“The new generation, the generation of the Internet, is fearless. They want their full rights, and they want life, a dignified life.” Shawki al-Qadi, Yemen
The scenes are rivoting. The meaning unclear. As rocks fly, men on horses and camels charge the crowd and homemade bombs explode, supporters of the government seek to disrupt the power of people clamoring for freedom while the most powerful army in the Middle East watches without response. Tunisia, Jordan, Egypt and Yemen. Who’s next?
A regional movement without a leader. At one time the leader might have been Qaddafi, Hussein, Nasser or Arafat. Voices without a spokesperson clamor for a new order. The spokesmen who have attempted to fill the power vacuum have not succeeded to this point in speaking the mind of the people in the streets. Apparently committed to peaceful protest, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children remain unmoved, insisting on freedom, dignity and a culture of collaboration. They are clearly willing to sacrifice their life and liberty for something more fundamental than comfort and security.
“[P]rotesters offered an alternative, their empowerment standing as possibly the most remarkable legacy of a people who often lamented their apathy.” Anthony Shadid in today’s New York Times cites a regional awakening in search of a leader. He quotes a woman in Cairo as she joins the mass expression of hope, “I’m fighting for my freedom,” Noha al-Ustaz said as she broke bricks on the curb. “For my right to express myself. For an end to oppression. For an end to injustice.”
This uprising in Arab nations, each more or less friendly to U.S. interests, seems to involve far more than geopolitical alliances or religious purity. The cries for freedom from tyranny recall other movements in search of a leader. Our own U.S. revolution is certainly one. However, even in our history, cries for freedom rang out from peaceful protest to change slavery, civil rights and other denials of human dignity.
As cited in this space earlier (See: The End of Coercive Power: Really?) the death of fundamentalism has been predicted by much wiser minds. Hierarchy which exists to deny the universal human need for dignity, autonomy and purpose cannot survive. Autocratic leadership in business, government or religion will meet its end at the hands of people who will regain their autonomy by any means possible, peaceful or otherwise.
Add to the deep human longing for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” the power of the Internet, autocrats beware. Tyrants be warned. The capacity for instant communication to mobilize the masses in the face of oppression changes everything. The first line of defense in today’s battle for the allegiance of an oppressed people is “shut down the Internet”. The thinking is, “prevent them from sharing ideas and the narrative of freedom, and the demonstrations will end.” If the autocrats can prevent “mass collaboration” the tyranny can last a little longer. But not much longer. (See: Mass Collaboration)
What is unfolding in Egypt (Tunisia, Jordan and Yemen) represents something far larger than political unrest in an Arab country. It is less about which brand of Muslim theology will prevail. It has less to do with geopolitical alliances than basic human needs. To a conflict manager the headlines reveal something far more telling.
Fundamental change in thinking requires a deep dissatisfaction with the status quo and a new narrative of hope. Without the new narrative, dissatisfaction is merely unrest waiting for a leader to emerge. When people reach the point that the old normal is unsatisfying, the search for meaning begins. In Egypt, in business, in religion and education, mass collaboration will unseat stale and self-protective leadership. Conflict managers can help the dissatisfied protesters, congregants and employees search for new meaning, forge new neuro-pathways and create a new reality out of their own expectations while preserving self-determination.
The path to peace in the Middle East must begin with dissatisfaction, but will only progress through the creation of new narratives which capture the imagination of hope. With each trans-Atlantic cable, with each diplomatic initiative there must be a new story which connects the present with the possible. In each troubled business or marriage, there must be a journey from dissatisfaction to discovery in which the next adjacent possibility leads to a new awakening. This is the wonderfully challenging and rewarding work of conflict management.
In all these conflicts, watch as the outcomes take shape through the visioning of leaders who can articulate the new narrative which satisfies the hunger of mass collaboration. Occasionally, the process of transformational change gets valuable assistance from peacemakers who can help the participants in conflict visualize their own path to peace. Such is the moment in Cairo.