The Arab Lands From Revolt to Stalemate
Column by Stephen Suleyman Schwartz -
The Arab countries dominated, and dominating world attention, by their political unrest in the past year, have outgrown their period of early expectations, and entered a phase demanding mature political definition. Yet unfortunately for those who hoped that the “Arab Spring” would produce clear-cut democratic reforms, none of the affected states has yet given proof that popular sovereignty, even if firmly achieved, will encompass stability and prosperity for their societies. The lands in which the first wave of insurrectionary optimism has ended continue to offer ambiguous prospects for the future. Lacking developed civil society institutions, each appears to wander in a fog of unredeemed hopes, while, as constantly throughout these events, foreign analysts grope similarly for understanding of them.
At one extreme, Yemen remains in chaos, with news on November 21 that Ali Abdullah Saleh, its ruler for 33 years, had approved a confusing reform plan proposed by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). According to the latest “agreement” Saleh would retain his presidential post without executive power, and be granted immunity from judicial prosecution, while awaiting implantation of a new government and a presidential election. Previously, Saleh promised cooperation with his opponents in accepting such proposals, and evaded relinquishing control. This has left Yemenis ever more distrustful of him, while Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – exported by Saudi Arabia to its southern neighbor – expands its command over the territory of the republic.
By contrast, Tunisia has elected a government in which authority will be shared by the Ennahda (Renaissance) party, which is the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the democratic Congress for the Republic, and the leftist Ettakatol (Forum) party. Ennahda will name the prime minister, the Congress for the Republic’s Moncef Marzouki has gained the interim presidency, and Ettakatol’s Mustafa Ben Jaafar will lead the new national assembly as it writes a constitution in anticipation of another round of voting. Ennahda has distinguished itself by its imitation of the “Turkish” model of Brotherhood advocacy, supported by prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials as the AKP, in which Islamist doctrine is softened publicly and fidelity is sworn to secular institutions.
Libya has been liberated from the farcical yet homicidal dictatorship of Mu’ammar Al-Qadhdhafi. But the successors to his misrule have poorly-articulated policies or programs. Radical Islamist currents, while lacking a solid organizational base in the country, have revealed some candidates for its leadership, although their role in the civil war was unclear as it took place. Claims that Libya has been taken over by Islamists appear exaggerated.
Bahrain’s confrontation between its Sunni monarchy and its Shia majority simmers, and notwithstanding Iranian meddling, has yet to see a return to the crisis it experienced in February-March 2011. Significant turmoil concluded when troops and police from Saudi Arabia and the GCC invaded the island kingdom. Since then, news of destruction of Shia meeting places and human rights abuses by the occupiers have been reported by Iranian and other Shia media and sympathizers, but have failed to gain the attention of global media.
Violence returned to Egypt during the weekend of November 19-20, and continues, with Islamists and secular reformers allied in demanding removal of the hegemony of the Egyptian military and its leader, field marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi. Participants in new crowd outbursts in Tahrir Square have chanted, “It will not be Syria, it will be Libya,” expressing a dangerous susceptibility to disorder. The challenge to the martial caste that has governed Egypt since 1952 may provide a pretext for the army to cancel elections scheduled for next week.
The MB has its deepest roots in Egypt, but like the Tunisian Ennahda, the Egyptian component of the Brotherhood has adopted a “Turkish” style of Islamist ideology, and is credited with a strong lead in vote forecasts. The Brotherhood is now challenged in Egypt by a strict Wahhabi (so-called “Salafi”) competitor, the Nour or Party of Light, which has outflanked the Brotherhood in its crude Muslim ultra-fundamentalism. Brotherhood and Nour activists have cooperated, but the Brotherhood has distanced itself from the latest protests, claiming it fears they will be employed to prevent the scheduled balloting.
To most foreign observers of the Arab upheaval, and many Arabs, the abrupt revival of mass mobilizations against the Egyptian military has been a diversion from the display of brutality in Syria. The United Nations has estimated that 3,500 people have been killed in the uprising against the Damascus regime of Bashar Al-Assad. A “Free Syrian Army” has been formed, composed of defectors from the official armed forces, and is carrying out guerrilla-style attacks against Al-Assad’s myrmidons. Still, the “Free Syrian Army” has not attracted the support of any of the military establishment’s top officers, and without a division in the military’s supreme ranks, no revolution can succeed.
The Turkish “soft Islamist” government has gravitated, at least rhetorically, toward intervention across its southern border, to stop the horrors there. Turkish discomfort with Al-Assad’s repression has been aggravated by an attack on a busload of Turkish pilgrims travelling through Syria from the hajj in Mecca. But one must ask whether a Turkish entry into Syria, possibly removing Al-Assad and his cohort, would reflect the secular outlook of the Turkish army or the neo-fundamentalist orientation of the AKP.
The French, who ruled Syria and Lebanon as colonial possessions from the 1920s to the second world war, have indicated support for a joint effort with Turkey to end the conflict in Syria. Unlike the Turkish leaders, who appear sympathetic to the “Free Syrian Army,” France insists that change must come to the tormented land peacefully. France has reasons for a bad conscience in Syria, since it protected the Alawite sect in a statelet of their own during its colonial period. The Alawites, an esoteric faith derived from Shia Islam, are the backbone of Al-Assad’s Ba’ath Party and of the Syrian army.
