After the democratic victories won in east-central Europe and Latin America in the post-1989 years, a new term was coined: “the Arab exception”. It signified the notion that Arabs are different: contrary to every other people in the world suffering oppression, they don’t revolt. Instead they launch military coups and palace conspiracies, and demonstrate for quasi-nationalist and religious causes: but when it comes to great collective social revolutions inspired by transforming ideas, they lack courage.
The evidence adduced for this argument is that the modern Arab world’s shaping events have been internal military seizures of power and/or external wars. The Egyptian army officer Gamal Abdel Nasser is the emblematic figure in this regard: involved in the coup of 1952 against King Farouk; the conspiracy of 1954 to remove his rival Mohammad Neguib; the Suez war of 1956 against the British, the French and the Israelis; the war of 1962 to impose a republic in Yemen; the six-day war of 1967 with Israel.
But in 2011 this edifice of received wisdom has been turned upside down. Arabs, after all, do revolt against poverty and authoritarian rule to demand bread and freedom. In Tunisia and Egypt, they managed to overthrow tyrannical regimes; in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria they are exerting themselves to the utmost against despotic leaders. Arabs in all these countries have shown heroism; revealed the greatest readiness to sacrifice; practiced their peace-loving desires by the means they have used; and excelled in using modern instruments to advance their aims.
These impressive achievements end this sense of the Arabs being a historic exception among the world’s peoples. But in clearing old ground, they also highlight a new and twofold challenge.
First, can Tunisia and Egypt, where the nation-state weighs more than the pre-modern loyalties (sects, tribes, ethnicities), build democratic republics without these falling into the hands of Islamists? The Iranian experience in 1979, and the strength of Islamist and Salafi parties, were used by Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to intimidate people and freeze change. The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutionaries must now prove that these discredited rulers were liars as well as corrupt and oppressive.
Second, can Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, where the nation-state is fragile, avoid anarchy and civil war along sectarian or tribal or regional lines? The ruling groups in these countries still present these outcomes as a threat and a propaganda weapon, even though they themselves are responsible for weakening and dividing an already frayed national fabric. The revolutionaries of Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria must now prove that political change can pass the test of national unity.
The other exception
The wider context of this twofold challenge lies in the fact that this part of the world succeeded in its crucial moments to produce two things: Islam, and the kinship system (or blood-ties), whose elaborate expressions are sects and tribes. Modern ideologies, nationalism and socialism included, only appeared to thrive; much of their energy was artificial and was owed to the cold war, whose end brought Arabs once more face to face with the realities of Islam and blood-ties. The shrinkage of communist parties and leftist movements in general in the post-cold-war period reflects that shallowness.
The Arab movement of 2011 thus brings a different Arab "exception" to the fore. It too demands to be disproved. The balance-sheet here is very mixed. The fact that anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment is being kept within very narrow margins is positive; the strength of the Islamists in Egypt, and the evident power of pre-modern structures in Libya and Yemen, is negative.
This is a crucial moment for the Arabs. They have employed modern methods to make revolutions and build protest movements. So far these tools have been put to use in a skilful way. But different elements are needed to build democratic republics. The test of the other Arab exception is pressing.