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The age of the citizen: Who really speaks for the people?

  • Published at 09:51 am April 19th, 2013

The nature of politics has changed throughout the world. In the past, the masses would beg for leaders. Nowadays, however, from the “99%” in downtown New York to Tahrir and Shahbag, the citizen is the leader.

The issues that these citizens are imposing on the political class may be unrealistic (Occupy Wall Street sought the end of the capitalist system), but it is the voice of the people that has risen to set the agenda. This voice can no longer be ignored.

The Arab Spring was indeed a paradigm shift in the history of the Middle East and beyond, as it offered an old-new idea with a twist. “Al-Shaab Yurid” (the people want …) has been the slogan of every revolution in history, claiming to be the will of the people. Today, there is a new twist to this will – the people themselves are making the demand, not someone who speaks on behalf of them. The people did not ask for, nor did they need, a leader. These are mass movements without leadership, the kind that history has not known. The real revolution is that we now have leaderless revolutions.

Yet, this does not imply that the political class has become obsolete. On the contrary, it simply has to accept its new role, which is to respond to, and engage the demands of the citizen. It no longer speaks for the citizen, but speaks to the citizen.Only those political figures who are able to grasp this lesson will survive. Those who do not understand will not.

This dramatic change is driven by new realities. We have indeed become one global village. Our eyes and ears are attuned to wherever our fellow humans are suffering. Bashar al-Assad’s father crushed a rebellion in 1982 in a few quick months of un-witnessed slaughter. Bashar himself, while having exceeded his father’s brutality already, has been under the watchful eyes of citizens across the globe.Yet, the leaders have clearly failed to act in a decisive manner. Syria’s citizens will get their freedom and international leaders who have been in dereliction of their duty will pay a price.

These lessons are for the entire world to contemplate. It is the age of the citizen.Fictional democracy will no longer be sufficient. Not in New York, not in Cairo, and certainly not in Dhaka. 

Asma Mahfouz, the young Egyptian activist whose YouTube post stunned and embarrassed her countrymen into joining her at Tahrir Square, received a European prize for human rights in 2012. This young woman stood in front of hundreds of veteran human rights activists all over the western world and, in a respectful and calm voice, told them: “You have nothing to teach us; we will chart our own way.”

Asma Mahfouz was not speaking on behalf of Egypt.Instead, she spoke on behalf of her generation and in the realisation that it is the citizen who can demand justice, and it is this same citizen who will go ahead and enforce justice.

States are not irrelevant but they can no longer be an apparatus of control, as in the past. States ought to be the citizen’s framework for protection: for the citizens, not against the citizens. With the events of the past few years, we have truly entered the 21st century. We now know that politics in this century are dramatically different from those of the last.We should also know that to move forward in this century we ought to be looking forward.Although our past defines us, we will not be hostage to it. Again, this is true in New York, true in Cairo and true in Dhaka.