In agreement with Gilles Kepel who has dubbed events unfolding across the Middle East as the “Arab democratic revolution,” David Hirst writes:
[S]ome now say, this emergence of democracy as an ideal and politically mobilising force amounts to nothing less than a “third way” in modern Arab history. The first was nationalism, nourished by the experience of European colonial rule and all its works, from the initial great carve-up of the “Arab nation” to the creation of Israel, and the west’s subsequent, continued will to dominate and shape the region. The second, which only achieved real power in non-Arab Iran, was “political Islam”, nourished by the failure of nationalism.
And it is doubly revolutionary. First, in the very conduct of the revolution itself, and the sheer novelty and creativity of the educated and widely apolitical youth who, with the internet as their tool, kindled it. Second, and more conventionally, in the depth, scale and suddenness of the transformation in a vast existing order that it seems manifestly bound to wreak.
Arab, yes – but not in the sense of the Arabs going their own away again. Quite the reverse. No other such geopolitical ensemble has so long boasted such a collection of dinosaurs, such inveterate survivors from an earlier, totalitarian era; no other has so completely missed out on the waves of “people’s power” that swept away the Soviet empire and despotisms in Latin America, Asia and Africa. In rallying at last to this now universal, but essentially western value called democracy, they are in effect rejoining the world, catching up with history that has left them behind.
If it was in Tunis that the celebrated “Arab street” first moved, the country in which – apart from their own – Arabs everywhere immediately hoped that it would move next was Egypt. That would amount to a virtual guarantee that it would eventually come to them all. For, most pivotal, populous and prestigious of Arab states, Egypt was always a model, sometimes a great agent of change, for the whole region. It was during the nationalist era, after President Nasser’s overthrow of the monarchy in 1952, that it most spectacularly played that role. But in a quieter, longer-term fashion, it was also the chief progenitor, through the creation of the Muslim Brotherhood, of the “political Islam” we know today, including – in both the theoretical basis as well as substantially in personnel – the global jihad and al-Qaida that were to become its ultimate, deviant and fanatical descendants.
But third, and most topically, it was also the earliest and most influential exemplar of the thing which, nearly 60 years on, the Arab democratic revolution is all about. Nasser did seek the “genuine democracy” that he held to be best fitted for the goals of his revolution. But, for all its democratic trappings, it was really a military-led, though populist, autocracy from the very outset; down the years it underwent vast changes of ideology, policy and reputation, but, forever retaining its basic structures, it steadily degenerated into that aggravated, arthritic,deeply oppressive and immensely corrupt version of its original self over which Hosni Mubarak presided. With local variations, the system replicated itself in most Arab autocracies, especially the one-time revolutionary ones like his, but in the older, traditional monarchies too.
And, sure enough, Egypt’s “street” did swiftly move, and in nothing like the wild and violent manner that the image of the street in action has always tends to conjure up in anxious minds. As a broad and manifestly authentic expression of the people’s will, it accomplished the first, crucial stage of what surely ranks as one of the most exemplary, civilised uprisings in history. The Egyptians feel themselves reborn, the Arab world once more holds Egypt, “mother of the world”, in the highest esteem. And finally – after much artful equivocation as they waited to see whether the pharaoh, for 30 years the very cornerstone of their Middle East, had actually fallen – President Obama and others bestowed on them the unstinting official tributes of the west.
These plaudits raise the great question: if the Arabs are now rejoining the world what does it mean for the world? Will the adoption of a fundamental western value make it necessarily receptive to western policies or prescriptions? Probably not. Democracy itself, let alone Arab resentment over the west’s long record of upholding the old, despotic order, will militate against that.