The Failures of Preemptive Reform

The Tunisian Revolution took the world by surprise.  That very same revolution took the Middle East and North African world by storm.  The desperate act of a courageous ordinary young man, ending his existence in the same way he had always seen his life go by, slowly, painfully, modestly, unnoticed.  At the end, he was not even able to enjoy the fruits of his own sacrifice. Others would, while others watched…

…and very closely so.  To the other ordinary men and women in and around the region, change no longer seemed unrealistic and out of reach.  People in Algeria, Egypt and Libya, in Bahrain, Yemen and Jordan decided to take their chances.  Corrupt hereditary despots and their associates, anxious about possible repercussions, soon realized that they, on the other hand, could not take any chances.  Thus, and to put it very simply, one of the swiftest reform campaigns ever witnessed in the region was unleashed.  Scared heads of state engaged in something I like to call preemptive reform.

Preemptive reform (pree-emp-tiv ree-fawrm): any type of economic, political or social reform taken in anticipation or in the developing stages of major popular demonstrations against local governments.  Also known as “too little too late.”

From constitutional amendments to limit mandates, decisions to abolish political inheritance, revamping cabinets with fresh new faces… in countries where people had already taken to the streets, it was a race to appease the gathering crowds by giving them what they seemingly wanted.  Even in countries like Syria and Saudi Arabia, where chances of any popular unrest remained low, both the lift of the Facebook ban (though widely circumvented), and a wide range of benefits showered on subjects as a “welcome home gift” from the king respectively, only showed how nervous the toughest of regimes had become. But theirs is a different story…

Back to countries where the streets began to boil, preemptive reform not only failed but backfired.  In terms of tangible reform in the form of economic benefits, it was certain that only government supporters would benefit, as had always been the case.  There was also in such a solution a certain degree of arrogance, as if governments were giving something to the people they didn’t have the rights to, such as benefiting from the profits from the country’s natural resources. While in terms of intangible reform, including promises of greater freedom, those who had denied their people such rights for years, couldn’t be trusted to reinstate and protect them this time around.

What governments didn’t realize is that with every day that passed, demands escalated and even protestors, savoring the delights of freedom for the first time in years, found it hard to go back to an age of conformity and repression.  People soon realized that it was only one thing that had to go to be set on the right track toward meaningful and sustainable change: the system.  From then on, the “the people want the downfall of the regime” slogan would never sound nor feel the same again.

We all know that preemptive wars haven’t really worked, and preemptive solutions are not always optimal.  Preemptive reform, coming as a defensive reaction to deep-seated frustrations, usually doesn’t bode well either.  Preemptive reform in countries that may not be “ready” for change, will probably also further aggravate frustration when the situation finally bursts.  Morale of the story: there is only one way out for one man who has ruled his country for years with no mercy… for him to simply go out.

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