Revolutionary change in the Arab world: what prospects for Palestinians?

It may be that the era of Palestinian nationalism as it was born, post-1948, is coming to an end. Instead we may be heading in a new direction of unity and common identity across boundaries; 1948, 1967, Diaspora - a form of unity of ‘condition’.
Ahmad Samih Khalidi
21 October 2011

What is behind what is by now a distinct perhaps even chill autumnal Arab breeze?

Let us begin with what the events of this last extraordinary year amounted to and what they did not. They were not planned or organized. They had no clear inspirational leader or collective leadership. They were not initiated by any particular political party or fired by any specific ideology. They were not the conventional third-world putsch or military coup.  And they were not instigated by outside parties or initiated by external events.

They were, in fact, something not seen for at least half-a-century (some would say even unprecedented): a truly popular uprising. Popular, in the full sense of the word. They were also spontaneous, disorganized, and youth-driven; determined and self-sacrificing. Their goal was the overthrow of tyranny and oppression and dignity for the people. And initially, at least, they were relatively bloodless. And initially at least as well, they were apparently successful - thus heralding what many people hoped would be the age of a more open, liberal, and dare one say it, democratic and ‘westernized’ Arab world. 

They were, of course, not all the same. Tunisia and Egypt followed a similar pattern - but have since seemingly significantly moved in different directions. Tunisia may be heading towards some form of democracy as will be tested in the upcoming parliamentary elections: Egypt is still very uncertain with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) apparently maintaining its iron grip.

Libya, Yemen, and Syria have also demonstrated some similarities in their slide towards bloody civil strife or war. Bahrain has its geo-political specificities. But in all cases they have revealed one or more of the main deep Arab societal fracture lines: ethnicity, tribe, and sect. These rifts are the still the fundaments of most Arab societies -probably of most societies from the North African littoral, via the Levant and Gulf and up through Iran/Pakistan/Afghanistan into Central Asia.

The Ottoman state (the last Islamic sultanate) ruled for 400 years till 1918. Its rule was characterized by its ‘communal’ and regional elements rather than any ‘national’ constituents. Ethnic, tribal and sectarian divisions coexisted, competed and were managed by the relatively light hand of the Sultanate in Istanbul.

As opposed to Europe where nationalisms forged the state; in the Middle East it was the ‘modern’ post–Ottoman nation-state that sought to forge the nation; the colonial boundaries created ‘states’ and peoples that did not exist; in Lebanon (torn out of greater Syria), Kuwait (forged out of Iraq), Jordan (established by the swipe of a colonial pen), Libya, Iraq, artificially drawn onto the map (hence their clean border-lines). There were some important and notable exceptions to these artificial constructs; Egypt, of course, and outside the Arab world, Iran.

From the mid-till-late twentieth century ‘people power’ largely took the form of ideological movements and parties; Baath-ism, Communism, Nasser-ism and the Arab Nationalist Movement. These movements were secular, anti-Islamist and trans-boundary. In many cases they were driven by minority peoples or ideologues (the Christians tended towards pan-Arabism, the Jews - still a significant presence in the Arab world until the 1950s - towards socialism/ communism). They sought to transcend societal fractures and the ethno-religious divide by creating new supra-national or pan-nationalist superstructures - but their models were largely copied from the west with charismatic leaders and structured parties, imbued with a Leninist spirit - infused with the notion of the ‘leading party’ (one that has survived till this day in Syria, and until only yesterday in Iraq, and to some extent Mubarak’s Egypt and Bourguibist Tunisia).

But ‘progressive’ party politics and the ethnic, tribal and sectarian, divides never really gelled - political parties and movements were often cover for precisely that they were intended to cover up. Hence the predominance of Shiites in the Iraqi and Lebanese Communist parties, the Sunni-fication of the Iraqi Baath and its growing  religiosity (‘Allah wa Akbar’ was added to the flag by Saddam in the 1990s). In Palestine and Lebanon entire villages, families or clans were affiliated en masse to one party or another; you could identify which political party they belonged to by their family name. 

