Awakening, cataclysm, or just a series of events? Reflections on the current wave of protest in the Arab world

Michael Hudson writes:

In 1938 the Palestinian-British intellectual George Antonius published his famous book The Arab Awakening. It described the nahda—the Arab literary and cultural renaissance of the nineteenth century—and the development of organized groups in an emerging modern and civil society in the early twentieth century. While the term “awakening” to some connotes a kind of benign Orientalism—it took Westernization to rouse these people from their long slumber—one might yet claim that this “awakening” was the emergence of a new national self-consciousness that would lay the groundwork for the populist Arab unity movement that rocked the Arab world in the 1950s and 1960s.

The original nahda was about constructing a collective identity and community. But what is the “awakening” of the present about? I don’t yet have a clear answer. It does appear, however, that the thrust of today’s wave of protest is less about identity than it is about authority. In every case the discourse is challenging the legitimacy of the rulers and/or ruling elites and objecting to their arbitrary, unaccountable, corrupt and often brutal behavior. And yet is there not something about the powerful “contagion effect” that suggests that some kind of latent identity politics—a tacit understanding that “we are all in the same boat”—is also in play?

The story of how the struggle for Arab national independence and unity was derailed into a system of segmented authoritarianisms is well known. Arab nationalist aspirations were cut short by the colonialist interventions after World War I. The map of the old mostly Ottoman-dominated Arab world was redrawn. Instead of a unified Arab state constructed along liberal and constitutional lines, the pre-existing colonial creations became independent and took on an authoritarian character of their own. The “progressives”, led most famously by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Ba’th Party pursued the dream of Arab unity, liberation, and socialism (wahda, hurriyya, and ishtirakiyya) through the modalities of a military-dominated single-party “republicanism”. The “conservatives,” mainly traditional monarchies (some of them oil-rich) preferred paternalism, capitalism and protection from the West. Their legitimacy rested on their claims to represent authentic cultural traditions and Islamic rectitude. But they were no less authoritarian than their “republican” counterparts.

This state of affairs has lasted for half a century. Political scientists specializing on the Middle East might be forgiven, then, for focusing on why authoritarianism has been so persistent. They came up with multiple explanations, among them the following:

  • The mukhabarat state. Whether republican or patrimonial, Arab regimes were able to build up formidable bureaucracies of control: intelligence agencies, multiple police forces, paramilitary organizations, and of course the military establishment. People obeyed because they were afraid.
  • ”Deferential” Arab political culture. Although this argument is almost universally rejected by serious social scientists, it still enjoys wide currency in Western policy circles, public opinion, and even among many people in the Middle East. It holds that authoritarian rule “fits” the political culture because that culture privileges the elites over the masses (the khassa over the ‘amma) and because people are socialized from earliest childhood to defer to patriarchal authority. Islam, it is said, also counsels obedience even to a bad ruler over the worse alternative of fitna or chaos.
  • Western domination. By this argument the colonial period put in place the structures and habits of authoritarianism that would outlast the colonial period itself. Moreover, the post-colonial period itself was marked by significant manipulation of local politics by the new global hegemons—the Soviet Union, and then, solely, the United States. Through economic and military assistance, intelligence cooperation, and diplomatic support the United States propped up friendly authoritarian regimes for reasons of Realpolitik and especially because it feared the anti-American tendencies in Arab public opinion. That condition, of course, was due primarily to America’s support for Israel and its occupation of Palestinian territory. To this very day American politicians and officials debate whether the U.S. should support friendly dictators or take its chances with emerging (but possibly unstable) democratic forces.
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