Evolution and Revolution

The age of the Arab dictator is over. The current wave of unrest sweeping the Middle East has deposed two dictators, spilt much blood and fundamentally shaken the status quo. Already, the movement that began with a few street demonstrations in Tunis has led to a regime change in Egypt and threatens to overthrow the monarchy in Bahrain, a military regime in Libya, a dictatorship in Yemen and many other governments throughout the region. What could possibly have caused this stunning political shockwave across the Arab world? One popular explanation is the resurrection of pan-Arabism. Pan-Arabism, in the original sense of the term, rose to prominence during the Cold War as a brief glimmer of hope in the short period between the nascent post-independence era (when artificial national identities first began to be constructed) and the current era of unipolarity. Modern Arab philosophy and literature were instrumental in the development of this ideology. Significantly, the first real pan-Arab ideology, Ba’athism, was largely secular, although not atheistic, and rooted in French revolutionary rhetoric and Marxist theory. The core founders of this movement included Christians as well as Muslims, and the movement was not driven so much by uniform religious concerns as by a common identity that considered Arabs from Morocco to Iraq to be one people with a shared history, language, culture and political interest. They saw the Arab people as a civilization that had suffered from a steady but temporary decline since the Golden Age, a decline explained by external forces like colonialism. The solution was a unified, socialist Arab nation with strong leadership at the helm and a populace willing to sacrifice everything for the good of the state. This dream was entertained by millions, and it was this emotion that propelled personality cult leaders like Egyptian President Abdel Nasser to rule while Arab governments began to play power politics between the U.S. and the USSR.

The recent events in the Middle East signal a resurrection of pan-Arabism. However, this neo-Arabism, intertwined with the core motivations of these related revolutions, is not the same political ideology that gripped the Arab world during the 1950s. Although the present movement is influenced by the optimistic empowerment latently in pan-Arabist thought, in a variety of important ways, it represents the fundamental maturation of the political consciousness of the Arab people. Significantly, the neo-Arabism animating popular movements in the region has been born out of the collective despair, political repression and social misery shared by the Arab majority. This shared consciousness has galvanized uprisings that demand the end of state tyranny and the introduction of transparent, open democracy (though perhaps not the liberal democratic model  used in the West). Neo-Arabism is certainly not a codified dogma or theory, nor should it be—the Arabs have only seen such ideas betray them. Rather, neo-Arabism represents a renewed confidence among the Arab people in their determination to dismantle oppressive political regimes. In order to understand recent events and to formulate a rational, comprehensive U.S. foreign policy with respect to these democratic uprisings, we must dissect this new, nuanced pan-Arabism and the central motivations of these young revolutionaries.

A taste of history is essential in appreciating the magnitude of this momentous shift in Arab politics. For many Americans, the first salient experience of the Arab and Muslim world came through the shocking images of smoke billowing from landmarks that were seen as symbols of freedom, modernity, and the triumph of democracy on September 11, 2001. Since then, the consequent stream of conflict in the Middle East has fomented enormous anger among the people of the Arab world, adding to the resentment that had already existed. To a passive Western outsider looking at the Arab regimes and the systematic subjugation of their peoples, the brutality and futility of violent terrorism, and the persistence of social ills and norms far removed from their own, it may have seemed that Arabs were irrational or unprepared for democracy. But history stretches back far beyond 2001 and proves that  the currents of history are everywhere driven as much by emotion as they are by pure reason.

Much has been written about the role of pride in the apparently monolithic Arab culture, as if it were some anomalous force whose existence exceptionally defied the laws of nature. It is true that pride has played a role in the Arab psyche, but to criticize the Arabs for this—when American exceptionalism has guided U.S. foreign policy for centuries—smacks not only of racism but also of irrelevance. What is important to understand about the Arab people is not their pervasive pride but their present condition of despair.  It is the collective despair of a people who have been reduced from heights of wealth and knowledge to live in inequitable present-day societies in which rulers squander the countries’ resources while the majority wallows in squalor and poverty.

