In a Paris conference two years ago, a US academic acerbically asked, “What can we say about an Arab world that has contributed less to human learning in the past 100 years than Bangladesh?” The Moroccan diplomat next to me merely nodded his head.
The Arabs are the world’s wounded civilisation. “We have no leaders to whom our children can look up to,” was a common line in every Arab country you visited.
Algiers to Aden, they saw themselves kicked around by Israel, suppressed by the West and betrayed by their rulers. You could count on them to recount the strangest conspiracies to explain their plight. Such has been the Arab Street’s despair that it has looked to traditional rivals such as Turkey and Iran for leadership. And it is from this rot that the likes of Osama bin Laden have arisen.
The Arab polity has been caught in a devil’s compact. Small ruling circles persuaded the West — and their own middle classes — to support them in return for keeping militant Islam at bay. What emerged, argue scholars such as Sorbonne’s Burhan Ghalioun, were arrogant and “corrupt elites backed by Western countries”.
One result was repression. The EIU Democracy Index 2010 rated 16 of the 20 Arab countries as authoritarian. Of the remainder, Iraq and Lebanon were arguably too chaotic to be labelled. Another result was corruption. Economic reforms enriched a few families, says Iraqi sociologist Faleh Abdul-Jabbar, “creating a bizarre alliance of dictatorship plus a new business class created from that same self-same elite”. The final result was Islamic militancy. But this reinforced Western willingness to uphold such regimes.
The danger inherent in such a closed circuit of political decay has been obvious to all. The Bush administration’s “democracy by invasion” was an attempt, driven by the shock of 9/11, to find an alternative.
This is why the Jasmine Revolution is historic.
Tunisia was the perfect laboratory. The slogans were about prices and corruption. Islamicists were sidelined, allowing the army to keep their guns silent. “Democracy now has a more powerful resonance than Islamism, Arab nationalism and leftist ideas,” argues Paul Salem of the Carnegie Middle East Center.
The same has also been true, so far, of Egypt. Though the conservative Islamicist Muslim Brotherhood is probably the largest opposition group, it has gained little legitimacy from the demonstrations. Its slogan “Islam is the solution” has been supplanted in Tahrir Square by a secular “Tunisia is the solution”.
“The argument of keeping political systems closed for fear of Islamists coming has been undermined,” said ex-Jordanian foreign minister Marwan Muasher.
Everything points to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. More revolts may follow elsewhere. Egypt, after all, is the intellectual centre of greater Arabia.
What will Arab democracy mean?
Outfits such as the Muslim Brothers are the region’s best-organised political groupings, especially in the Levant. But conservatives are not the same thing as militants. The present revolution is forcing them to work within a democratic polity, making it less likely they will transit from ballot to bullet. “Citizens’ movements in Tunisia and Egypt have managed to do in a few days or weeks what Islamic movements have failed to achieve in decades,” says Salem.
In a democratised Arabia, they will make their presence felt in illiberal policies: more women in black, more gays behind bars, more overt anti-Western rhetoric. Even anti-Indian: Muslim Brotherhood websites welcome articles by Kashmiri separatists. If Arabs make these choices through votes, then the world will have to live with them.
Pragmatism is likely to prevail. Bread and butter issues won’t go away soon. Egypt’s protestors may have complained the police tear gas was US-made, but they found Coca Cola the best thing to wash it from their eyes.
In any case, the existing Arab order was unsustainable. Economic reforms could not work properly in such corruption. A “moderate” Arab had come to be defined solely in terms of one’s stance towards Israel rather than support for democracy. If terrorist groups were unable to exploit this, it was largely because of their own miscalculations.Democratisation, however imperfect, removes these barriers and limits. As one blogger noted, "If Mubarak goes, Al Qaeda will lose a recruiting argument."
The world cannot afford Arab society to forever be in intensive care. It’s too young — half of its 350 million population is under 30. It’s too economically stunted — the Arab world’s manufactured exports total less than those of Israel. But it possesses deep reservoirs of both fossil fuels and civilisation. The tragedy of its politics has held it back. What is going on in Egypt’s streets may produce what no amount of foreign string-pulling could ever do: revolution without militancy, resurrection with a soul.
(With inputs from AP/AFP)