It must be cultivated and nurtured in order for citizens to make informed

decisions in democratic elections

Much has been said, and volumes will be written yet, about the Arab Spring and its root causes — the popular grievances, the pent-up frustrations, Mohammad Bu Azizi, Wael Gonem, Asma Mahfouz, the Facebook and Twitter revolutions. Yet one force of the Arab Spring — I would even argue, the force behind all popular revolutions — is rarely acknowledged in the public sphere. It’s the public sphere itself.

History shows that whenever independent public spheres form, a force is unleashed that allows people to emancipate themselves from imposed power structures. A functioning public sphere is also the backbone of any open society, for nothing stimulates progress more than a free market of ideas publicly competing for support.

In ancient Greece, free citizens of a city-state would gather regularly at the agora, a public square where issues of common concern to the polis would be openly debated, and decisions taken by majority vote among all those present. Ideas flourished through the inclusion of citizen voices and the juxtaposition of differing opinions, thus tapping into the collective potential of society. The agora planted the seed for what we call citizenship today, and marked the beginning of democracy.

History is replete with examples that illustrate how popular movements and paradigm-shifting ideas thrived whenever a vibrant and more inclusive public sphere emerged. Western Europe’s transitions to democracy of the 18th century, for instance, were preceded by an unprecedented boom of debate associations, public gatherings and previously unseen inclusion of female voices in the public sphere. From the 1760s to 1780s in France, salons — social gatherings for exchanging ideas among citizens — were the centre of intellectual, artistic and literary exchange in Paris. In these open gatherings the ideals of enlightenment flourished, and the seeds for the French Revolution of 1789 were sown.

Needless to say, the Arab Spring was in many ways different from Ancient Greece and 18th century France. However, it too was characterised by the powerful emergence of a public sphere across many countries in the region, with large numbers of citizen voices driving a new public discourse through digital media, establishing alternative opinion leaders and calling for revolts against their unelected leaders. With the help of these new tools, developments were accelerated by leaps and bounds. But with Tunisia’s transition to democracy seemingly in jeopardy, and Egypt’s increasingly turbulent road to post-Mubarak democracy, one cannot help but wonder: Has the previously vibrant public sphere disappeared in these countries?

The sobering answer is that it is on life support in Tunisia, and that it has become blurry in Egypt. An atmosphere of intense polarisation has gripped Arab Spring nations, and digital media — once celebrated as ‘liberation technology’ in the early days of the revolutions — seem to be fuelling, not lessening, social divisions. While social media did allow for unprecedented inclusion of citizen voices in public discourse, it also offers unprecedented means of ‘customising’ one’s public sphere: People prefer to follow those they already agree with, and when they do listen to the other side, they do so mostly to reiterate to themselves that they disagree with them. Today, the national discourse in Egypt and Tunisia has largely deteriorated into a mere reflection of the divisions and entrenched positions on the streets of Cairo and Tunis.

A vibrant public sphere does not develop, nor sustain itself, automatically. It must be cultivated, nurtured and preserved in order for citizens to be able to form opinions, constructively engage those they disagree with, and make informed decisions in democratic elections. In contexts where the public sphere no longer functions, even the value of free and fair elections is significantly diminished because they become an expression of poorly-conceived public opinion, rather than popular will.

Perhaps more so than claiming the right to free elections, the people of the Arab world must therefore reclaim the public sphere. Inclusive and focused debates, open to all elements of society and built on the principles of reasoning and evidence, have proven historically to be most powerful drivers of change.

When a culture of respect for opposing opinions prevails, the effect of the public sphere is multiplied. For it is only when opposing views meet that the power to change minds is unleashed, bold new ideas thrive, and our societies can finally reach their full potential.

 Courtesy Gulf News.