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The Arab Revolutions: an end to the post-1967 problematic

Tunis and Egypt, despite still being the minority, have become the new rule, with the rest of the regimes being the exception.
Samer Frangie
17 March 2011

After decades of stultifying debates on the Arab world, the raw political impulse of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions are a breath of fresh air, clearing the atmosphere from the accumulation of years of what now look like sterile publications. Impossible even unthinkable within the existing politico-ideological coordinates, the uprisings rendered these decades-old coordinates obsolete in a matter of days.

Of course, one could justly claim that these revolutions were long in the making; the last decade in Egypt witnessed various episodes of unrests motivated by social issues, and a growing political opposition to the regime, primarily motivated by the question of succession. But prior to January 25, few people would have imagined that the sum of all these incidents would be a massive revolution that would topple the regime in less than a month.[1] From the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunisia to the fall of Mubarak in Egypt two months later, the Arab world entered a zone where the usual social scientific laws seemed not to pertain. For a brief span of time, Sidi Bouzid connected with Maydan al-Tahrir, and resonated in most of the Arab world.

A couple of weeks after the fall of Mubarak, amidst a murderous repression in Libya and the threat of sectarian dissonance in Bahrain, the limits of these movements are starting to appear. The strength of the revolutionary movement in its ‘negative’ moment is turning into a weakness in the moment of consolidation; the multitude toppled the regime but seems to be incapable of setting the basis of a new one. Regionally, the limits of copycat revolutions are becoming clearer. Repression is becoming more effective in some regimes, openly murderous in some cases and sectarianism is rearing its ugly head in other places. Many of the hopes of the first days will be dashed in the coming weeks, shady compromises will be imposed, and the black and white electrifying polarization of the revolutions will make way to the greyish tones of the new regime.

But despite this prediction, something has changed in the Arab world, which cannot be taken away. Long thought to be the ‘authoritarian exception’, the Arab world today has shed its old claim to fame. Tunis and Egypt, despite still being the minority, have become the new rule, with the rest of the regimes being the exception. It is not anymore Lebanon that stands out as an imperfect democracy in a sea of authoritarianism, but rather these ‘not-yet revolutionized’ regimes which now look odd and decaying in comparison with these two Arab countries.

Intellectuals, academics and politicians alike, however, are busy trying to squeeze the two revolutions into their existing perspectives. Such exercises are the theoretical equivalent of the Egyptian army cleaning up the square after removing the protestors from it: a sympathetic yet ultimately censoring gesture. If we want to salvage these uprisings as an event, pregnant with possibilities, we should recognize that the practice of problematizing the Arab world itself is being questioned by these revolutionary acts, which paradoxically are confirming the ‘normalcy’ of these societies. 

For instance, one of the main interpretive lenses of the politics of the Arab world to sustain a hard beating by the latest developments has been the opposition between secularism and religion, seen as the reason for paralysis in the Arab world.[2] Despite having been subjected to heavy academic critiques, this thesis, often propped up by the regimes themselves, formed one of the main narratives for explaining the lack of a genuine democratic demand in the Arab world. Political movements in this part of the world were either popularly legitimate but anti-democratic, or democratic but marginal, the story went. Despite various rapprochements between ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ groups in the last decade and their alliance over broad themes of democracy and human rights, it seemed that an unbridgeable gap separated them.[3] Yet, as Charles Hirschkind has noted, the Egyptian blogosphere, and after that the two uprisings, were “free from the problematic of secularization vs. fundamentalism that had governed so much of political discourse in the Middle East and elsewhere”.[4] Such a problematic was not simply put aside or resolved, it was deemed to be irrelevant for the political events that were unfolding. Often proposed by a generation of intellectuals who lived with difficulty the gradual Islamization of their polities following the 1967 defeat, this problematic did not seem to matter for what Olivier Roy called a ‘post-Islamist’ generation.[5] It is not that Islam has receded in importance, it is simply that it has become one of the realities to deal with, without being either the solution or the cause of all the ills of the Arab world. In other words, it has been de-problematized.