In the end, the modern Arab nation-state could only be kept together by force; and the army was its prime means and the only true ‘national’ institution. You needed force to take and maintain power and bind the state together. The army was the route; the coup the means. In Iraq, Saddam’s brute force alone kept the majority Shiites at bay and the dissident Kurds within the central state’s grip. In Libya as in Yemen, the tribes were merged within the security forces and turned against each other.    

Today, the Arab spring/autumn has effectively taken the lid off the old order and revealed its deep fracture lines once more. These are predominantly if not exclusively tribal in Libya and Yemen, now apparently and sadly sectarian (Coptic/Muslim) in Egypt as well as (Shiite/Sunni) in Bahrain, and a potential deadly cocktail of all three elements in Syria - as well as in that now largely forgotten victim of democratization - Iraq.

The Islamists

The one notable exception to this failure of the old order - including both the regimes and their ‘traditional’ opposition (e.g. the mass movements of the 50s and 60’s) - are the Islamists; the Muslim Brothers in particular, the modernist Islamist party that has branches all over the Arab world and affinities and extensions that stretch from Gaza to Istanbul.

But the Islamists are not just confined to the Muslim Brotherhood of course. There is a broad swathe of Islamist movements ranging from the fringe global jihadists, to the massed salafists, via the sufis, modernists and national fighting groups such as Hamas and Hizbollah, and, as a significant if adjunct model, that of Erdogan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party) in Turkey.

The persistence and relative success of the Islamists will not be addressed in detail here: suffice to say that they are the clear exception to the broad phenomena mentioned above. They are disciplined, organized, with an established leadership, command and control structure and capable of action - the Muslim Brotherhood in particular have a long history of opposition and an appetite for power tinged with pragmatism and opportunism.   

The emergence or rather re-emergence of the Islamists should be no surprise. Everything else has failed; the ‘modern’ state, the various isms, and the attempt to create a liberal opposition. The Islamists by contrast have yet to be tried. More important; they represent the most ‘authentic’ voice of the region and its societies as they exist. They are the only truly popular force (as opposed to the more tele-genic but fringe westernized activists). In this sense, and given their organizational abilities they are best placed to fill the vacuum.  (See more on this in Hussein Agha and Robert Malley’s excellent ‘Arab counter-revolution’ in the New York Review of Books 29/09/2011.)

In short, we can say that the future of the Arab spring/autumn is to a large extent going to be the product of the inter-Islamist debate, or as Azzam Tamimi puts it – a debate between the Islamist and the more Islamist. This could veer towards the Turkish model (as with Rachid Ghannouchi’s an-Nahda  in Tunis, the Justice and Development party in Morocco or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt); but the result remains open to any  mutation or combination of forces, including an Islamist partnership with the remnants of the old regime, for example with the SCAF in Egypt .

What about the Palestinians?

The future of the Palestinians cannot be seen outside the context of the current turmoil in the Arab world. Historically, they have played a leading role from the beginnings of the national movement that arose in the late 50s. They saw themselves as at the cutting edge of Arab change; and they used to be known as ‘THE Revolution’ (ath-Thawra).

Can they be immune to the chill winds of autumn?

The Palestinian case is in many ways unique. Since 1948, our primary experience has been that of dispossession, exile, or occupation.

We had no army, and no state. In this context, the deep societal fractures of Arab society were less relevant. We had no real sectarian division (although there are latent Muslim-Christian tensions), a coherent ethnicity and no tribalism per-se.  But we do have other sharp divisions. Clannishness and regionalism have always exerted a very powerful anti-nationalist gravitational pull. The paradox is that we overcame these societal divides by being refugees; we transcended their effect via the very fact of dispossession - and we averted military rule via the absence of a state.

But today there is no more Palestinian ‘revolution’. Since 1993 and the beginning of the Oslo process our political system has been transposed from outside to inside. The Palestinian Diaspora which once hosted our revolution and that still represents the vast bulk of Palestinians (about two-thirds of 10-12 million) has been largely politically marginalized.   Now, we have two competing state-lets in West Bank and Gaza with some of the mechanisms of control of their Arab sisters, precisely because they have a patch of land to control.

