Sunday, May 22, 2011

Dwindling Room for Optimism

Wherever I went in Germany, people assumed I joined them in welcoming the new democracy and freedom in the Arab world. In each case, I had to explain that I hoped for the best, but saw no particular reason to expect it. Now the New York Times has begun to backtrack:
The revolutions and revolts in the Arab world, playing out over just a few months across two continents, have proved so inspirational to so many because they offer a new sense of national identity built on the idea of citizenship.
But in the past weeks, the specter of divisions — religion in Egypt, fundamentalism in Tunisia, sect in Syria and Bahrain, clan in Libya — has threatened uprisings that once seemed to promise to resolve questions that have vexed the Arab world since the colonialism era. 
Actually, the specter of divisions and other bothersome matters were there all the time, of course. So there's nothing happening so far which is particularly surprising, and certainly nothing that couldn't have been foreseen at the height of the popular demonstrations. This isn't to say that the revolutions were always doomed to fail, nor that they're now certain to fail. Rather, anyone with a modest sense of history and human nature should never have been carried away in the first place, has little to be surprised about now, and should hope for a positive outcome. In any case, there's precious little any outsiders can do.


Silke said...

Even the NYbooks published a sobering piece which even included this vindication of American support for Mubarak and that from NYbooks.

Since Mubarak’s resignation on February 11, hardline Salafis —who were kept under tight control by the former regime—have become vocal opponents of the church.

4infidels said...

Excellent post, Yaacov.

One thing I would add is the implication that sectarian, clan, tribal, religious, ethnic and other divisions "have vexed the Arab world since the colonial era" suggests the blame for the nature of contemporary Arab politics lands on the European imperial powers rather than on indigenous factors. It suggests that these divisions didn't exist and didn't cause turmoil in Arab politics prior to recent centuries. The Sunni-Shia antagonism, tribal raids and clan wars have all been part of life in intra-Arab relations since the time of Islam's birth.

Also, you will notice that I used the term "Arab politics" rather than "Arab world." Imperialism works both ways, and referring to the territory now inhabited by Arab League states as the "Arab world" denies the reality that there were many non-Arab peoples with long histories--many predate the Arab-Islamic conquests--including Jews, Druze, Greeks, Copts, Maronite Christians, Chaldo-Assyrian Christians, Kurds, Armenians, Alawites, Berbers, etc.

The imperial powers shafted all those groups as the British were interested in creating an Arab nationalist entity across the Middle East under the British sway. The only non-Arab people that gained self-determination was the Jews, and immigration to the Mandate for Palestine was closed to Jews by the British (in an attempt to placate the Arabs) just as the concentration camps were opening in Europe.

The "colonial era" resulted in the Arabs becoming free of Ottoman Turkish rule (no thanks to their own meager efforts) and gaining sovereignty over more of the Middle East and North Africa than they had a right to expect based on their numbers. Ever since, 25% of the people in the Arab states are minorities that have been continuously oppressed. Many of those Arabs marching, fighting, screaming in the streets for change are fed up with the current state of affairs, but not because they have any interest in Western democratic notions of citizenship. They want a larger share of the power, money and ability to lord it over others for their family, tribe, clan, religious or sect. Whoever takes power next in those countries will put their boot down on the others harder and more ruthlessly than those before them. That is the nature of Arab politics and that is how those in power survive. Those in power call their rivals infidels and Jews while those seeking power accuse the regimes of corruption as well as being infidels and Jews. But you wouldn't expect those who have spent their careers writing about the Middle East to have show a healthy skepticism, given the repetitive nature of Arab politics?

Barry Meislin said...


You mean Thomas Friedman was, um, wrong?

Are you unhinged?

Y. Ben-David said...

I bought John Calvert's biography of Sayyid Qutb based on Yaacov's recommendation. I have read about one-quarter and it is excellent. What is important is that it also describes the development of Egyptian nationalism in the period after World War I which was embodied by the Wafd Party which was in power for part of that period.
The important thing I have learned is that the current uprising in Egypt is already the THIRD time that "democratically minded, reformist" forces in Egypt have organized and attempted to bring about significant changes in Egypt. The first was the Wafd movement in the inter-war period (the accession of King Farouk in 1936 was considered a new dawn for the country by these forces-this seems laughable in the light of what he later became). A special bank was set up to enable wealthy Egyptian nationalist to invest in projects and manufacturing that up until then were dominated by "foreigners" ( Jews were considered part of this category). It quicly went corrupt, the "idealists" used it to feather their nests, they forgot about their Egyptian brothers and it went belly-up in 1939.
The second "new dawn" was the "Free Officers" revolution of 1952 which promised a new socialist society with more democracy and "empowerment of the poor". That, of course, morphed into the "terrible corrupt stagnant Mubarak dictatorship". So now they are going to try again. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Anonymous said...

How many revolutions did France have before getting to anything like a viable democracy? More than three, I think.

The Egyptians will probably get there later this century.

On the way, they may get involved in a disastrous war with Israel.