After the Golden Age, which lasted until the mid-13th century C.E., the Middle East was subjected to invader after invader, from the Mongols and Ottomans to the colonial British and French empires. After the partition of the Ottoman Empire, the artificial lines carved in the sand by Orientalist mapmakers during the early twentieth century formed the basis for modern nation-states cutting across geographic boundaries, religious cleavages and ethnic and tribal enmities to impose a foreign political concept on a people who were not accustomed to this organizational model. In addition, the establishment of Israel resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people and endless conflict. Most frustrating was the hypocrisy of Western rhetoric: When corrupt generals or vicious tyrants seized control of these invented states from their colonial occupiers, the West called for democracy and human rights. When experiments in democracy were conducted and human rights respected, however, the U.S. overthrew those with whom it disagreed and replaced them with well-funded dictatorships.

During the mid-twentieth century, pan-Arabist governments attempting to establish regional unity and break free from external power faced numerous challenges and obstacles. All attempts at transnational union failed under the weight of competing domestic and international interests. In turn, optimistic expectations allowed autocratic leaders to manipulate the Arab people and stifled dissent in the name of patriotism and pan-Arabism, and the Orwellian regimes that existed across the region deflected the responsibility of solving internal problems through rhetoric aimed at blaming external enemies. Even now, brutal tyrants and kleptocrats continue to enrich themselves while blaming the poverty of their people on the U.S., Israel and the West. For decades, this approach allowed these dictators to successfully avoid true accountability.

As Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University, has previously argued, the idea of a broad-based unity between Arab countries based on a unified popular culture and shared set of interests was shattered by the failures of the past, the repeated and humiliating defeats in wars with Israel, crushing and sustained poverty, and, finally, the squabbling and irreconcilable divisions that caused each of the regional unions to collapse. Then, the only real unity that existed beyond an official language was the uniform presence of secret police.

These feared intelligence agencies, known as the Mukhabarat, operate under the aegis of almost every Arab regime and are infamous for their role in committing human rights violations, instilling fear of neighbors and friends and repressing any hints of public dissent. While state television stations portray glimmering images of beloved leaders and foment personality cults by indoctrinating younger generations, free-thinkers are tortured by the hammer and electrode and the masses wallow in poverty. But strikingly, such leaders seem to know that their stability depends on the integrity of this system as a whole. When Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fell, Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak both condemned the people’s revolution as a shortsighted mistake. Mubarak did everything in his power to prevent the loss of international and internal support: releasing prisoners to attack people on the streets, encouraging supporters to systematically target foreign journalists and portraying the Muslim Brotherhood as an organized, powerful and dangerous fundamentalist group. This fictitious specter has been demolished even in the fundamentalist-wary West, where President Obama’s Director of National Intelligence James Clapper called the Muslim Brotherhood a “heterogeneous group” with a “largely secular” political agenda, which has “eschewed violence and decried Al Qaeda.”

This condition of repression and despair is no longer sustainable: the universally shared experience of the popular majority is building the basis of a new form of pan-Arabism. This fundamental experience of alienation from their own governments and subjugation by foreign powers, coupled with the vast inequality both within civil society and relative to the developed world, has produced long-festering discontent. According to Juan Cole, a historian specializing in the modern Middle East, the actual revolutions were sparked by current economic conditions, while Mona El-Ghobashy, assistant professor of political science at Barnard College, characterizes the protests as a response to increasing levels of political corruption and oppression. In the era of mass communication, satellite television and the internet, this discontent was translated into the realization that a better system could exist.

