The events of the "Arab spring" have elicited a range of comments and explanations in public discourses which serve well to illustrate the theoretical and ideological approaches to middle-east politics in the western media and in academia. After decades of the dominance of religion and ethno-religious nationalisms in the region, the "revolutions" in Tunisia and then Egypt seemed to eschew religion and nationalism in favour of classic political demands of liberty, democracy and economic justice.
Did these manifestations, then, run contrary to ideas of middle-eastern or Islamic exceptionalism: the notion that Islam and "tribalism" are at the base of the politics of the region? Did they show a convergence and not a "clash of civilisations" towards a common universe of discourse and aspiration? In any event, religious and tribal politics were never far away from these events, and soon came to manifest themselves. So, does this show the justice of the idea of middle-east exceptionalism, and the superficiality of the appearance of universalism?
The frame of ideology
The forces and ideologies that animated the modern political history of the middle east, from 19th-century reforms and through much of the 20th century, were largely secular and nationalist. Islamic politics was always there, but only as part, often subordinate, of a wider political field. It was divided between reactionary conservatives, trying to maintain patriarchal and institutional privileges, like many of the traditional ulama, and more modern populist mobilisation, typically that of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Contending forces and mixed ideologies were nationalist of different colours, articulated at times to liberal constitutionalism (as in the Wafd and other parties in monarchical Egypt), to fascism (in Nazi-inspired movements in 1930s and 1940s Iraq, Palestine and Egypt), then, powerfully, to socialist, statist ideas (in the pan-Arab nationalisms of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Ba`ath and the Algerian FLN, inspired by and allied to the Soviets, from the 1950s).
These ideological politics, especially Nasserism, had solid popular constituencies and sympathies throughout the region, and in relation to the ever-present Israel/Palestine issue. The salience of religion in politics came later, from the 1970s, partly following the failure and corruption of the statist military nationalist regimes, the inspiration of the 1979 Iranian revolution, which became "Islamic", then the collapse of the Soviet, communist world, which had been part of the ideological and military props. Within this historical perspective, the secular nature of recent movements is not a surprise, but their distance from xenophobic nationalism and statist "socialism", in favour of common liberties, is a novelty. But where is it going?
There are two interrelated and persistent themes in the analyses of middle-east politics that questioned the bases of the ostensibly ideological and secular politics of the region. The first is what may be called the "patrimonialism" approach: the idea that the ideological labels, parties and movements were superficial manifestations of deeper familial, tribal, regional and sectarian allegiances and sentiments.
The second is that Islam and religious solidarities are the primary motives for popular sentiment and mobilisation. There is much justification for the first theme, historically, with various continuities into more recent times. Albert Hourani’s classic essay on the politics of notables covered the urban politics of 18th and 19th centuries, and have persistent echoes (see Albert Hourani, "Ottoman Reforms and the Politics of Notables", in WR Polks & RL Chambers, eds., Beginnings of Modernization in the Middle East [Chicago 1968]).
Empirical analyses of contemporary politics, such as that of Robert Springborg on Egypt, have also demonstrated the salience of family and patronage in the consolidation and the perpetuation of power, and their manifestation within the politics of ideologies and parties (see Robert Springborg, Family Power and Politics in Egypt, 1982).
Others have pointed to the appeal of certain modern ideologies to particular sects and regions, such as the strong base of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) in Shi`ite and Kurdish populations and regions (though this was strongly challenged by Hanna Batatu’s magisterial book on modern Iraqi history, The Old Social Classes and Revolutionary Movements in Iraq ). The theme of the religious essence of politics is widespread and in different theoretical quarters. There is the classic ideological "orientalism" of Bernard Lewis or Samuel Pipes, but also the much more sociological and schematic characterisation of Ernest Gellner.
For some, such as Pipes, the theme serves as a weapon in the defence of Israeli policies towards the Arabs: the assertion that the hostility to Israel is engrained in religious sentiment sidelines political and economic issues of occupation, land grabs and settlements. The Arab/Palestinian antipathy is identitarian and endemic, and would never be assuaged by concessions and political settlements, it is argued.
