaken the foundations of national and international order in the Arab region and beyond.
It is all unprecedented.
True, citizens were critical in shaping the events that led to the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 – but a global ideological confrontation with its economic, political and security dynamics were on their side. The people of South Africa brought apartheid to an end in the early 1990s – but that too happened with strong international support, including economic and political sanctions against the regime. Indonesia’s reformasi process from the end of the 1990s evolved in the context of the Asian financial crisis and widespread international condemnation of the crimes committed in East Timor. The colour revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, while definitely expressions of popular will, were strongly supported financially and politically by the west – and with a strong Russian pushback.
By contrast, in the case of the Arab dictators, the west had lived comfortably. The European Union’s relationship with Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s Tunisia was hailed in 2010 by the European commission as a partnership of shared values. Hosni Mubarak was a key strategic ally for the United States and Europe. Documents that have emerged after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi make clear just how embarrassingly close a partner of the west he had become; and even Syria’s Bashar al-Assad was accepted as a contributor to so-called stability in the strategically vital middle east – part of a network of regimes upheld by an international architecture of support. The basis of these regimes nonetheless began to unravel when everyday citizens in great numbers said “no more”.
It’s true also that the idea of the free citizen as the source of all political power is age-old. But never has it been applied so directly as in 2011. What happened first in Tunisia and Egypt were called leaderless revolutions, but really what we saw was ordinary citizens taking the lead. And it is spreading. In Russia, one of the leaders of the ongoing post-election protests, Alexei Navalny, is the first politician in the country who has created himself through the internet. In China, public protests on the streets and on microblogs in the past year are epitomised by the recent demonstrations in Wukan which forced the local party leadership to flee.
A universal moment
But the power of the citizen has done much more in 2011 than make autocrats around the world nervous. The year has also seen massive popular protests in established democracies such as Spain, India, Israel, South Africa, Chile, and the United States. Many of these protesters turn their backs on what they see as old-fashioned, elitist and corrupt politics. A 27-year old indignado in Spain told journalists that while her parents were grateful because they got the chance to vote, “we’re the first generation to say that voting is worthless”. This in a country where democracy took root only from the mid-1970s and which in many ways has been a remarkable success story of democratic consolidation and social progress.
So even as citizens living under authoritarian rule are demanding an entry to and a place in their countries’ politics, many young citizens in democracies are expressing their own rejection of their countries’ politics. What many citizens of both autocracies and democracies share, however, is contempt for the political process as it is currently working, and a call for change; and what the establishments in both kinds of system share is an instinctive resistance to change.
Against this backdrop the big question is where the Age of the Citizen will take us, in 2012 and beyond. It is important to recall that authoritarianism can be remarkably durable – but it is increasingly risky for authoritarian leaders to deny their citizens political freedom, especially in conditions where citizens have access to information at least as fast as their leaders. Democracy too is remarkably resilient – but it is increasingly risky for democratically elected leaders to think that a “politics as usual” approach will meet citizens’ demands.
In the Age of the Citizen, a key challenge will be to find ways of giving citizens a stronger influence on the democratic process – at the expense of party elites, for example. In 2012 and beyond, a profound reflection is needed on how we can renew democracy’s promise of true citizen participation and representation.
By Vidar Helgesen (open democracy)
Vidar Helgesen is secretary-general of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance