Enumerating the current crises facing Arabs, east and west, can prove difficult given their multitude. These crises can be split into two categories: crises stemming from relatively mild conflicts, and crises marked by severe conflicts. Some of the latter may be described as civil wars or as intense political wars with ripple effects on the entire society.
Read the latest updates in our dedicated coronavirus section.
The milder conflicts, which are most often between neighboring Arab states, are not worth delving deep into their details, as the priority right now is the more severe conflicts that are on the verge of exploding, such as in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya. We can also easily add Palestine and Algeria to this group. In other words, conflicts are raging today in nearly one third of the Arab League states. This alone is a clear indicator of the real, heated crisis in this part of the world, which is unlike any other regions, with such a big number of countries seeing deep conflicts.
Another observation one can easily make is that individuals in all or most of these communities do not only have a great capacity to comprehend the demands of modern life, but also possess a sufficient set of skills and sense of initiative. The Lebanese people are known for their achievements wherever they go; as are the Syrians for their initiative and activity, the Iraqis for their creativity, the Yemenis for their distinctive culture and history, the Libyans for their intellectual and social contributions, the Palestinians for their level of education and ability to survive, and the Algerians for their ability to adapt to life in the west and survive the long, arduous era of colonization. So, where does the problem lie?
In all of these communities, a combination of individual success and collective failure is prevalent. One of the main common characteristics of Arab cultures is their inability to work collectively for the greater good. Ibn Khaldoun spoke of this in the past, and Algerian intellectual Malek Bennabi went back to it later in his paper, The Phenomenon of Accepting Colonization. At first glance, there seems to be a contradiction between active, individual competence; and the collective inaction towards the resolution of problems facing society. Some believe that the reason for this is a failure on the leadership level, as the lack of an inclusive, capable, recognized, and fair leadership is the root cause of this paradox.
Most of the Arab leaders that came to power in the last century were totalitarian, ideological, and intolerant of the institution building process. In an environment that supports an autocratic one-party regime that is born out of historical necessity and must be ruled by a visionary despot, the masses gathered in “tribes,” not out of conviction and consent, but rather, out of obligation and subjunction.
If one were to look around this region, it is clear that the multitude of opinions and views, which is the lifeline of successful leaderships, is not only rare, but completely non-existent. I hope the Nasserites -- or whoever remains of them -- will not mind me citing the late Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was once asked: “Why is no party other than the Socialist Union allowed to work in the (political) scene?” to which Abdel Nasser responded: “We already have one ‘old-fashioned’ party working in the dark. Why would we need a public one?” (from the diaries of Tharwat Okasha). The same scenario was replicated, in an almost caricatural way, in Gaddafi's Libya (“King of Africa”), Assad's Syria (“Assad Forever”), Saddam (“The Necessity Leader”), and Omar al-Bashir (“Fair Omar”). A long, cultural legacy marked by the idolization of the individual, the intolerance of different opinions, and resistance to the building of state institutions.
Herd behavior is not a new phenomenon. The Soviet Union and other totalitarian regimes, like the Third Reich, Adolf Hitler's legacy, are the perfect example. A common dark joke in the period before the fall of the USSR said that when a citizen was asked his opinion on the Soviet economy, he replied: “Like the Pravda (newspaper) said.” When he was asked about his opinion on the weather that day, he replied: “Like the Izvestia (newspaper) said.” He was then asked: “Don't you have your own opinion?” And he replied: “I do, but I am against it.”
This is a dark joke indeed, yet here we are, witnessing it every day, right before our very eyes.
Those men or women in Lebanon who belong to Mr. Michel Aoun’s party go on TV and repeat the words and ideas of Mr. Gebran Bassil, blind to the total collapse that could soon bring his country to its demise. The same applies to the supporters of Hezbollah and others from this or that political tribe, who unfortunately joined this flock. Independent voices are rare, and the ones that are indeed found are called Lokman Slim, and their fate is a body pierced with bullets coming from a known source (Israel, surely).
A few days ago, a Kuwaiti parliament committee made a recommendation to raise the student bonus. A professional in the education field took to Twitter to express his rejection of the recommendation, which was apparently put forward by some members of the Islamist movement, only to be publicly accused of being affiliated with the government, despite belonging to that same Islamist movement.
One can write volumes on this matter, because evidence abounds. Therefore, I cannot tell whether a negotiated solution will be reached or a modern state will be built in Libya, Yemen, or Syria. The road ahead is a long one, and beautiful Beirut will lie in darkness for a long time before the sun rises again.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, Lebanese news outlet Annahar al-Arabi.
Beware miscalculating conflict-strewn countries
Iraq, Lebanon on the verge of collapse
The Biden administration and the Middle East: Aspirations and current realities