Ernest Gellner, in an entirely different conceptual universe, approached the matter from the arguments of his theory of nationalism. Nationalism, for Gellner, is a consequence of processes of industrialisation and urbanisation which usher the population into literacy and "high culture" and away from the local and parochial "low culture" of the rural and provincial populations. This would typically entail secularisation. But Islam is peculiarly resistant to secularisation because the literate high culture of the cities and the bourgeoisie is within Islam: the demise of the low culture of popular and folk religion leads to the high culture of the ulama: scriptural and puritanical. Nationalism in the Muslim world is at its core Islamic.
For Gellner, too, the seeming secular politics and ideology of the modern period are superficial veneers. The Iranian revolution of 1979 and the general rise of Islamic politics in the region at the expense of secular ideologies seemed to vindicate the essentialist arguments, and their advocates smugly shouted: I told you so.
The forms of politics
Patrimonial politics is universal, historically and to the present. Political powers and movements, within and without ruling groups and institutions, have often revolved around solidarities and factions of kinship, patronage, locality and community. The rival patrician houses of the respective tragic lovers in Romeo and Juliet in the context of the factional politics of the Italian city is prototypical of the politics of much in pre-modern Europe, and continues in certain respects into modernity.
Religion entered into this form of politics in a variety of ways, not all to do with piety and conviction. One crucial dimension is that of sectarian solidarity and antagonism: witness the religious wars and persecutions in Europe, as well as peaceful rivalries for ascendancy and advantage between denominations; it continues to play an important part in the politics of many countries, notably the United States.
Part of this religious participation in politics is the power and resources of institutions and personnel, the authority and interest of churches, prelates and preachers. In all these respects there are many parallels between Christian Europe and the "Islamic world". Crucially, forms of popular nationalism or proto-nationalism were conceived as extensions of religious communities. Russian nationalism of the 19th century, for both state and people, was conceived in terms of dominance and protection of Orthodox Christianity and its adherents (Greeks, Serbs, Bulgarians) as against the Muslim Ottomans and the Catholic and Protestant powers of Europe, and this was reciprocated by the said religions and powers.
This religious tinge to nationalism is, of course, alive and well today, and legitimated in such theories/ideologies as "the clash of civilisations". So much of the "Islamic revival" of the later 20th century was an Islamic expression of previously secular nationalism, directed against the "west" and Israel, conceived as Christians ("crusaders") and Jews.
The transformations brought about by the processes of modernity included new forms of political organisation and mobilisation, corresponding to the formation of the modern state, the secularisation of institutions and mentalities and the demise of the old order of religious and princely authorities.
What many writers have distinguished as modern politics, is exemplified in the rise of political parties and associations, syndicates and unions, campaigning and lobbying, on the bases of organising and mobilising individual members with common material interests and ideological commitments. Michael Walzer traced the beginnings of such politics to the bands of "saints" who waged the battles of the English civil war in the 17th century (see Michael Walzer, The Revolution of the Saints, ). Jurgen Habermas famously traced the formation of the "public sphere" of bourgeois publics and their printed organs and associations in the 18th century.
Political solidarities and activity, whether revolutionary or reformist, engage in sustained and organised activity aimed at the reform or overturning of a system, in itself a modern conception. This activity is not aimed at displacing one prince in favour of another or the ascendance and advantage of one faction against another, but on changing the way society and polity is organised according to some ideological scheme, whether by reform or revolution. Modern politics consists, typically, of sustained and organised activity, distinct from the transient protests and rebellions of the pre-modern cities, or the often messianic rural movements.
This modern form of politics had come to be dominant in a few countries, mostly those of northwest Europe and north America. However they existed side by side and often articulated to the historically universal form of politics of kinship and patronage, and not just in the countries of the global south, but European countries such as Italy and Greece, as well as sectors of the United States. In the middle east and the "Islamic world", various combinations and articulation of these forms of politics in time and space may be discerned.
The bridge to modernity
The 19th-century reforms and socio-economic and political transformations facilitated new outlooks and affiliations in politics and culture. In Istanbul, Cairo and Beirut, new elites of intellectuals, professionals and functionaries sought to actively create new associations and spheres of associations and cultures. They were actively and passionately trying to transcend the ghettoised worlds of family, community and religious sect, and aspiring to a life of common participation in a public sphere, aided by the spreading print culture as well as the social and geographical mobility facilitated by railways, telegraph and steamships.
