The Arab Upsurge and Need for a New Path
Column by Stephen Suleyman Schwartz – Neil Buckley, writing in the London Financial Times of August 18, compared the wave of insurrectionary upheavals that has shaken the Arab lands with the “color revolutions” seen in the former Soviet republics of Ukraine (Orange), Georgia (Rose), and Kyrgyzstan (Tulip). Buckley went so far as to assert that “the color revolutions of Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan between 2003 and 2005 helped inspire the Arab spring.”
I disagree with this item of historical analysis, in that it selects the “color revolutions” as precedents out of a much longer sequence of peaceful removal of tyrannical regimes that marked the last quarter of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st. These episodes included the fall of Marcos in the Philippines, the end of military rule in South Korea, Indonesia, and Chile, the handover of power in South Africa, and the first series, beginning in 1989, in which Communist regimes collapsed. They were followed by gaps in the cycle caused by the Yugoslav wars, the outbreak of global radical Islamist terrorism, and “regular” combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. Still, Buckley’s comparison demonstrates with what bafflement Western commentators continue to observe the turmoil in the Arab countries.
The most important antecedents for the Arab rebellions have come not from former Soviet republics, but from the post-revolutionary Islamic Republic of Iran. I believe the collective Iranian repudiation in 2009-10 of the abuse of the voting process by dictator Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, taking place in a non-Arab country, and even the prior, forced introduction of democratic media standards and voting in Afghanistan and Iraq, were of far greater importance in stimulating the movements that began with the “Jasmine Revolution” in Tunisia at the end of last year. That was why, briefly, the recent Arab revolts were deemed a vindication of George W. Bush and the neoconservative “democracy agenda.” The neo-Islamist political domination in present-day Turkey, another non-Arab country, may, however, more significantly influence their fate.
The Arab uprisings have proceeded without the application of new botanical symbols, as they swept through Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria. That might indicate abandonment of the naïve optimism present in the Tunisian prologue to the history then written in the other main countries. Each of the latter saw a process beginning with “social media” as the new weapons of criticism. But these means were then replaced by the very old “criticism of weapons”: military power in Egypt, civil war in Libya, a Saudi-directed Gulf Cooperation Council occupation of Bahrain, disintegration of the state and army and the alarming growth of Al-Qaida in Yemen, and mass murder by the Syrian dictatorship of Bashar Al-Assad.
I stress the “insurrectionary,” rather than “revolutionary” definition of these incidents, because the Arab events have yet to produce the outlines of a new system or state form. In the classic revolutions of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, feudalism gave way to private capitalism (in Western Europe) and state capitalism (in Russia and Eastern Europe). When state capitalism began its long, slow, definitive dissolution, which has yet to be concluded in most of the ex-Soviet countries, it was clear that it would be replaced by two main phenomena. These have been revival of capitalist democracy (in the developed states, such as the Baltic lands, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia, and Croatia), and introduction of it in a near-identical form (as in Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Ukraine, Kosovo, and Montenegro).
Some states lag so far behind as to be almost unreformed. The main examples of this “democracy deficit” have included Belarus, Serbia, Macedonia, Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the Central Asian members of the former Soviet Union: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Only the last of the ex-Soviet “stans” has embarked on the road of democratization. Russia, as always in history, represents a sui generis example; it vacillates between democratic and autocratic impulses. This year marks the tenth anniversary of the failed coup by Soviet hardliners in Russia in 1991, as well as the 50th year since the construction of the Berlin wall, a barrier once considered permanent.
But in the North African states, which Buckley cheerfully labels “fledgling democracies,” it is unclear whether the activism of the protestors will result in the introduction of bourgeois democracy or some quite different, but not unpredictable outcomes. These might encompass a clear democratic victory only in Libya, whose people have fought for it arms in hand, along with a new dictator in Tunisia, and military “continuism” in Egypt. Away from North Africa, we may see the persistence of chaos in Yemen, pacification (with possible democratic nuances) in Bahrain, and cementing of the tyranny of Al-Assad in Syria by the blood of his victims.
