Whatever the outcome of the tumultuous events in Egypt and elsewhere in the middle east, it is clear that the region is entering a new phase in its history. This era of change, a century after some Arabs started thinking of their independence from Ottoman and European rule, is also a defining moment of intellectual history. For it is in such historical moments that writers and thinkers - Arab, Turkish and Iranian - have an opportunity to prove whether they have become critical enough to help transform their societies in a democratic direction.
The role of public intellectuals in any society is indeed one of the elements crucial to its development. Yet for many decades the region has been held back by intellectual elites who surrendered their critical independence to the dogmas of ideologies such as Marxism-Leninism and Islamism. The result is that these intellectuals have been less agents of enlightenment than handmaidens of power, who have to a great degree merely reinterpreted local political realities in accord with their purposes rather than putting ethical and critical issues at the heart of their scholarly and professional activities.
This approach involved a kind of contract, whereby some intellectuals became the icons of discontented, disillusioned and frustrated generations - in return for allowing themselves to be used by political parties and Muslim clergy as instruments of organisational power and political control. Instead of speaking truth to power (as Václav Havel and Edward Said put it), they chose to spread ideological messages: a role that reflected their view of themselves as guardians of the "true" vocation of socialist, nationalist or communalist movements, as against what they saw as corrupt politicians willing to make unacceptable political compromises.
As intellectuals in the middle east put overarching narratives of modernisation - whether framed in terms of liberalism, nationalism, fascism or socialism - ahead of democracy, what could appear as “oppositional” intellectual practice was made to serve the quasi-theological dogmas of states and party or movement politics.
A flux of elites
These narratives could not succeed even in their own terms, in great part because they were anchored in western ideologies and could find no deep roots in middle-eastern societies. The unfolding of their monumental distortions and failures on the ground opened the way to Islamism as the only credible option. The various influential Islamist movements have formed their own elites, whose close resemblance to their secular opponents suggests that a wider process of de facto secularisation is underway that makes support among elites for radical Islam in countries such as Egypt, Iran and Turkey less rather than more likely.
The implication of these trends is that authoritarian modernisation has run its course in the middle east. In Turkey, the retreat of Kemalism under the AK party’s non-theocratic Islam has allowed a more open society to emerge; in Iran, a young and vigorous civil society is searching for a non-violent and secular democratisation of the Islamic regime; and now the Arab world is again showing a remarkable potential for mass mobilisation against oppression and in favour of democracy.
A higher ground
The developments both of ideas and on the ground in the middle east pose a new challenge to public intellectuals there about their role in relation to the democratic evolution of their societies. Do they have more to offer than political opinions or a contract with power; can they also respond to changing circumstances with an ethical engagement that allows them - via practical reason rather than as political agents - to struggle against all forms of tyranny?
Indeed, the true struggle of public intellectuals in the middle east today is the moral and non-violent one against injustice and oppression and for democracy. This struggle requires courage, and cannot be surrendered to any political elite, for it means moving to a higher ground beyond particularistic interests in order to create and to support new democratic spheres.
The question of non-violence is indeed crucial, for - as the events in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on 2 February 2011 again show - violence needs to be tamed and transcended for societies to achieve democratic maturity. As the movement of peoples across the middle east again puts questions of progress and democracy on the agenda, intellectuals have a vital new role to play as part of the change that they seek - this time, free of the shackles of the past.