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On the “Arab Spring”: Thinking Beyond the Moment (III)


Original guest post

By Mehdi

[See parts (I), (II)]

Did things really change? The best of times, the worst of times

It is obvious that a wind of change has blown across the Arab world, for the good: the toppling of tyrants, the drafting of a new constitution in Tunisia, the emergence of civil society, not always powerful, but which cannot be ignored. However there has also been a turn for the worst: sectarian tension has reached unprecedented levels, Syria’s horrendous civil war may last for years as there is no sign of abatement ahead, Libya is confronted by chaos and will destabilize the region, Egypt looks uncertain and could head in any direction.

While all these changes are visible and are widely commented upon, one must still ask: are these revolutions?

The definition of what constitutes a political or socio-economic revolution is a complex topic and has always brought controversy, but when looking at the actual outcomes from the Arab spring, the Arab revolutionaries have some reasons to feel disappointed:

  • Despite the toppling of several dictators, apart from Tunisia and to a smaller extent Libya, no major changes were brought to the political structures. Democratic elections were held, but in general, political structures remain consistent with what existed before 2011 and in the best cases did not go further than cosmetic changes
  • The economic structures have not changed at all. The patrimonial models and the resulting inequalities are still here. Not only have the economic and social roots of the uprisings not been addressed, but in most cases, the overall economic performance has worsened due to the instability that followed (for instance tourism and foreign investments have drastically decreased in Tunisia and Egypt). Most Arab countries are now requesting loans from Gulf states or the IMF, and are under its deep scrutiny

The observation made of politics and economics can also be made for topics such as justice and education, showing that at this point, the “Arab spring” events cannot be considered a revolution; the way ahead is still uncertain. While this view is pessimistic, there are many reasons not to feel disillusioned.

Looking ahead: The “Arab spring” is not doomed (yet)

Despite the many setbacks and the general feeling that the Arab spring has not been a success, a look back at history highlights the fact that it is not necessarily doomed and that changes require time and resilience. As Gilbert Achcar rightly states in his book “The People Want”nothing will ever be the same:

From the beginning I have been emphasizing that this is a long-term revolutionary process, not a “Spring” or something that stops with the overthrow of this or that president. It’s a process that won’t stop before a radical change happens that can put the region back on the track of social and economic development. Short of such a change, the turmoil will be ongoing.

The wall of fear is down and authoritarianism is on the decline. While the ongoing instability is depicted by observers as a sign that Arabs are not mature enough for democracy, the Tunisian example and the resilience of Arab democrats, who take risks everyday and keep fighting for change, shows that there have been real changes in the Arab world. Historical comparisons can help us understand what it takes for revolutionary processes to deliver change.

The French revolution in 1789 was a significant event that resulted not only in the overthrow of the French monarchy but created a wave of change that swept across Europe.

Napoleons_retreat_from_moscowIt should be noted that this revolution was followed by unexpected events: from the Napoleonic wars, restorations, the 1830 and 1848 revolutions, and it took more than one century for most European countries to gradually shift to more or less democratic and stable nations with many caveats. The Chinese leader Zhou Enlai when asked in 1989 about the French revolution’s outcome said: “It is too soon to say.”

Similarly, the wave of uprisings that brought down the Iron Wall in 1989 in Central and Eastern Europe were considered revolutions, most Communist regimes were doomed but the chain of events now appear more differentiated.

The 1989 wave of change was a mix of popular protests, behind the scene arrangements, and gradually led to a transition period that was chaotic economically, sometimes peacefully conducted, sometimes ending in bloodbaths. But in overall Eastern and Central Europe are gradually recovering from the traumas of the past and are more integrated with the rest of the continent.

These nations have changed forever, despite several disappointing consequences such as the reappearance: of ultra-nationalism, setbacks in education (one of the few positive legacies from the Communist period), the emergence of criminal organizations and growing economic inequalities.

In the Arab world, it is obvious that there is no clear winner since 2011:

