“If you want to live under sharia law, go back to the hellhole country you came from, or go to another hellhole country that lives under sharia law.” ~ Mahfooz Kanwar, professor emeritus of sociology at Mount Royal University in Calgary, and a member of the Muslim [sic] Canadian Congress.
Ah yes, the “Islamic” hellhole meme. Islamophobes never tire of bashing Muslim-majority countries for their supposed backwardness.
Apparently they’ve never noticed that many Christian-majority nations savaged by Western colonialism aren’t faring any better. The centuries-long struggle with European colonialism–and neo-colonialism in the decades that followed–simply doesn’t factor into the dominant discourse.
Author and activist Hisham Bustani provides a fresh perspective, with a focus on historical context and the popular uprising that began in late 2010, widely known as the Arab Spring.
After one year of the Arab uprisings that initially exploded in Tunisia and swept like wildfire throughout the Arab world, it became very clear that the spark, which has resulted in the removal of three oppressors so far, was spontaneous. That does not mean that the explosion had no preludes. On the contrary, the people were squeezed with each passing day, but those uprisings clearly showed that even in the absence of an organized catalyzing formation (revolutionary party, revolutionary class), an explosion takes place when a certain threshold is reached, a critical mass.
Uprisings in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet-bloc states came about through the work of organized opposition groups and parties (like Solidarity in Poland), and by decades of calm covert undermining, infiltration, and propaganda undertaken by the West. By contrast, the Arab uprising was not led by an organized opposition. Instead, it came as a surprise to the imperialist circles that historically backed their client oppressor regimes.
The Failure of the Post-Colonial Arab “State”
Following the British-French-Italian colonialism of the Arab region, the Europeans left behind an area that they deliberately divided into “states”. These were designed so as to leave no possibility for their becoming truly independent and sovereign. They also left a watchdog and an easy solution to assuage their anti-Semitic-burdened consciousness: “Israel,” a colonial-settler state that would maintain the imperialist design in the wake of the physical withdrawal of its patrons.
The post-colonial states were subordinate by design, by their innate nature of being divided and incomplete, and by the ruling class that followed colonialism. The homogeneous collective of people that included many religions, sects, and ethnicities was also broken down. Colonialism fueled internal conflicts, and the subsequent Arab regimes maintained that tradition and kept in close alliance with the former colonizers. Alliance here is an overstatement. A subordinate structure cannot build alliances. It is always subordinate.
Thus, the post-colonial Arab “state” was everything but a state. Concepts like “the rule of law” or “governing institutions” or “citizenship rights” did not apply. Countries were run with a gangster mentality. There were no “traditions” or clear sets of rules that applied to all. Unlike the model of a bourgeois democracy where rules, laws, and traditions maintain and preserve the capitalist system and apply to all its components, this form was not present in the post-colonial Arab “state.” The ruling class were free to issue laws, revoke laws, not implement laws, not implement constitutions, amend constitutions, forge fraudulent elections, embezzle, torture, massacre, confiscate basic rights, indulge in blatant corruption, fabricate identities, and pass on the presidency from father to son.
The example closest to the modern post-colonial Arab state is the Free Congo State (1885-1908) which was the private property of the Belgian king Leopold II, along with all its people, resources, and 2.3 million square kilometers territory. The post-colonial Arab state is nothing but an expanded feudality. Its head answers to imperialist powers that pay certain amounts of “foreign aid” and finance and train armies and police, all to keep people beyond the explosion point using a composition of fear and the fulfillment of very basic needs that are portrayed as grants and the accomplishments of the ruler. The same imperialist powers that paid their bribes in “aid,” worked hard through IMF economic-restructuring schemes and World Bank loans to dismantle any possible internal independent growth, and worked hard to privatize the public sector.
The Arab regimes, reigning over a further subdivided space that is economically and politically destroyed, extracted their authority from external delegation and internal terror, and succeeded in transforming themselves into a buffer, a guarantor for all the divided segments. They succeeded in absorbing almost all opposition frameworks into their structure, and in producing coreless governing institutions, thus giving themselves much longer life spans than one would expect for such a system.