The peace process is twenty years old (Madrid 1991 as of next month). The negotiations have lasted some two decades with precious little to show. Israeli settlers who numbered around 250,000 in the early 1990s are now closer to 600,000. The bilateral talks sponsored by the US have faltered and failed. The option of heading for the UN last month was not only vastly popular but rational from the Palestinian point of view, in spite of Israeli and American protestations that ‘negotiations are the only way forward’. 

Consequently, there is much talk of a third intifada inspired by the Arab Spring. I will venture a risky predication; it is not in the offing. The previous two intifadas in 1987-93 and 2000-04 are seen to have failed in achieving their objectives (wrongly in my opinion). At any rate, their cost is not seen as equal to their return with some 25,000 dead and wounded in the first, and 40,000 excluding the casualties of Gaza 2008, in the second. Also, the example of the Arab spring is not encouraging: the longer the ‘uprisings’ last, the more problematic, costly and indecisive they appear, and the less likely the chances of contagion.  

The first whiff of change is likely to be internally directed towards national unification. The initial Palestinian demonstrations this spring were pointedly not directed against Israel or about toppling the regimes of the Palestinian Authority or Hamas, but about re-forging our national unit. ‘Toppling the regime’ while under occupation was and remains problematic. Instead the slogan was ‘the people want to end the split’.

But ending the split is predicated on the recognition that Hamas and its brand of Islamism is an integral part of the national landscape and that this landscape cannot be complete without it. Not only because Hamas represents an authentic popular will, but because it is an immovable object. We will either live in a permanent split or effective Islamist secession, or we must find ways of living together under one national roof.

Second, and as we continue to struggle with the prospects of a two-state-solution and as the kind of end-of-conflict that we once had in mind fades away, it may be that the era of Palestinian nationalism as it was born from the post-1948 concussion is coming to an end, and as the broader Arab environment breaks away from its recent past.

Instead, we may be heading in a new direction of unity and common purpose and identity across boundaries; 1948, 1967, the Diaspora (a form of ‘unity of condition’- wihdat hall). There is a perceptible shift in mood, not necessarily because statehood is undesirable (at least for those in the 1967 territories) but because it has become denuded of any meaning and it remains the golden pot at the end of an increasingly monochrome rainbow.

This new mood can be harnessed to create a broad-front opposition to the occupation based on more pacific forms of resistance; to Israel’s discrimination against its Arab minority and for the re-empowerment and reactivation of the voiceless majority and refugees of the Palestinian Diaspora. The Arab uprisings are thus as likely to drive the Palestinians ‘inwards’ as they are ‘outwards’ towards Israel.

I would also argue that on the other side of the fence (or perhaps more appositely, the Wall) the current Israel was also born of the old regional order. Like the other twentieth century nationalisms, ‘liberal Zionism’ is coming to an end. The genteel Vienna-on-the-Jordan as envisaged by Herzl is as much a relic of the past as the slogans of the Baath Party. What we have is the growing Orthodox-ization of Israeli identity, society and army. 3.1% of officer cadets were orthodox in 2007, up from 2.5% in 1990 (posing the daunting question: who will give the orders, God or the state?). We also see a retrenchment of Jewish-ness and Jewish values within Israel as a whole.


The key word here is authenticity: spirit, identity and land are bound up together in this part of the world. Islam is an indelible element of the deep natural Arab order and so are the Islamists. Like their ‘progressive’ precursors, the ‘liberal’ westernized groups are largely marginal and incongruent with the area’s fundamentals. In Israel something similar is taking place. In both cases, rather than a shift towards ‘western values’, what we are witnessing may be a shift towards a more authentic home-bred Middle East; one in which religion and the more fundamental identities of ethnicity, sect and tribe are the dominant forces in shaping society. 

The ultimate course of this year’s convulsions may take different directions; towards conflict, cohabitation or an uneasy measure of both. Some outcomes may be better than others. But none are likely to conform to what the early images of the Arab spring seemed to evoke.  This does not mean that repression and unrepresentative governments are our inevitable fate; indeed the very authenticity of the changes at hand may provide a more solid and genuine basis for better government and a less troubled Middle East.   


This talk (slightly modified) was first given at the Olive Tree Middle East Forum of City University on 12.10.11 

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