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Root: Arab Identity

07/14/11 5:55PM By Tik Root
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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 unresolved.

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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