  • While political Islam parties did benefit from the first elections, their handling of the power was not a success, their history as opposition parties and the repression they suffered in the past made them prone to working alone (even some of his own supporters admit that Mohamed Morsi behaved more as the MB president than the Egyptian one). These parties will have to work more with other parties in the future, the way AKP in Turkey, Ennahda in Tunisia, or PJD in Morocco try to do so (not always successfully) are interesting examples that need to be encouraged and emulated. Similarly, these parties have to build an economic program that goes beyond current neo-Liberal bias, they have to cope with the demands of the new Arab generation, which is comfortable with its Muslim identity, but has economic and social demands that are larger than the MB slogan “Islam is the solution”
  • Arab secularist parties are deeply weakened, as their connection with societies has decreased, they are considered (often rightly, sometimes unfairly) as complicit with the dictatorships. They have not been able to evolve from now outdated nationalist slogans of the 1960s, they will therefore need to build clearer programs to get back on the political map and address the demands of new generations that they don’t seem to understand
  • External powers, from Gulf states to Western powers, Turkey, Russia, or Iran, have no consistent strategy, and they cannot control events anymore. The world is becoming growingly multilateral, and this tendency will increase. The recent tensions between the KSA and Qatar regarding the qualification of the MB as a terrorist organization, leading to open diplomatic tensions, also brings in additional uncertainty. All stakeholders in the region will for sure learn how to cooperate in the future. The success of the recent negotiations between Iran and Western powers is a promising paradigm shift, if things go well, this can mean a less polarized Middle East, where the US in particular does not need to choose between allies and enemies, and could actually have positive relationships with the main players in the region. While there are no certainties in the Middle East, a positive trend has been initiated and needs to continue.
  • Arab rulers now realize that things have changed and that they cannot continue the status quo forever, while some regimes still manage to maintain their authority while orchestrating some cosmetic reforms, time is not on their side.

It is therefore too early to see which direction(s) the Arab world will follow, the best is still possible, but the worst is also a possibility. For sure, the region is changing and there is no going back.

Many risks still lie ahead, from foreign interventions, political indecision on the economic side (the roots of the uprisings), but the main risk is clearing the current sectarian war between Sunnis and Shias in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, which is destroying those nations and their ability to live together. This challenge has to be addressed by building on Arab and Muslim traditions of coexistence, where different communities have been living together for centuries and still do so, for instance the images of Muslims and Copts standing together and protecting each other’s prayers are an inspiration that must be fully actualized.

Morocco_ShariaThe solutions will not be a carbon copy of Western or external models. The Arab world has multiple forms of identity, which include its different religions, cultural and ethnic minorities such as the Berbers and Kurds. As explained earlier, Islam is not the problem, it can and will be part of the solution. For instance, while women’s condition is often used as a justification to antagonize Islam, the reform of the Moroccan Moudawana (family code) reform in 2004 was inspired by religious texts and showed that there was no contradiction between Islam and women’s rights. The example of Islamic feminism is another example that proves the same point.

That being said, Islam is not THE only solution as the MB may claim; the scope of the problems and challenges to be addressed are larger and most of all the solutions to be found should include all Arab people, regardless of their religions and identity.

Arab societies must drop the “savior leader” narrative, relying on a charismatic leader has only led to disappointments and disasters in the past (even leaders as respected as Nasser made huge mistakes and often behaved as tyrants. General Al-Sissi, while presenting himself as a charismatic savior will disappoint his supporters).

Democracy, pluralism, checks and balances should be at the center of the new dynamics, no political party has all the solutions at hand. Arab societies need to build their own compromises and solutions, outside of foreign intervention.

Looking to the future Arab societies can and must build on the dynamism of their extraordinary youth, often viewed by  older generations and outsiders as a threat. The new Arab generation holds the potentialities of imagination and hopeful energy to create a future that strengthens society and realizes a horizon that fulfills the goals and dreams of the uprisings.

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  • Mehdi

    I don’t think so. Muslims don’t expect another leader like him as he’s the last prophet from our perspective. I think the reason has more to do with lack of institutions, less positive democratic experiences, tensions and wars, foreign meddlings. In these circumstances people tend to want to rely on charismatic leaders. This is part of the problems I think.

  • George Carty

    I suspect that the way that Muslims view Muhammad (probably history’s greatest ever charismatic leader) as a role model also inclines them to prefer very personalistic governance.

  • Elmorocojo

    I read his ‘Islam: The Alternative,” and liked a lot in it, but I don’t know if he’s right. Islamic society was never characteristically fatalistic, this is an Orientalist caricature that Hoffman never disabused himself from.

  • Mehdi

    There is nothing worse than losing hope, so let’s cross fingers so it remains there…

  • GaribaldiOfLoonwatch

    It’s a difficult road but there is definitely a lot of hope and potential. Thanks for a great series Mehdi.

  • George Carty

    Murad Wilfried Hofmann identified fatalism as one of the two characteristics of Islamic society which he saw in a purely negative light (the other one being sex segregation).

  • Mehdi

    Not sure it was meant as a compliment but I take it as,such, and thus thank you 🙂

  • Jekyll

    Very intellectual (secular) narrative of the ill named Arab Spring.

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  • Mehdi

    Ok then I’ll keep it short and just say thank you 🙂
    I’m flattered, OOH I said it 🙂

  • Sodium

    A humanly written piece of honesty,loaded with a sense of humility, objectivity and conscience. I read it several times because I loved its contention and analysis. Could not find one single disagreement I could raise. Please refrain from telling me that you are flattered. Just thank me for trying to be as honest as you have been in your three pieces of outstanding knowledge about the misnomer called, ” Arab Spring? ” Thank you, Mehdi, for your time and efforts.

