A great change is sweeping Arab political culture

All Arab regimes, regardless of regime type, have essentially behaved like dynasties. This is why the essentially secular, expansive, inclusive, internationally-aware neo-nationalism of the young Arabs in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the region offers a revolutionary break from an unending past.
Issa Khalaf
22 February 2011

As soon as news emerged that the Libyan protestors were also planning to take to the streets, I was horror-struck. This wasn’t going to be Egypt or Tunisia, or even frightened emirs, sultans, and monarchs. Libya has neither Egypt’s vibrant civil society nor developed institutions, nor a military that can easily challenge Qadhafi’s rule. Colonel Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi - variously, Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People’s Arab Republic, great leader of the al-Jumhuriyya al-‘Arabiyya al-Libiyya, the General Commander of Libya’s Armed Forces, the Head of [every] Council of State and of the Arab Socialist Union, the learned author of the al-kitab al-akhdar (Green Book), the Brotherly leader and Guide of the Revolution, Africa’s King of Kings, Supreme Leader regally surveying his kingdom or majestically visiting abroad accompanied by an elite, armed female bodyguard corps, ubiquitously, honorifically titled leader without official state title - was not about to take rejection lightly. Nor is this eccentric megalomaniac, a caricature of himself, about to let go of power after four decades, his son essentially in the same breath raising the spectre of social disintegration without the Leader and unleashing the full, bloody fury of the state.

True, permanent rulers everywhere don’t easily let go of one of life’s foremost aphrodisiacs, power, and can’t conceive that anyone else can rule their subjects like them, with their benevolent patriarchy. They all crave the attention and revel in the whimsical arbitrariness that accompany being number one, including hobnobbing with world leaders. Qadhafi’s flamboyance, including his romanticized ‘tent’ outings and a costume for every occasion and genre, was once curious, with an air of populism about it. But his African-style personal rule has not been a laughing matter for decades, and his endless speeches on TV and lectures to foreign audiences, including western women on converting to Islam, have nauseated his people. This ageing, narcissistic, deluded man, ruling over merely 5-6 million people in a petroleum-rich country the size of Alaska, cannot possibly accept the reality of letting go of all this, or that his people don’t want him, hence his rage and violence against them.

Qadhafi, like his now absent Egyptian counterpart, is symptomatic of Arab rulers’ stunning, unenlightened failure to pay any regard to placing their people’s future and well-being, much less encourage institutional inter-Arab cooperation for the sake of social and economic development, over their own immediate self-interest. (Whatever criticism one reserves for Egypt’s Jamal ‘abd al-Nasir, his attempt to live by principle, humbly refusing to enrich himself or his family, is admirable by today’s kleptocratic standards.) The Libyan dictator is what old Arab nationalism-turned-authoritarianism - including its ‘radical’ versions found in the regimes of Algeria, Syria, Iraq and the now hapless PLO, or ‘socialist republics’ such as Tunisia or Egypt - has wrought. This amounts to bureaucratic or tyrannical one party or no party states, violently crushing civil society, suffocating public space, privately owning and enriching themselves on state resources.

That insistent, ancient character of élite Arab political culture - the reliance on narrow social groups and classes, those with wealth and economic power to sustain an unwritten contract maintaining the dictator’s rule and circulating power within the state - has not yet disappeared. If anything, it has been supplemented in the last fifty years by secretive, shadowy, Qadhafi- and Saddam-like personality cults and intelligence services. All Arab regimes, regardless of regime type, have essentially behaved like dynasties.

The malaise, has been deep and serious, relating to multifaceted causes including colonialist and imperialist maintenance of the status quo; but also indicative of the great, historically unsettled matter of political authority since Islam’s beginnings; together with the complex ethnic, sectarian, tribal, clan, and familial divisions in Arab societies, their great socio-cultural diversity. What Islam could tenuously or otherwise once do, by serving as the ideologically unifying factor of such pluralism, it could no longer do in the modern period. Arab nationalism purported to fill the vacuum. The Arab nationalists’ legitimacy was galvanized by an anti-colonial, anti-imperialist drive for independence, but it was devoid of a programme for internal democratic reform and for Arab unity. Nor was it capable of governing with widespread authority and legitimacy. The fearsome parties and military cliques that replaced the old landowning oligarchy in the second half of the twentieth century only talked up fantastic visions, nationalism as a panacea for all Arab ills, including underdevelopment.