As such, the old authoritative associations of kinship, patronage and religion were viewed as part of "backwardness", takhalluf, irtija`, in Arabic and Turkish, as against "progress" and renaissance, taraqqi, nahdha. This was the case equally with Muslim modern elites and their Christian and Jewish counterparts. With Syrian Christians, as well as Armenians, conversion to (American) Protestantism served as a vehicle of liberation from the traditional religious authorities of the Orthodox and Catholic churches, though French Catholic missions served an equally modernising function, much to the vociferous and sometimes violent opposition of the religious authorities.
Jewish rabbis were equally unhappy with the modern education provided by the schools of the Alliance Israelite Universelle. Syrian intellectuals graduating from the American Protestant mission-schools and colleges (the ancestor of the American University of Beirut) presided over a renaissance of Arabic letters and thought. In so far as those elites held to religion, whether Muslim or Christian, they endeavoured to construct a reformed religion in conformity with modern enlightenment and liberal politics and with a conscious rejection of what they considered narrow obscurantist and "superstitious" religion of the ulama and the populace.
The Islamic reforms of Muhammad Abduh in Egypt, al-Kawakibi in Syria and the cosmopolitan and mercurial reformer Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, served as just such a bridge between new construction of Islam and science, rationality and a constitutional order. These were elite thought and politics, but modern political organisation and mobilisation came with nationalist and later socialist agitations in Egypt, Turkey, Syria and Iraq as well as north Africa.
Islam was not always absent from these populist movements, especially in Egypt where the Muslim Brotherhood came on the stage in 1928 joining in the nationalist agitations against liberals and the left. But they, too, were part of this modern politics, in fact they were very good at it, in terms of recruitment, indoctrination and mobilisation. They were also only one strand among many.
In Iraq, the Communist Party (ICP) became the main vehicle for organisation and mobilisation of intellectuals, students, workers and even peasants, culminating in a dominant position after the 1958 revolution which toppled the monarchy. But not for long: they were soon to be the victims of Soviet prevarication and Ba’athist conspiracies, leading to the massacres of communists and all political opposition - first in the Ba’athist putsch of 1963, then much more systematically in 1968, with the putsch which brought Saddam Hussein to power.
It should be noted that, politics apart, popular mentalities and styles of life were thoroughly secularised over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. That is not to say that people lost their faith or piety (though this was much diluted for many), but that the confines of communal and local life, governed as they were by religious authority, ritual and calendrical punctuation of time, were broken with mobility, individualisation and the rise of spheres of culture and entertainment unrelated to religion, and subversive of its authority.
Literacy, the entry of science and technology into everyday life, the media and public spheres, sport and musical entertainment, and above all, cinema, created absorbing and broadening mental world for the majority of the common people, beyond community and religion. TV further revolutionised these spheres. Religious broadcasting and sermons, important as they are, were nevertheless profaned by the broadcasting schedules which brought them side by side with song and dance.
The path of authority
The politics of the region were to undergo crucial transformations following the nationalist "revolutions", all military coup d’états, of the 1950s and 1960s. These inaugurated regimes of military juntas - of Nasser in Egypt, the Ba'ath of Syria and Iraq (following the reputedly more benign Qassim military rule in that country), the FLN in Algeria, Gaddafi in Libya, and variants in Yemen. These were nurtured by the cold war and Soviet support, as well as Soviet models of statist "socialism", but Arab "socialism", and even Islamic.
In effect, these regimes put an end to fragile pluralism and parliaments instituted by the colonial states and their subsequent protégés, nationalised the economy, thus eliminating socio-economic centres of power and property and consolidating the hold of a totalitarian state. Some of these regimes, notably Nasser’s, enjoyed wide popular support and adulation, in Egypt and the Arab world. They were based on a social pact providing economic goods, jobs, land reforms and social services in return for compliance.
Many sectors of the left supported these regimes with enthusiasm for their purported socialism. After all, much of the left at that time ridiculed "bourgeois democracy" as fake and oppressive, and prioritised development, equality and national assertion. Nationalist and militaristic stances were essential for these regimes, confronting Israel and imperialist plots.