  • Elmorocojo

    That can be flipped since the Prophet is the Last Messenger and Islam doesn’t place as much emphasis on Messianism as Judaism and Christianity. That should immunize it from the kind of super-man savior leader. A question worth exploring though is the concept of Master-Slave, since Allah is the Master, King, Lord and we are His Slaves, Servants, Worshippers, how does that effect the political history and mentality with authority? My belief is this is not a problem now, since God is transcendent and our surrender is to Him and specifically not to other humans.

  • Mehdi

    I don’t think so, indeed he was an outstanding unique leader, but I don’t think that people are waiting for a new prophet. I just think there is a lack of recent democratic success stories to give people reasons to feel they can make it. This is my feeling, I may be wrong but that’s how I see it.

  • George Carty

    Are Arabs (and other Muslims) particularly vulnerable to the “savior leader” narrative because they revere Muhammad, a man who was one of the most (if not the most) successful charismatic leaders in human history?

  • Mehdi

    The point of the series was to highlight the context, challenges ahead and the diversity of situations. So some of the points you make are true, but it’s important to realize that revolutionary processes take decades to bring outcomes, so this is just the beginning. Beside all these points, I disagree with qualifying this as a false alarm, whether it ends well or not it can’t be qualified that way, the region will never be the same and the changes it brings are here to last… We’re not done with these discussions anyway 🙂

  • Mehdi

    Indeed, but there were inconsistencies all over the place with that bloke.

  • Tanveer Khan

    Saladin was a Kurd. Didn’t Saddam gas Kurdish people?

  • Rights

    Nice article, Mehdi. Just my two cents worth here. I have lately concluded that there really is no spring in the Arab Spring; it is just a made up phrase that has no real meaning. Nonetheless, the phrase is an emblem of sorts for discussions on the socio-economic and political status of the Arab masses. I think the story is just that some Arab countries recently went through a degree of social and political turmoil, and indeed are still in the middle of it all. But at this time we don’t know where all that will take them.

    Tunisia seems to be an exception, and I sincerely hope that that nation is really on the road to true democracy. I do not think Libya is necessarily on the road to true democracy. Egypt certainly is not. Bahrain got to retain its ways, thanks to Saudi intervention. There is no novelty by way of true human rights and democracy in Yemen, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Algeria.

    Thus, the so-called Arab Spring to me is a false alarm. But perhaps even a false alarm at this stage is useful. I also think that the socio-economic and political models that would work the best for the Arab countries, indeed the Muslim World in general, have yet to be developed. I do not think that any of the Western models can be simply taken and transposed on Muslim lands. So I hope the various indigenous movements in Muslim countries do not become toadies of foreign models.

  • Mehdi

    The man was nuts, he thought he was Saladin and had Stalin as a role model. I was against the 2003 invasion but he was a sick dictator.

  • Mehdi

    Excellent points as usual, one point I usually make is that there is no correlation between secularism and democracy or freedom. In some sense the problem is that people talk about secularism without the same understanding, for instance many French lefties idealize the Turkish model assuming it’s inspired by the French 1905 law whereas both are radically different. This is why the point in my opinion is to get people to talk and debate issues about how far religion goes and how far some separation with state affairs is needed, leaving slogans and brands aside makes things simpler. And this debate has always existed.
    Regarding the dictators you named, I’m not even sure I’d call them secular, mubarak had no issue using religion and Al Azhar to keep power, religion was not particularly absent during his time, Saddam wrote Allah Akbar on the flag and tried to present himself as a new Saladin, even spending weeks copying the Qur’an with his blood, it tells more about his madness than anything else. The shah was different, as he was megalomaniac and forgot about Islam’s importance for people. But the common factor in my opinion is not an ideological secular link that never existed, it’s just that they were dictators 🙂
    I’m very happy and flattered that this article inspired you to write on this topic, looking forward to it…

  • Mehdi

    Thanks jsb, good questions.
    I don’t think it’s specific to Arabs, latin America has that somehow, even countries like France tend to look for a savior in times of crisis. I think that this exists in Arab countries due to the lack of successful democratic experiences, people therefore long towards a “zaim”, but I think the lesson is that it failed and will fail again for likes of Sisi for instance, the future is about pluralism, checks and balances and people learning the art of compromise, no side has all the truth nor the capacity to impose its will on others.

  • Just_Stopping_By

    Great article, Mehdi!

    Two related questions. You say, “Arab societies must drop the ‘savior leader’ narrative…” Do you think that Arab societies have been more reliant on that narrative than the typical country in similar circumstances (however defined)? If so, do you see any reason for that? For example, even in the US, both Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama have been viewed as “savior leaders” by their partisans, so I am wondering if you are talking of a general phenomenon or something more specific to Arab societies.

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