The Middle East emerges from the shadows

By Alex Katsomitros

The Chinese statesman Zhou Enlai offered an oft-quoted cliché to journalists when he was asked his opinion about the impact of the French Revolution in human history. He simply replied that “it is too soon to say”. His quip seems especially relevant today, as we find out that everything we knew about the Arab world and the Middle East is wrong. The revolution taking place in the streets of Cairo, Algiers and Tunis might have come from the past, but its impact will last for decades.

There is no doubt that the ousting of Mubarak from the Presidency of Egypt signifies a tipping point for the Middle East. Not too often has a country in the region witnessed an uprising against an internal enemy instead of an external one, such as the Ottoman Empire or Israel. However, many Western and local commentators have expressed concern over the outcome of the crisis. For them, this might be an unfinished revolution, if a revolution at all.

Two arguments of this type have been made so far. The first one is that the current wave of insurrection in the Middle East will end up as an outburst of Islamic extremism, similar to the one that established the current regime in Iran.

The other argument is even less optimistic. The fact the Egyptian army still calls the shots in the country is taken as a sign of stagnation, if not of perpetuation of a corrupted but still fully functioning regime. Mubarak or Ben Ali, in the case Tunisia, might have left, but the regimes they established will last for a long time. In the best case, it will take decades to the Arabs to achieve genuine democracy.

However, it is hard to imagine how the images from Tahrir Square or the hundreds of dead protesters could be forgotten easily. It is even harder to imagine that an unrest that started with calls for freedom of speech and respect for democratic rights will turn into a suppressive regime.

The lid has been lifted and there is no way it can be put back on, if not because of the inflammatory role played by digital media, then definitely due to sheer political necessity. It is already evident that even regimes which so far seemed stable, such as one run by Abdelaziz Bouteflica in Algeria, have lost touch with their people.

An Islamic dictatorship might have seemed an attractive option in a country suppressed between two equally arrogant superpowers, as in the case of Iran 30 years ago. But not in this century. Not in a country with a strong secular tradition, whose people is not particularly attracted by the allure of predominantly Shia Iran. They have already chewed authoritarianism and are now ready to spit it out.

The Beginning of the End of Extremism

It has been argued that this is the equivalent of 1989 for the Middle East, as people embrace freedom and defy regimes reminiscent of Communism. The truth is that this is closer to 1789. That was the year that the French Revolution broke out, an event which, along with the Great Revolution in England, established the two predominant political institutions of our times, the nation-state and representative democracy.

Until recently the notion of the nation had been obscure and malfunctioning in the Middle East. The common heritage of the Arab language and Muslim culture, despite regional differences and the perennial division between Shias and Sunnis, never allowed for a process of nationalisation similar to the one that took place in Europe in the 18th and 19th century.

Moreover, the grip of authoritarianism did not allow Arabs to conduct politics as a truly national affair. Never was there a political arena accessible to political parties that would clash over their view on national interest. It is not a coincidence that one of the main political ideologies that dominated the Arab world, even before the emergence of political Islam, was Pan-Arabism, founded and spearheaded by Nasser. Nevertheless, Nasser himself was a dictator, even if a venerated one.

Today, a certain kind of patriotic feeling is gradually emerging on the surface, along with the demand for a decent life and basic human rights. People on the streets of Cairo do not only ask for freedom, but also for recognition, which is the first and foremost drive behind nationalism. They want their voice to be heard, to be Egyptians, Tunisians or Yemenis – no matter what that means – and to be recognised as such. As it happens, the nation is the kingdom of the little man.

If that is correct, the nationalisation of Arab politics will coincide with the emergence of new ideological waves. In the case of a country that does not belong to the Middle East but is not far from it, such as Turkey, the Islamists have turned out to be an anti-establishment, progressive movement, even if they are often accused for occasional outbursts of behind-the-scenes authoritarianism.

Although Turkey is different from most countries in the region, political shifts there could be a useful guide for the future of political Islam in its cradle, Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood are already desperate to find a charismatic leader who will not scare away the cosmopolitan Egyptian middle class and the West.

On the other hand, perhaps we should also count on the emergence of an Arab bourgeois political movement that would play the role of the secular, liberal alternative. It was indeed the educated Egyptian middle class which spearheaded the unrest, most famously in the case of Whael Ghonim, the Google executive who was detained by the Egyptian authorities.

Another factor, whose role has been downplayed thus far, is the economic potential of the region. The Middle East is a sleeping giant in terms of economic development, as the corrupted ruling elites have so far controlled the economy. In the case of Egypt, for example, it has been estimated that the army is involved in no less than 35 % of the overall economic activity in the country.

The Turkish example is again quite relevant here; economic progress came alongside the gradual wane of the army’s role in politics, as a rising middle class from Anatolia was allowed to share the spoils of a staggering growth rate. Egypt and other countries in the region could follow the same path, if they are allowed to develop their own productive forces to their full extent.

Besides, underdevelopment and authoritarianism were nourishing extremism, which was providing an alternative when nothing else was tangible. Terrorism is, amongst other things, a desperate attempt to seek respect and recognition. As Andre Malraux pointed in his novel La Condition Humaine, every terrorist pretends to be a God, because he has not been recognised as a human being. Assuming that basic democratic rights will be protected within a healthy political system, we can hope that the role of violence will perish in the conduct of Middle Eastern politics.

Finally, changes in the Middle East will unavoidably affect current debates in Europe on multiculturalism and immigration. The main reason behind immigration, apart from economic motivation, is the desperate search for a country that respects its own citizens. Until today people in most Middle Eastern countries could not enjoy freedom, national pride and self-esteem. Such qualities can only reside within a democracy, and this is why Arabs deserve to get nothing less.


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