Nasser’s heroic rise, after all, was built on his nationalisation of the Suez canal, confronting the "tripartite aggression" of Britain, France and Israel in 1956. Military preparedness, huge expenditure, and much Soviet aid were cornerstones of the regimes. The defeat in the six-day war of 1967 against Israel was a traumatic awakening, and a pointer to the failure of the Nasser regime, one that was to have deep psychological and political repercussions, and lend more credibility to the Islamic challenge.
The military regimes prepared the ground for the dynastic rules to follow. They eliminated politics by violently suppressing any alternative voices of the left, the liberal remnants and the Islamists. They eliminated or incorporated the institutions and associations of state and society and any possible centre of social power outside the regime. The Arab Socialist Party in Egypt, the Ba`ath of Iraq and Syria, the Jamahiriya of Libya, were the instruments of control and repression for the regimes.
"Socialism" and the social pact broke down in the 1970s and 1980s, with the waning of Soviet influence, the dominance of petro-wealth of the Gulf and the American sponsors of those regimes, then the Ronald Reagan years and the Washington accord, demanding structural adjustments, withdrawal of subsidies and services, privatisation, and infitah (opening up to capital and investment).
The social pact which delivered goods to the populace in return for acquiescence was steadily eroded from the 1970s in Egypt, then the other countries, and in Iraq, exacerbated by the successive costly and destructive wars and sanctions (Iran, then Kuwait). Privatisation and capitalism, as is well known, led to the transfer of state assets to a narrow circle of cronies around the dynasties of ruling figures, opening the way for much gain through contracts, licenses and rampant corruption. The repression continued but now with progressive impoverishment of many sectors of the population.
In this situation police and security became ever more intrusive with arbitrary powers of violence and humiliation. People, especially the young, had to face daily encounters with what has been called the "everyday state". Only this was not a state of law or institutions or orderly bureaucracy, but one based on powers and networks which bypassed the enfeebled institutions and the law. In Egypt, which had a historical record of institutions, bureaucracy and a judiciary struggling for independence, emergency laws proclaimed in 1981 (extending similar previous rules), bypassed all these legal niceties and allowed the police and the military courts unlimited powers.
The cycle of regression
What part did the different styles of politics outlined earlier play in these different phases? The modern ideological politics of parties and citizens were at the base of the initial nationalist regimes. They engaged in the recruitment and mobilisation of people on the bases of nationalist unity, confronting the enemies, promises of economic development and future prosperity, of equality and dignity for citizens. As such they were explicitly opposed to tribalism, ethnic or religious communalism and any form of primordial loyalties which subverted national commitment. Of course, the reality was often different, but nevertheless this commitment was an important aspect of government and legitimacy.
They were also "secular", but not in the sense of explicitly rejecting religion; on the contrary, all leaders paid lip-service to and patronised official and non-political religious institutions and personnel. But they did largely push religion out of state and legal matters and from education. In particular the sensitive family and gender laws were liberalised in Egypt, Syria and Iraq, away from the historical Shari'a provisions. Female education and participation were encouraged and facilitated. Women’s organisations, like all civil-society activity, were incorporated into the ruling parties and the state.
The main challenges came from sectors of the left and from Islamic politics, both of which were suppressed and driven underground. But Islamic networks had the advantage of being able to work though mosques and charities, and the ability to dispense goods, services and jobs. These became ever more important after the withdrawal of state services and subsidies. It became an avenue for the politics of community and patronage.
Under the dynastic phase of the dictatorships ideological claims of nationalism and developmentalism became ever more hollow, especially, in the case of Egypt, in the light of the subservience of the regime to American interests and the implicit complicity with Israel. The ruling parties, such as the Ba'ath, became vehicles of loyalty and control to the dynastic cliques. At the same time, with the withdrawal of the state from the provision of social goods and services, and the insecurity in the face of arbitrary police harassment and humiliation, individuals were thrown more and more on any possible security net of family, tribal or regional networks, religious community and authority, and especially the provision of social goods and services by these religious associations.
