For Arabs, the challenge of democracy starts with the family

18 February 2011

For the past few weeks, we've been hearing that the "wall of fear" in Egypt has collapsed. Not to rain on anyone's revolutionary parade, but I beg to differ. What's changed in Egypt is the politics of the state. A big deal, to be sure. Yet a culture of democracy will require piercing something more: the politics of the family. That's where fear begins in much of Arab society.

Brian Whitaker, former Middle East editor of The Guardian newspaper, did an experiment when researching his 2009 book,What's Really Wrong with the Middle East. He presented his Arab interviewees with ten critical statements about the Middle East and asked them to choose which they wanted to discuss. One statement beat out the rest as a matter of urgency -- so much so, Whitaker reveals, that "towards the end I was saying to people: "Please, let's not talk about that one, I've heard enough already." That statement? "The family is a major obstacle to reform in the Arab world."

I caught my first glimpse of this truth in Cairo five years ago. After watching democracy activists pillory President Mubarak and his thugs for their secrecy, corruption and brutality, I hung out with a few of the demonstrators at a café. Recognizing me from interviews on CNN International, one of the protestors -- a Muslim woman  - confided to me that she was in love with a Jewish man. She wanted to marry him, but quaked at the thought of telling her father.

At the time, I found it astonishing that while this young Egyptian would risk her neck to call out a notorious autocrat, she got visibly anxious about speaking the truth to her own family. And she's far from alone. Another Egyptian, Mona, recently emailed me. She described herself as a 37-year-old who's been "raised with the fear of the dad, the teacher and God." Although "fear is so embedded in my soul," Mona wrote, she aspires to the day when "I'll get rid of it." Her email landed in my inbox before the uprising. I have no idea if Mona or the woman I met at the café in Cairo participated. If they did, they'll now need to apply their gutsiness to relationships at home.

As Brian Whitaker came to discover, home is ground zero of an Arab cultural transformation that, in turn, can re-shape government for good. That's because, according to the Arabs whom Mr. Whitaker interviewed, family is "the primary mechanism for social control" -- the first clamp on independent thinking and the model for many more constraints, including those imposed by the state.

Salem Pax, the famed Iraqi blogger, explains it this way: "I'm depending on the family so much [that] I need to constantly make sure they approve of all my decisions - Most governments in the Arab world function like that, too. There is the person who is the head of the family, the head of the tribe, the head of the state, who has final call on every single decision, and youwill do what he says, otherwise there is always the fear of being cast outside the family, which is shameful."

Halim Barakat, a Syrian sociologist, backs up the blogger's claim. Political leaders "are cast in the image of the father, while citizens are cast in the image of children." (Remember the ill-fated speech in which Hosni Mubarak defiantly affirmed that he wouldn't step down? Mr. Mubarak painted himself as the father figure who deserved absolute compliance from his 80 million toddlers, whom he'd previously ordered to "go home.")

In short, what happens in the Arab household is a microcosm for what can be expected from the nation's rulers. Re-imagine family dynamics and you re-imagine governance itself. Maybe it can work the other way around, too. Maybe democracy in the parliament will convulse autocracy in the house. It's a time of possibilities. After all, I didn't believe that Mr. Mubarak, however devastated and dishonored, would leave office as quickly as he did.

Let's hope that the Muslim woman with the Jewish boyfriend is gearing up for a good talk with her dad..