Alawite identity and unity is the key to the Syrian stalemate. Unlike those in other Arab countries, the Alawite-led Syrian military elite cannot split and cannot engender a faction aligned with the disaffected Sunni majority. Alawites are committed to the defense of themselves and their sect, and an Alawite who defects from the cause of the Al-Assad regime or otherwise contributes to its destruction will be remembered forever as a traitor. The Alawites ruling Syria have more reason to protect each other than to side with the discontented masses.
As many informed commentators agree, the fall of Al-Assad would probably bring about a massacre of the Alawites, who account for only 15 percent of the Syrian population, by the Sunnis. Such bloodshed could claim numerous victims among the Christian community, who make up 10 percent of Syria’s citizens, and who have been protected by Al-Assad. Even with its secular traditions, action by the Turkish army in Syria could favor establishment of an Islamist regime, under the patronage of the AKP, more radical than that of Al-Assad, who has aligned with Iran and supported Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Transformation of the “Arab Spring” into an “Arab stalemate” in every one of the enumerated countries except Tunisia is a consequence of a single historical factor: the weakness of Arab civil society. Classical revolutions from that of the Puritans in 17th century England, through the French revolution in the 18th century, the European liberal revolutions of the 19th century, and the failed Russian and Spanish revolutions of the 20th century all embodied a deep historical contradiction between the evolution of civil society and the bonds of outmoded institutions: monarchies, aristocracies, and church hierarchies. To paraphrase a well-known summation of the origins of these revolutions, “the rulers could no longer govern in the old way, and the people refused to live in the old way.”
But above all, the classical revolutions were led by political and economic classes capable of assuming a “world-historical” role, in the vocabulary of the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel. These were the Protestant gentry in the England of Oliver Cromwell, the urban business strata in the French overturn, and alliances of commercial interests and the labor movements in the European liberal transformations, as well as the Russian revolutions of 1905 and February 1917, and the Spanish revolution of 1936-39.
Unfortunately, the versions of liberalism and social democracy that emerged in the Persian constitutional revolution of 1906 and the Ottoman reform movement of 1908 were incapable of adequate growth. Instead, Iran and Turkey eventually succumbed to the authoritarian monarchy of Reza Khan (who crowned himself as Shah Reza Pahlavi) in Iran and secular but dictatorial governance in Turkey under Mustafa Kemal (who was named “Ataturk” or “Father of the Turks.”) Earlier efforts to import European liberalism into Egypt, under Mehmed Ali Pasha in the 19th century, failed. Lebanese parliamentarianism was always artificial, brittle, and doomed to collapse, based on power-sharing by Christian and Muslim communities according to census results.
More recent attempts to introduce democratic institutions in the Muslim world, grounded in a healthy civil society, have succeeded only in Bangladesh and Indonesia. Malaysia has created a distinctive mixture of monarchy, free elections, Malay nationalism, and Islamism, but its profile as a global model for Muslims is imperfect, to say the least. We will see if the new constitution adopted by Morocco can bring about an authentically democratic outcome in one of Africa’s outstanding Muslim nations. Pakistan, by its incapacity to live up to the ideals of Allama Iqbal, has provided an opposite example to that of India. Islamabad shelters terrorists and disseminates Islamist fanaticism throughout South Asia as well as the large Pakistani diaspora in the UK and U.S., while New Delhi proudly and justifiably calls itself “the world’s largest democracy.”
If the transformation of the Muslim lands is to succeed, the center of gravity of the process must shift away from the region between Libya and Syria, where the obsolete but pluralistic institutions of the Ottoman empire – including the jurists, Sufi orders, and trade guilds – were swept aside in the collapse of empire. They were replaced temporarily by European dominance, then by simulacra of Soviet socialism. Finally, these countries subsided into ordinary despotism of the kind historically typical in Latin America and now found most commonly in Africa – although it shapes Chinese politics and may be reborn in Russia and some of its former “Soviet republics.”
The Arab world, and not least Syria, deserve an opportunity to escape from the stalemate between gross tyranny and incoherent rage. But such a possibility will come only when the Arab lands have generated civil society interests and institutions, which enable revolutions, and cannot appear as the improvised result of political changes. Civil society, as an alternative to corrupt and repressive dictatorships, cannot be created out of nothing, even by large and long-lasting crowd spectacles featuring political slogans.
Paradoxically, the slow change in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, impelled especially after the shock of September 11, 2001, and the permanent disaffection of the Iranian people with the clerical state established by the Islamic Revolution of 1979, have fostered wider awareness of civic participation and political responsibility than any of the uprisings of the “Arab Spring.” In Saudi Arabia and Iran alike, education and wealth have reproduced the paradigm of social development pressing against the constraints of retrograde supremacy seen in the classical revolutions. A similar outcome may, finally, have been the cause of the overthrow of Zine Al Abedine Ben Ali in Tunisia, although the country lacks the size and capacity to lead the rest of the Islamic world.
In all such circumstances, the European liberal revolutionaries of the past understood something lacking in the consciousness that gave rise to the spontaneous chain of recent Arab rebellions: first the people must be educated to understand their condition and potential for sovereignty, then political change may succeed. It cannot be excluded that the enlightenment of the people may bear Islamic inspiration. But no other means to political liberty are, or have ever been, possible.