The regimes themselves fostered these informal networks of kinship, religion and patronage by dispensing favours through the leaders and bosses. Parties such as the Ba'ath and the NDP in Egypt sponsored such relations of patronage and control. The most blatant example was that of Saddam Hussein, who when faced with the weakening of regime controls through the losses resulting from wars and sanctions in the 1990s sponsored the revival, or rather the construction, of tribal federations, arming their shaykhs (who were arbitrarily invented) and giving them legal powers over their "members". This after the denunciation of tribalism in the heyday of nationalism, being seen as backward and reactionary and a threat to national unity. In the 1990s the tribes were celebrated as a manifestation of authentic Arab traditions, and as such part of the Arab national heritage.
The reordering of networks
The transformations of the second half of the 20th century can be seen through the changes in what may be called the "survival unit". Historically the survival unit was that of particularistic attachments and solidarities of kin, tribe, religion and community and the networks of patronage and dependence. Every man had a master and patron, and his/her security and livelihood depended on the units in which these relations were embedded. The processes of modernity, to various extents, liberated individuals from this collective dependence, through the creation of impersonal labour markets, forms of association and solidarity deriving from interests and ideologies and socio-political movements in the manner elaborated above.
These processes were more or less limited, depending on time and place; the role of primary solidarities continued to play a part, but often transformed and reconstructed by the new processes. Survival was now related to different spheres and units, in which the modern state, especially in its welfare phase, played an important part, insofar as its organs ensured a degree of physical security, provided education and much employment, and social goods and services.
These provisions were sometimes dependent on informal connections and patronage, but they nevertheless functioned more or less individually. The effect of the dynastic phase of the authoritarian regimes was to push back many individuals and families into survival units consisting of new or reconstructed communal and personalistic networks, in which religion often played an important part.
Nowhere is this process clearer than in Iraq. The 1970s was a relatively favourable decade for the country. The barbarity of the Ba'ath repression at the inception of the regime in 1968 moderated; and, indeed, Saddam drew the ICP into a coalition government (which was to be a great disaster for that party a few years later when they had outlived their usefulness for the regime, and were massacred again).
The hike in oil prices multiplied revenues and allowed generous avenues of welfare services, education, health, housing, and elevated pay for the middle classes and the intelligentsia, all within a developmentalist and nationalist rhetoric. Legislation and policy favoured women in the family and society, amid measures to curb religious authority and patriarchal controls, part of the Ba'ath programme to control social allegiances and life-chances. Repression of any dissent or challenge continued to be violent and arbitrary, but those who kept within the system, including, for a while, the ICP, were relatively secure.
For considerable sectors of the population the state became an important source of survival, for livelihood, status and public services. The regime explicitly attacked primordial units of tribe, kinship and religious community: except, that is, for the ruling clan and its entourage.
All this came to an end with the decades of military adventures of the regime, starting with the Iran war in 1980, then the Kuwait war in 1990-91, followed by the United Nations sanctions, lasting till the US invasion of 2003. During these decades the regime, with increasing scarcity of resources and the devastation of war, drastically reduced its public services, impoverished the population, including the middle classes and the intelligentsia, and intensified its violent repression. It became ever more sectarian and tribal. Resources were channelled ever more in the direction of control and loyalty. People were pushed increasingly into the protection of communities, networks and bosses, and lines of patronage to the regime and the party became avenues of survival.
In the process, the state and the party are hollowed out and bypassed by personalistic networks of clan and faction. Even the lines of military command were subordinated to informal links: low-ranking officers with the right connections could defy their superiors. The "secularism" of the regime was reversed into an official "faith campaign" (hamlet al-iman). Family legislation was ignored in favour of communal and religious authority; "honour crimes" were recognised and treated leniently if at all.
Under those conditions, the only possible politics were those of kinship and connections, with a heavy dose of religion. Shi`ites were targeted largely because their religious institutions and revenues could not be totally eliminated, despite much violence and assassinations, and Shi`ite institutional and personal networks went beyond the borders of Iraq, notably to Iran. When the regime was removed by the invasion, this politics of community and religion was the only one to have popular constituencies and resources. The ideological politics of the earlier decades of the 20th century had been all but eliminated: the once popular ICP had been reduced to shadows, mostly in exile, especially after the collapse of the Soviet world.