In fact, Arab nationalism was no more than what the narrow ruling regimes said it was at any one time, thus leaving them unhindered to amass and monopolize power. The failure of nationalism was in this manner as preordained as was the subsequent failure of the resurgence of an anachronistic political Islam, itself naïve and unrealistic.

The secular nationalisms of the Middle East did not understand that anti-imperialist rhetoric and promotion of patriotism could not substitute for an integrated national political community that required foundations in genuine popular sovereignty, law, and constitutionalism, with institutions and mechanisms for popular participation, representation, and majority governance. These foundations, after all, are what has eventually tamed the chauvinistic, violent, even genocidal depredations of similarly unmoored and varied nationalisms in Europe.

Whether Islamists have a political theory and culture to resolve the great problem of authority is questionable. For once this political authority is anchored in the idea of God’s revealed commandments and sovereignty, the sociopolitical order’s laws and decision-making subordinated to a divine prototype and Shari’a, then one has to contend with the varieties and conflicting interpretations of Islam and all those, the majorities, who reject such a social compact. Moral liberation and virtuous persons and societies are possible only in a free public space which can support the undiluted application of reason and rationality. There cannot be progress without intellectual liberation and receptiveness to free and diverse inquiry devoid of official parameters, whether religiously or secularly based.

The point is that the state can neither be dominated by de-institutionalized bureaucratic authoritarianism, in which the ruler embodies party, state and society in one, nor by the institutionalization of religion. Instead, one way or another, we must arrive at states that behave as the neutral arbiter of conflicting societal interests, in support of popular consent and its institutionalized, peaceful expression of contestation, application, and the transfer of power. Anything else leads to abuse and a violent competition for power.

This is why the essentially secular, expansive, inclusive, internationally-aware neo-nationalism of the young Arabs in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the region offers such great hope and, finally, a revolutionary break from an unending past. Culturally proud of its Islamic heritage, but with an emphasis on freedom of expression, human rights, accountability, rule of law, openness, socioeconomic improvement, rejection of foreign interference, challenge of the neo-liberal economic model, etc. it augurs a potential breakthrough from decades of sociopolitical stagnation. Furthermore, that cultural imaginary of a pan-Arab identity, remains the optimal potential unifier countering individual states’ (hence the region’s) socially disintegrative tendencies. It maybe the best antidote to old religious and sectarian solidarities and competing models (as in Iraq and Lebanon) - in short, the parochial institutionalization of power.

This promise of democratization rooted in vibrant civil society and concerned only with mass wellbeing, is forceful, despite the differences in social and economic development, social formations, and cultural and political conditions in each state across the region. It is a promise to which a changing political Islam could gravitate, while potentially breaking the cycle of Islamist resistance and state repression. Decades ago, regardless of the level of development, of indigenous values and traditions, or the strength of the middle class, the state can and should have allowed the evolution of democratic political reform and autonomy of the social and economic spheres.

But that wasn’t possible with these ruling dynasts. The great opportunity now is for the state to take the lead in representative government and open public discourse, of transparent democratic bargaining and accommodation, thereby muting and channelling the unsettled question of authority. The alternatives are chilling: either radical transformation which almost always leads to another modality of repression; or continuing to wait for Arab states to emerge from underdevelopment under the many regime types that will come to power, that given half the chance will forever delay democratization of state and society.

The revolting Arab publics offer much hope that essentially liberal states, naturally reflecting Arab culture, will emerge, despite structural problems and dependency. Decades of instability, repression, and failure, in themselves, have taught an entire generation, more educated, urban, literate, of the urgent need for a better way. Whatever form this takes in each state, that way is political authority whose foundation is popular consent.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData