Root: Arab Identity

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(HOST)  Commentator Tik Root says that in order to build a stable
system of representative democracy in the Middle East, people there are
going to have to fundamentally rethink who they are – and what they
really stand for.

(ROOT) Vermont has a long history of protecting
those who become targets of discrimination based on identity – from
participating in the Underground Railroad to becoming the first state in
the nation to legalize civil unions. But for those facing similar
forms of persecution in the Middle East, there have generally been few
outlets; until now.

The Arab Spring provides an opportunity to
reverse the trend of suppression and give rise to stable self-determined
governments. However, it’s important to remember that if countries like
Egypt and Syria are to achieve this goal, their citizens must first
define their own personal identities.

From 1958 to 1961 Egypt
and Syria were briefly joined as the "United Arab Republic." Gamal Abdel
Nasser, the patriarch of modern Arab nationalism, was its president for
the majority of the time. More recently, Hosni Mubarak was replaced
after 29 years of power in Egypt, while the Assad family continues to
fight for survival in Syria, as it has since 1971. Not surprisingly, a
hallmark of both regimes has been the suppression of personal identity
for the sake of nationalism and a semblance of unity.

In Egypt,
people were discriminated against if they were not members of the
National Democratic Party, and in Syria, the same situation exists for
those outside the Baath party or the Alawite sect. In both countries the
Muslim Brotherhood has been subject to extreme and often violent
oppression. This is in addition to the harassment of groups such as
dissidents, gays, and, more generally, contrarians.

In the past
few months Arabs have challenged the status quo, but with slogans like
"We are all one" still dominating the conversation, the true demographic
make up of these countries remains elusive. And as the fog of
oppression continues to lift, the issue of personal identity will become
ever more important. It will be up to citizens to determine what their
own preferences and priorities will be in a post regime era. In Syria,
where activists are locked in a deadly stalemate with the government,
this process is unlikely to begin until President Assad is gone, but in
Egypt the time is now.

This self-identification should cover a
variety of issues. In addition to the politics of the day, important
questions include the role of religion in daily life, and how best to
participate in democracy. Everything from new passions and individual
economic status to the possibility of suppressed personality traits must
be contemplated. If people are not honest with themselves, then the
new constitution, laws and institutions of a new government cannot
reflect their real desires and in the end conflicts will be left

Although this is an over simplification of a complex
topic, it’s undeniable that identity is, and will continue to be, at the
heart of social movements worldwide. In Egypt and Syria, figuring out
the true nature of each country will be a difficult but necessary step
toward ensuring the long-term success of the uprisings for which so many
have already sacrificed their lives.

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