The failure of the Arab “organized” opposition
Just as the imperialist centers and Arab regimes failed to predict the time of the onset and the magnitude of the Arab uprisings, so did opposition organizations. The latter were not part of it. Nor did they work toward it. Nor did they add any value to it after its onset.
With a few exceptions (like the Kifaya movement in Egypt, the Islamic al-Nahda Party and The Workers’ Communist Party in Tunisia, and some intellectuals in Syria), the organized Arab opposition (political parties, unions and other organizations) seldom challenged the Arab regime and its system. While the interwar period saw the emergence of a number of ideological movements that sought to rectify the colonialist design for the region, many such groups were either tamed or became absorbed in the status quo. The opposition regularly sought acknowledgement and legitimacy from the Arab regimes. The opposition wanted to be “legal,” and it followed the “rules” set by the regimes and accepted their reign.
Thus, the organized Arab opposition was actually a factor of stability for the Arab regimes, adding to their longevity. It was not until people took things into their own hands, rejecting the legitimacy of the Arab regimes and acting autonomously, away from the established opposition via more creative forms, that things started to move.
A quick review of how the organized opposition behaviour following the uprisings can provide a clue as to how they acted during the uprisings and in the period that led up to them. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt never challenged the Mubarak regime. On the contrary, it periodically sent comforting signs showing that they wanted the Mubarak regime to continue. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt did not participate in the early days of the uprising, and after the uprising it backed the Military Council and its oppression of the demonstrations of January 2012. Many of the so-called leftist and nationalist organizations in Jordan, Palestine, and Lebanon are currently backing the Bashar Assad regime and its massacre in Syria.
The organized opposition often dreamt of a moment when the people would rise up against their oppressors. Rightfully, they diagnosed the Arab regimes as tools of imperialist intervention and the main obstacles to any liberation project. Now they ally themselves against the people and with the regimes. They do so because they are empty. Over the years they failed to present any alternative, neither in theory or in practice. They are empty and they are afraid of a future outside they are unable to control, comprehend, or contribute to. Like Israel, they “know” the current regimes. What will happen next is something they don’t know, and they lack the capacity to influence it. So – just like Israel – they’re willing to stand against it.
The Unity of the Oppressed in the Arab World
Pan–Arabism often dreamed about a unified Arab homeland, but other than military coups that ultimately transformed into local oppressive regimes, it lacked any tools to fulfill that dream. Some independent Arab Marxists worked for some sort of “union of the oppressed.” The people of the Arab world are diverse and were fragmented by different factors along sectarian, religious, and ethnic divides. It is only when the oppressed realize that they are united by their own miserable status that people tend to mobilize en masse and achieve their common goals. This was what actually happened in 2011.
The mobilization in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen fulfilled that requirement, so it was partially successful. By contrast, the mobilization in Jordan was made along the local pathogenic divide (those of Palestinian origin vs. those of East Jordanian origin), so it was doomed to failure and can be understood as a movement within the regime rather than one from outside it.
Another key lesson was proven by the immediate contagion of the uprising phenomena throughout the Arab world. What started in Tunisia echoed with different volume levels from Morocco in the West to Bahrain in the East. There is a material integration of people’s interests. For example, continuity can be seen in the almost automatic demonstrations across the Arab world against Israel when it regularly and bloodily attacks Palestinians. This was further stressed by the same continuity when confronting the Arab regimes. The people of the Arab world find depth, support, and power in one other, and they tend to be inspired by each other, and they still think that their cause is one. No wonder, then, that the colonialist powers and their successor dependant Arab regimes fought hard to maintain the isolationist division of the post-colonial states.
It is no surprise then that Arab uprisings are finding it difficult to proceed beyond the conditions of colonially-fabricated states. The uprisings must seek solutions beyond the crippling designs in order to break from subordination and become a true revolution.
Hisham Bustani is a writer and activist from Jordan. He has published three volumes of short fiction in Arabic.