More fundamentally, the challenge to Arab political thought posed by these revolutions is not simply at the level of its themes, but in its very structure as a form of political practice. 2011 might represent the end of the intellectual episode that started in 1967, in a double movement of confirmation and transcending of the challenges of that period.[6] Since the defeat of 1967, Arab political thought took an ‘inward turn’, subjecting Arab societies to a radical critical scrutiny. Despite the differences in the nuances of this thought and the various conflicts that structured it, the overarching assumption was that the source of the ills of the Arab world were in its own societies and cultures, and required a courageous inward look. The sources of the paralysis were looked for in the neo-patriarchal structure, the relationship to history, religion or the dominant epistemological model. Despite differences in the actual characterization, it was accepted that there was a problem intrinsic to Arab societies, and that without resolving it, no improvement could take place.

The defeat of 1967 was the result of the failures of the 1952 revolution, it was concluded, illustrating the limits of the ‘revolutions from above’ and concluding with the need to reform more deeply Arab societies, cultures and ideologies. The distinction between ‘progressive’ and ‘reactionary’ regimes was deemed meaningless from this new vantage point, denoting at best a difference in foreign policy, but ignoring the much more significant similarities at the level of domestic politics and structures. This vision often led to brilliant insights and, in some cases, to episodes of masochistic self-flagellation, but either way, it burdened the process of political change, by making it conditional on an almost total reform of Arab societies. Political paralysis was the high price paid for this ‘improved’ epistemology.

The transformation of Arab societies into a reform project dislocated the political agenda, with the goal of domestic modernization seen as increasingly opposed to the goal of national resistance. Whereas before the defeat, these two projects were taken to be complementary, following the defeat, their relations became strained. Societies needed to be drastically reformed before one could even begin to discuss the foreign agenda. Especially since the 1990s, the domestic agenda, such as elections, democracy and civil society promotion, was strongly supported by western governments, thereby widening the gap between these two dimensions of political change. The proponents of the struggle against imperialism and Zionism were pitted against the proponents of domestic reforms, an opposition that became particularly acerbic after the war on Iraq.

The two revolutions of 2011 have been speedily filtered through the coordinates dictated by this opposition. For some commentators, the two regimes that were uprooted were pro-western regimes, one of them having a peace agreement with Israel and also being a staunch ally of the United States. Some of the slogans in the Egyptian revolution did not miss this point, reminding Mubarak of his ties with Israel and his siege on Gaza. Opponents of such a view have rightly noted the centrality of themes such as democracy, anti-corruption or individual rights, for the demonstrators. The Egyptian revolution was not a rebellion against the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, but more of a stand against the 1952 revolution and its autocratic rule. What the ‘youths’ wanted was basically the standard liberal menu of political rights, elections, and freedoms, paying lip service to more ‘resistance’- geared rhetoric.

Despite attempts at taming these revolutions by transforming them into an additional chapter in the intellectual confrontation set by the post-1967 coordinates, the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions represent a termination of this long intellectual episode, transcending its dilemmas, through a strange process of confirmation. These uprisings, in their stress on democratic reforms and domestic issues, have confirmed the ‘inward turn’ of the post-1967 period. From Tunis to Egypt, and now to Bahrain and Libya, the common element has been the demands for domestic reforms, not the older anti-colonial rhetoric, nor the broader Arab-Israeli struggle.

The rhetoric of these movements is closer to the slogans of the ‘coloured revolutions’ than to the spirit of previous movements of national independence or the anti-war movement. The duality of the 1990s between ‘moderate’ (mu’tadil) and ‘radical’ (mumani’) regimes, an updated version of the earlier opposition of progressive and reactionary regimes, seems today as obsolete as the previous opposition, half a century earlier. Despite what the Syrian president has stated, the foreign policy of the Arab regimes does not seem to be either the trigger of these demonstrations or a guarantee for stability. No regime is safe from this revolutionary contagion.