I do not believe, and since they began in December 2010, have not believed that the Arab convulsions represented political revolutions similar to those in the ex-Communist nations, but, rather, that they resulted from a break in the chain of global economic and political relations, under pressure of the 2007-08 recession and its aftermath. There is a difference between the changes seen in places like Ukraine and Georgia and those enacted between Tunis and Damascus. The first were the product of years of thought, preparation, false starts, and absence of wide-scale violence. The world was ready for them. The second erupted spontaneously, leaving the world astonished, had no visible precedents (except in Iran), and with the new, successive phases beginning in Libya, Yemen, and Syria, gave way to generalized violence. The main point in common between the post-Soviet “color revolutions” and the Arab protests has been the role of a growing middle class, which generated the rising expectations that have pushed Ukraine toward reform and lifted the Tunisian Revolution from a refusal by market sellers to pay bribes to a thorough overturn of government.
I fear the Arab revolutions will fail, and have already entered their cycle of decline. Egypt, having produced both a trend against peace with Israel and an extremist Wahhabi (“Salafi”) current in competition with the Muslim Brotherhood for radicalism, may succumb either to outright military rule, as in the past, or to the political appeal of the Brotherhood. While the Muslim Brotherhood could win an Egyptian election – if one is held – it did not lead the demonstrations that centered on Tahrir Square. Either military dominance or a Brotherhood victory would mark the end of the third of Egypt’s unsuccessful revolutions and the fourth miscarriage among its major efforts at change. These began with the 19th century revolutionary reforms of Mehmet Ali Pasha, considered the “father of modern Egypt,” and were followed a century after his death by a second full-fledged revolution, that inspiring the pan-Arab ideology identified with Gamal Abdel Nasser. During the late 19th century came the original movement (exemplified by Muhammad Abduh), that designated itself as “Salafiyun” or “emulators of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions and successors.” and which sought to reform Islam in general. None succeeded in making Egypt modern and prosperous.
The Arab revolts of 2010-11 were a spectacular apparition of the specter of bourgeois revolution as it existed in the previous three centuries, but without leadership by coherent bourgeois classes, and in an era when bourgeois revolution, no less than its historical double, “proletarian revolution,” appears obsolete. In their place we experience “crowd outbursts,” to paraphrase the late Israeli sociologist Shmuel N. Eisenstadt, to whose work I will return here. They are seen in Athens, Cairo, London, and even, now, in Israel – sometimes nonviolent and even self-disciplined, sometimes driven by gangsterism and uncontrolled. The promising advent of local protest coordination committees in martyred Syria does not effectively outweigh the prevalence of street lawlessness over libertarian visions. The furthest extreme of collective frenzy may be seen in Mexico, where gang terror has reached the scale of a civil war, although reports from Pakistan indicate that political party violence in Karachi, aside from sectarian conflict, approaches a similar intensity.
Meanwhile, how is the outcome of the new Arab tumult involved with Islam? It has been presumed in the West that successful Arab revolutions must necessarily result in the importation of European-style institutions – much as Mehmet Ali Pasha and the 19th century “Salafiyun” believed – in the Arab lands. A reinvented state apparatus, it was hoped, would extirpate the legacy of authoritarianism seen in so many Muslim countries.
The core lands of Islam are infected with the habits of autocracy. As I have written elsewhere, these seem to have been acquired very early, with the triumph of the Umayyad caliphate, which governed from Damascus and inherited the despotic habits of the prior, Christian power in Syria, the Byzantine empire. Despotism was, one may argue, reinforced by Islamization of the ancient Persian cultural sphere and of Egypt, and then by establishment of the post-Mongol states in Mesopotamia, the Ottoman empire, and the Mughal dominions in India, all of which look, to the Western observer, despotic. “New” nationalist and “revolutionary” states established in the 20th century failed to rid the lands of Islam of despotism; indeed, the “modernism” of Ben Ali, Mubarak, Al-Qadhdhafi, and Al-Assad reinforced it. The Syrian dictatorship in particular justifies description of it as a variety of “Islamofascism.”
