North Africa, West Asia

The collapse of the Arab political order

Maged Mandour

The Arab revolts have blown away the last figleaf of current regimes, which has resulted in them revealing their true colours. The uprisings can be seen as the final step of a process of hegemonic decay that has been in progress for several decades, which can be used to the revolutionary movements' advantage.

Maged Mandour
4 July 2014

The Arab world is quite literally in shambles.

In Egypt, a military dictatorship is reasserting itself with the usual plethora of oppressive tactics, ranging from mass arbitrary arrests to torture and verdicts of mass executions.

In Syria, the civil war rages on with no end in sight. Bashar El Assad has carried on the Arab dictator’s obsession with elections and staged and won yet another sham election, sending a clear signal that he is there to stay, destroying any chances of a negotiated solution.

In Libya, the state is unable to control armed militias or “monopolize” the use of violence, which has resulted in a state of anarchy.

In Iraq, ISIS militants have been successful in taking over large swathes of territory, as the Iraqi army has collapsed. An outstanding success that was only possible due to the sectarian policies of the Iraqi government and their violent repression of peaceful, predominantly Sunni, protests.

All these situations raise a number of questions about the current nature of political order in the Arab world, and the impact the Arab revolts have had on this order.

Antonio Gramsci, an innovative Marxist thinker, argued that any political order is based on two pillars: coercion and consent. He argued that a hegemonic political order contains higher ingredients of consent, while a non-hegemonic order relies mainly on coercion. A political order becomes hegemonic when the ruling class behave in a manner that promotes the interests of the other classes, as well as their own, of course. Hegemony is also based on the ability of the ruling class to create an ideology that seeps into society, thus becoming the ideology accepted by the masses as the “correct” way of life; imposing what Engels called a “false consciousness” in order to convey his argument that the masses participate in their own repression.

Based on the above, one can argue that the current political order is a non-hegemonic order, which relies on heavy doses of coercion. The current ideological base of Arab regimes is “fighting terrorism”, “stability”, and in certain cases “protecting minorities”.

In Egypt, Field Marshal El Sisi came to power on the back of mass hysteria and fear of – the now outlawed – Muslim Brotherhood. He promised an end to the “chaos of protests” and “terrorism”. Surprisingly, he did not promise improvements in the living standards of average Egyptians. On the contrary, he alluded to increased austerity, greater cuts in social spending, as well as increased military power.

In Syria, President Assad remains in power, with large support from minorities as well as the urban Sunni middle classes, also under the same ideological framework of “fighting extremism”.

These two examples illustrate the rejectionist nature of the ideological base of the current Arab political order. In other words, the Arab regimes are relying on people’s fear of “extremism” to remain in power. Unable to offer a coherent ideological alternative, the current political order is based on fear of the real or, in some cases, imaginary “boogieman”. The ideas of the ruling classes have not seeped into society, simply because these ideas no longer exist.

Years of totalitarian rule have produced a level of ideological and intellectual poverty in the Arab world which has afflicted both oppositional forces and the ruling elites. It seems near to impossible for any social group to produce a coherent ideological platform that has the potential to create a sense of unity and identity within Arab polity. Under these conditions, much older identities appear and take center stage, as a last resort. For example, tribal or sectarian identities take the forefront as the basis of political loyalty, even in relatively homogenous populations. We can therefore observe the rise of sectarianism in Syria, Iraq, Libya and even Egypt.     

Even Islamist forces, which have long been considered the most credible threat and most ideologically potent enemies, have failed to appeal to potential allies and spread their hegemony. On the contrary, they have turned away from possible allies and become more sectarian, turning inwards. The clearest example is the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, who allied themselves with the military against the revolutionary movement, later to be betrayed by the military. During this process, the Muslim Brotherhood moved sharply to the right, failing to spread their hegemony over other parts of the Egyptian social spectrum.

In terms of behaving in a manner that transcends their narrow corporate interests, the current ruling elites seem to have no desire for compromise, even in the narrowest of terms. Examples of this abound. In Iraq, El-Maliki has publicly declared his unwillingness to create a national unity government in the face of a possible partition of Iraq, where the Sunnis, like the Kurds, might possibly develop their own autonomous region. Making matters worse, is the apparent use of Shia militias, who could further deepen the sectarian divide.

In Egypt, the current military regime is introducing more austerity and repression, further concentrating power in their own hands. In Syria, the elites have not been willing to compromise Assad’s fate, refusing the notion that he should exit the political scene in exchange for an end to the civil war. This, in addition to ideological poverty, makes reliance on force a necessity for the current elites to remain in power.

Finally, the Arab revolts have blown away the last figleaf of current regimes, which has resulted in them beginning to reveal their true colours to their own populace.

In Egypt, for example, the masses are now aware of the nature of their regime: a military regime that is severely repressive. Support for this repression is justified under the guise of the need for “stability“ and fighting “terrorism”. Thus, the Arab revolt can be seen as the final step of a process of hegemonic decay that has been in progress for several decades, rather than an abrupt break with the past. 

The biggest challenge facing the Arab revolutionaries is the need to replace the current political order with a new hegemonic order that is based on consent. This is only possible through the development of an ideological base through consistent intellectual efforts that are organically connected to these movements.

I believe this can only occur by conquering the realm of civil society and de-constructing the bases of the current regimes, which are not going to be easy tasks in even more repressive political environments. Considering the current situation, it should not be a frontal assault on the state, rather a meticulous deconstruction of terms like “stability”. Such terms should be replaced with more potent revolutionary ideologies, as a unifying mechanism for the revolutionary movement and its possible class allies.    

As Gramsci argued, the use of coercion increases exponentially when a current political system is in its final stages of decay, or when a new order is establishing itself. In the Arab World, the current political order is going through its final stages of decay, caused by its own internal contradictions and ideological inconsistencies. However, this process of decay is not accompanied by the birth of a new political order, due to another set of structural and ideological weaknesses. In order to overcome its weakness, the revolutionary movement, as vague as the term sounds, has to develop a unitary and structured character with a clear ideological programme. 

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