But by confirming the ‘inward turn’, these two events should not be seen as a simple corroboration of one pole of the opposition set up in the post-1967 period. Rather, this confirmation is the first step in transcending the whole period. Whereas the ‘inward turn’ of the second half of the twentieth century took its radical character from opposing the by-then empty anti-colonial slogans that often masked serious domestic problems, its confirmation, some fifty years later, takes its radical character from opposing the reduction of Arab societies into mere objects of critical scrutiny. The initial critical impetus has been preserved but transformed.

The massive demonstrations in Egypt and Tunis signalled the birth of an Arab society out from under the political repression of authoritarian regimes. These revolutions have asserted the centrality of the domestic dimension of politics, hence confirming one moment in the ‘inward turn’, but also the possibility of such politics, and as such transcending its second moment. 

What of the intellectuals? Intellectuals had seen themselves as alienated from their own societies, which in turn ignored what appeared to them to be a lofty form of paternalism. Political thought became a detached, reflexive exercise. Since the 1990s, the situation only worsened with the growing tragic sense that there were no easy choices, no political agents with which one could unambiguously side. Political positions were taken, and then one had to fish in the political market place for agents that might best capture such political inclinations. For the most honest among those intellectuals, a certain tragic silence accompanied such choices, as they had to tolerate, in one way or another, certain violations of their ideals. For the least honest, complex theoretical justifications were made to justify why such lofty ideals might be best instantiated by such morally dubious political instantiations.

This ‘disconnect’ has ended with the birth or re-birth of an Egyptian and Tunisian political society and public opinion. Paraphrasing Kant on the French Revolution, the current revolutions might well fail or succeed, but the ‘taking of sides according to desires which borders on enthusiasm’ is in itself a revolutionary moment, breaking with decades of imposed detachment. The rift between intellectual production and political practice began to heal in Maydan al-Tahrir, with an Arab society emerging that could act as the missing audience for this intellectual production that has got accustomed over the years to its orphan status. These intellectuals, which have taken over the years the posture of critics of their society, have now to face a new situation, a new audience, and to reorient their work toward the potentiality of political change rather than the interpretation of its impossibility.

After years of standing ‘above’ their societies, these revolutions have dragged intellectuals into the political arena, reconnecting them with an audience, forcing them to take sides, and providing a meaning to writings which have started to lose their raison d’être. One commentator noted that the demonstrators in the streets of Cairo were unaware of the long political and intellectual history that is looking at them from its ‘defeatist’ perspective, unable to grasp these movements. Maybe it was because they ignored this history that they escaped its stultifying effect, and were able to transform it. 

 

 

[1] Byman, Daniel. 2011. “Why Mideast Tumult Caught Scholars by Surprise.” The Chronicle Reivew. http://chronicle.com/article/Why-Mideast-Tumult-Caught/126307/.

[2] Zeghal, Malika. 2011. “The Power of a New Political Imagination.” The Immanent Frame. http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/2011/02/22/the-power-of-a-new-political-imagination/

[3] Browers, Michaelle. 2009. Political Ideology in the Arab World: Accommodation and Transformation. Cambridge University Press.

[4] Hirschkind, Charles. 2011. “The Road to Tahrir.” The Immanent Frame. http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/2011/02/09/the-road-to-tahrir/.

[5] Roy, Olivier. 2011. “Révolution post-islamiste.” Le Monde, February 12.

[6] Abu-Rabi', Ibrahim M. 2003. Contemporary Arab Thought: Studies in Post-1967 Arab Intellectual History. Pluto Press; Ajami, Fouad. 1992. The Arab Predicament: Arab Political Thought and Practice since 1967. Cambridge University Press; Kassab, Elizabeth Suzanne. 2009. Contemporary Arab Thought: Cultural Critique in Comparative Perspective. Columbia University Press.

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