But Islam was not, in my view, destined for despotism. The faith of Muhammad has been caught between the borders of the West – whence, in geographical fact, it came – and the East into which it expanded. The loss of Muslim outposts in the West, including Al-Andalus in Iberia and Muslim Sicily, cut the Muslim world off from a visible and fruitful involvement in the Western intellectual ferment that had begun during the Crusades, through intellectual contacts that were simultaneous with physical conflict between Christendom and Islam. The conquest and survival of the Ottoman Balkans, although European in its cultural foundations, could not make up for the resources of which the Islamic ummah was deprived by the reconquest of Islamic Spain and Sicily.
Indeed, the Mecca in which the Prophet Muhammad, during the holy month of Ramadan which Muslims are now celebrating, received the revelation of Qur’an, was arguably closer to the West than to the East. Hejaz, the region in which Mecca is located, sat on an extension of the Christian world, rather than deep in the Eastern cultural zones. Islam has been a theatre of struggle between its monotheistic core, which unites it spiritually with Judaism and Christianity – now considered the “Western” faiths – and the despotic political habits it inherited from its march into the East.
But as argued by S.N. Eisenstadt in a 2006 paper titled “The Public Sphere in Muslim Societies,” the great Muslim states were not uniformly despotic. That is, power did not flow exclusively from the top, in the absence of a “public sphere” in which debate and decision-making could take place independently of the will of the rulers. Looking back to the outstanding historian of Islam, Marshall G.S. Hodgson, author of the 1974 work The Venture of Islam, Eisenstadt writes, “the ulama [clerics] who, through their activities in the schools of law, the waqfs [endowments for pious purposes], and the Sufi orders, constituted the public sphere in Islamic societies and provided arenas of life not entirely controlled by the rulers.” I would add to these leading, autonomous social institutions the trade and commercial guilds prevalent throughout Muslim societies.
The “total” despotism of the Al-Assad regime in Syria, Al-Qadhdhafi in Libya, and the fallen Zine Al Abedine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt resembled that of Soviet-controlled Communism in that both sets of countries have been ruled by “party-states.” But in the Islamic world, according to Eisenstadt’s argument, the primordial state form could be described as “pluralism,” rather than as despotism; the “totalism” of the dictators was a recent development. Eisenstadt refers in his paper to “the wrong perception of rulers of Muslim societies as Oriental despots. This image is wrong because the scope of decision making by these rulers was relatively limited.”
In the debates over the future political regimes of the Arab states that have undergone or are undergoing unpredictable change, the neo-Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), having won three elections in Turkey, has adopted vociferously, if in a different idiom, the legacy of cultural pluralism embodied in the Ottoman empire. But this is merely the verbiage of political nostalgia, manipulated by clever leaders who know very well that the culture and relevance of Ottoman customs have vanished from the earth so thoroughly they can never be resuscitated, and it is mischievous to claim they can be.
Nevertheless, the concluding paragraph of Eisenstadt’s paper outlines the political choices apparently facing the Arab countries today, even after the current period of unexpected and unpredictable turbulence: “contemporary Muslim societies can be seen as moving between two poles: attempts to establish… states with some elements of pluralism which build on their earlier historical experience but reconstituted already in new ways; and strong anti-pluralistic tendencies in the form of either extreme secular and oppressive – often military – regimes or extreme Jacobin fundamentalist ones.”
The transformation of this spectrum of social possibilities will, I believe, originate within Islam by reviving its pluralistic resources. I do not believe it can or will depend on imitation of European or American models. The challenge becomes, then, to study and define “Islamic pluralism” as a social and political concept well-established historically and relevant today.
Columnist, Stephen Suleyman Schwartz, is Director of Washington DC based Center for Islamic Pluralism.