The sweeping social changes and revolutions rocking the Middle East and North Africa in recent months have indeed taken the world by surprise. Although many analysts and experts agree that these movements will result in a lasting change that will drastically modify the region’s geo-political landscape, no one knows yet in which direction this change might head. As the French philosopher and political scientist Raymond Aron said, “Men make history without knowing the history that they are making.”

Will these revolts give rise to true democracies or give birth to new authoritarian societies? History provides numerous examples of revolutions that “devour their own children” and culminate in large-scale oppressions and exactions, starting from the most famous – namely the French revolution — and ending with the Soviet, Chinese, Iranian and Latin American revolutions of the 20th century.

Lighting the path

With this in mind, what role can communication firms play in helping to direct the winds of change in a positive direction? The question is all the more pertinent as these revolts have shown the extent to which communication has become a driving force in society through its multitude of channels, from global media outlets to online social networks. It is onlylogical to assume that this same force that helped to spawn these movements can ultimately steer their course in the right direction, toward a beneficial and lasting change for the people of the region.

The first crucial role to be played by communication outlets is to fill the void created after decades of despotism and an effective absence of meaningful political participation. As the revolutionary movements in Egyp tand Tunisia unfolded, one of the themes that recurrently surfaced was that they lacked powerful and effectiveleadership to guide and federate them. However romantic the image of a spontaneous and unplanned revolution might be, political reality dictates that in order to ensure its sustainability and to reach its objectives such a movement eventually must be channeled through a visible and empowered leadership. This has not yet occurred, delayed by the fact that these countries have been living for decades in a state of autocracy deprived of substantial opposition leadership. Proper communication can ultimately lay the groundwork for the natural emergence of an enlightened leadership by advocating the values that the society wishes to adopt and identify within the post-revolution era.

Contrary to the paradigm within the many surviving totalitarian societies, it is not the leader’s role to impose a system of values on his or her people. Ideally, it is the set of values determined by the people that ultimately gives rise to a leadership that embodies and defends them. In the case of the newly born Arab democracies still in search of leadership, the media and civil society should seek to communicate with all stakeholders to create a consensus toward a common system of values, which may include, for example, the protection of individual freedoms, secularism or social justice. It is then, by upholding these values and being held accountable by their standards, that citizens would raise political players to leadership status, offering them the blessings of the populace.

By entrenching a truly national set of values emanating from the people’s will, communication outlets could ensure that future leadership would be attuned to citizens’ aspirations. They would also set in place a unified and consistent vision for the country that ensures that citizens and leaders work toward the same national objectives; even if opinions diverge, they would still be grounded in the principles set forth by the people. Only then would the revolutions have transcended their original social demands to forge a national identity and set the tone for the full-fledged rebuilding of the national political system.

Closing the cycle

For all of this to happen, communication outlets must develop the political maturity of the people and entrench a sense of democratic responsibility. Decades of authoritarianism have suppressed awareness of the rights and the duties that a mature democracy offers and demands from its citizens. In this respect, the role of communication would be to effect a shift in mentality from the previous reactionary state of mind to a positive and constructive mindset in which citizens are ready to make sacrifices and build a system reflecting their aspirations.

Though the revolutionary spirit was necessary to break the people’s shackles, the post-revolutionary role of communication would be to ensure that this fervor does not give rise to a state of “permanent revolution” that would flare up every time a sacrifice — such as an increase in taxes or the removal of subsidies — is necessary.

Well-crafted communication would therefore be essential to make citizens fully aware of their responsibility in holding the new leadership accountable by empowering them and sharpening their political sense. By acting as the guardian of government transparency, communication mediums have the potential to ensure that the people and the government work as a team rather than as adversaries. Most importantly it will set the background for political stability by protecting against repeat revolutionary earthquakes which could arise from an inadequate resolution of the original issues.

By playing a largely informative role during the period of unrest, communication channels and social media networks contributed greatly to the development of the revolutionary movements and acted as the logistical backbone of popular action. As this phase has successfully come to an end, communication should take on a whole new level by moving from a reactive informative trend to a proactive constructive one by which it pursues the noble cause of shaping the post-revolution society at its best. To reach this end, media outlets and civil society players will have to work hand in hand to encourage dialogue with the various stakeholders and spark the emergence of a consensus concerning national values and constants, while raising the level of political awareness.

As media and communication outlets begin to reach their objective of establishing national values, they can begin to move toward effectively becoming the “Fourth Estate” by ensuring scrutiny and accountability with respect to the national principles that they would have helped establish and consolidate. Communication outlets would thus have successfully “closed the cycle” by helping to spark the revolution, accompanying it, establishing the social and political contract of the post-revolution era and, finally, acting as the guardian of this contract and the values that its stands for.

Leaders and governments are mere transitory players in the lives of nations, whereas the true cornerstones are the values on which these nations are built. Today, nascent Arab democracies should reflect back on the lessons of the French revolution and understand that once they establish a common set of national values, they will be setting the platform on which modern, just and perennial states can be built to prosper.

Mark Helou, Zeina Loutfi and Ramsay G. Najjar