It would seem, then, that "tribal" and religious politics are not peculiar to the region, but historically general. Political modernity was engendered in the middle east, and, like most other regions, coexisted with reconstructed forms of patrimonialism and religion. The dominance of latter forms is not an aspect of some essential character of the region, but the product of particular social and political conditions. During their statist "socialist" phase, the totalitarian nationalist regimes eliminated or incorporated all political organisations and socio-economic centres of power. With their decadence into dynastic rule and crony capitalism their ideological pretences and populist appeals became hollow and they depended increasingly on repression and personalistic networks of patronage, kinship and religion.
The removal of these regimes, notably in post-invasion Iraq, creates a political vacuum in the absence of organisations and institutions that can step into the breach. Communal, tribal and religious bosses and authorities step into the vacuum, aided by the invading power desperate for a native leadership, and exploited by neighbouring states for their own ends.
Groups and individuals working for political programmes of citizenship and economic reforms have little or no constituency, organisation or resources. In Iraq, government and economy is divided between contending sectarian parties, each in control of ministries, engaged in an open process of pillaging the country and its petrolic revenues, with a weak prime minister attempting to establish his own dictatorial powers. The challenge from political groups, media and protesters makes little impression so far, and are precariously holding on to the free spaces established after the invasion and now under constant threat and harassment.
The space for change
It is important to note that "democracy" defined in terms of elections, however free, contributes to the legitimacy of this situation. Elections mobilise primordial and sectarian constituencies and legitimise the sharing of powers and resources between corrupt politicians presiding over ministries which become resource centres for the factions and networks. Elections without institutional frameworks and legal safeguards reinforce communal and majoritarian authoritarianism.
Iraq, of course, is a particular and peculiar case, owing its "liberation" to a foreign invasion. The countries that are now undergoing the upheavals of the "Arab spring" are diverse as is the process of political change. The political field and opposition media in Egypt were never totally eliminated by the regime, and they have come to life after the "revolution". The groups that led the upheaval raised the slogans of liberty, reform and social justice, with little or no reference to the concerns of the ethno-religious politics that had animated previous oppositions.
Yet the constituencies and organisation for such politics are lacking, having been eliminated in the many years of the dictatorship. In any case, the removal of Hosni Mubarak and his entourage has not transformed the regime; and the current military rulers, deeply complicit in the old order, are not about to give up and hand power to elected representatives not under their control. The religious networks and the regional bosses can mobilise votes and support, and a tacit alliance is emerging between them and the military, against the liberal forces that spearheaded the revolution.
Syria is even more problematic in this respect. It is difficult to envisage a scenario for political transition if the regime should fall. The movement in Syria started in the poor and marginal regions, notably Dera'a, from a population that had reached the limits of suffering from impoverishment and oppression, ignited by a barbaric act of violence and humiliation by the regional governor. It was soon taken up by the intelligentsia and the younger generation, with slogans of liberty and social justice, just like their counterparts in Egypt and elsewhere.
They are confronted by an intransigent regime, whose power is based on sectarian and kinship solidarities: a threat to one threatens all. There are, of course, sectarian sentiments in many quarters of opposition, Sunni resentments of Alawite dominance, with a long history of struggle and suppression, notably the massacre of the Islamic rebels in Hama in 1982, when an estimated 10,000 were killed with artillery trained on the city, destroying its historical centre.
How much of the current movement is animated by these sectarian elements, and how much by the universalist politics of the urban demonstrators? We don’t know, except that the opposition forces seem to be divided and fractious. It is difficult to imagine a likely scenario of "revolution" or transition. Peaceful protests have failed, and many observers are anticipating a change to armed opposition and a civil war. In the absence or weakness of civil political organisation or institutions, will the main centres of power which are likely to fight a civil war be regional, communal and sectarian, supported by sympathetic regional powers (Saudi Arabia vs Iran)?
In conclusion, let me make a feeble attempt to balance the pessimistic scenario that seems to emerge from my analysis. The mould of regime authoritarianism and popular impotence has been broken by the events of the "Arab spring", however problematic the outcomes might be in the very different countries. A new generation of political activists, aided by the modern social media, has come on the stage. Their politics are refreshing in its universalist concerns with liberty and social justice. Let us hope that, over time, this generation will succeed in building up constituencies, associations and institutions that can form the basis of future democracy.