While it is important to emphasize the grassroots nature of the movements in the Middle East, it is equally important to emphasize that they were initiated by Arabs and are in conformity with Arab, as opposed to Western, free-market, liberal democratic ideology. The fact that the West provided inspiration for slogans such as “a’ish, hurriya, karama insaniya,” or “bread, freedom, human dignity,” certainly should be recognized. All across the Middle East, the most important demands were political freedom and economic security, and both are important to the educated, intellectual classes who are tired of the corruption and the silencing of dissent, as well as the extreme poor, who have also suffered from the crushing pains of hunger and deprivation. The old, failed tactics of violent revolution were rejected in favor of peaceful protest, civil disobedience and million-man marches that, in the end, proved far more powerful than guns, bullets and the tactics of fear and division that had been used by the secret police. Mass media, from satellite television and mobile phones to Twitter and Facebook, were used to coordinate and fuel the youth-centered revolution. Without the seeming strength of centralized leadership, there was no one to assassinate, nor anyone with whom to negotiatie and reach an early settlement. Thus, the protests retained a momentum that was impossible to stop.

After Ben Ali fell, few expected the discontent to spread substantially, yet already the idea that an Arab nation could successfully overthrow an entrenched tyrant had been conceived. After Egypt, the traditional leader of the Arab world, deposed its dictator, the real power of the movement was unleashed. Revolts in Yemen, Libya and Bahrain currently seem to pose real threats to the legitimacy and existence of the current regimes. The regional protests demonstrated the belief that if one Arab nation could do it, all Arab nations could. And the tyrants who learned from Mubarak have realized that it is the beginning of the end. Already, the fact that it took a matter of a few weeks to overthrow these dictators, often using little more than non-violent protest methods, has shown that the fall of these tyrants is inevitable.

Just as weeds may regrow until excised from the roots, these old regimes will require more than just the overthrow of their current dictators. But the resignation of Tunisian Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi and the amendments to the Egyptian constitution that enforces presidential term limits and judicial oversight of elections show that progress is being made. It will take time to eestablish a democracy, and they may not necessarily look like the completely secular, free-market liberal democracy employed in the West. Democracies in the Arab world likely will not follow American policy prescriptions as they had before and will not allow the U.S. and Israel to enforce their political interests. But in any event, the principles of human rights and freedom of expression are now flourishing, and the tide can never be turned back.

What, then, is the sum of neo-Arabism? The common strain animating popular discontent now is the notion that all Arabs are as capable and as potent as their counterparts in other countries and that they, like their brothers and sisters, will soon see their demands met. It is coupled with a feeling of unity founded in the shared values of liberation, empowerment, freedom, and a general sense of goodwill. It lies in the demands for freedoms: the freedom of press, peaceful assembly, the freedom to vote and the right to form political parties—ironically, the same values that Americans were told their foreign enemies hated. It is not an idealistic or impractical movement for a centralized, politically unified rule over a vast group of nations, but rather a reasonable expectation of national and popular self-determination. If there is ever again an attempt at an Arab Union, it may look similar to the European Union today, grounded both on a common Arab identity and a sense of political pragmatism. Neo-Arabism is not driven by an attempt to gain sectarian advantage, but is steeped instead in pluralism, as peace and nondiscrimination benefit all. In fact, as Jean-Pierre Filiu, Gilles Kepel’s Middle East chair at Paris, argues, the success of a democratic alternative undermines any attempts at religious interference in politics. The Arab states may not begin democratic representation tomorrow, but the struggle for democracy, and the neo-Arab unity behind it, warrants the support of the United States, not only to atone for its past sins in supporting a number of dictatorships in the Middle East but also to ensure that this hopeful movement bears the fruit of democracy and freedom for the whole region. Never again will any leader forget what happened in Tunis and Cairo, Alexandria and Aqaba, Manama and Sana’a, Benghazi and Algiers.

The sun is rising over the Arab world. After decades of political repression and draconian rule, the popular majority, armed with a sense of collective agency, is successfully dismantling one dictatorship after another across the region. The systems of hereditary rule, lifelong presidential terms, personality cults and organized repression are falling before the power of popular democratic organization. Out of the ashes of a shared misery, neo-Arabism has emerged as a renewed beacon of empowerment and political hope for the people, and for the first time in decades, the Arab future seems bright.