The Arab world’s second liberal era

Abdel Monem Said

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Two characteristics usually distinguish countries that develop: first, they really want to develop and are, therefore, aware that they would pay a dear price to achieve that goal and second, they are willing to learn from their mistakes and are, therefore, willing to admit they made mistakes in the first place.

Literacy is the key to progress

We are not going to talk about the meaning of development and its philosophical dimensions and whether or not it eventually leads to human happiness, for I would rather leave that to sociologists. It is enough for the moment to look at the criteria according to which a country can be categorized as developed. The citizens of such a country should be educated in the conventional sense, meaning they know the skills of reading, writing, and math, and in the modern sense, meaning they know how to use computers and similar devices. They should be healthy enough to live for more than 75 years and should have enough income to secure food, shelter, clothing, and communication. These criteria apply to approximately 80 countries around the world, most of which are democratic and enjoy the basic rights of freedom of expression and equality regardless of race, color, religion, or sect.

It is enough for the moment to look at the criteria according to which a country can be categorized as developed. The citizens of such a country should be educated in the conventional sense, meaning they know the skills of reading, writing, and math

Abdel Monem Said

These criteria will not be acknowledged by those who use specificity as an excuse. In fact, this specificity, if it exists in the first place, might just represent a given historical era and, therefore, is not a sign of uniqueness since it has not offered humanity another model for development. Communism, Nazism, and the Vilayat-e Faqih regime in Iran might have been attractive for a few moments after which the spell was broken when it became clear that placing all human beings in one category is a form of regression rather than progress, especially with the presence of a wide range of choices and initiatives and with knowledge available for whoever wants to learn and wealth possible for whoever is willing to work.

The first liberal era

This was made possible in the Arab world in the first liberal era that followed the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the end of World War One and the propagation of the ideas of the Enlightenment as manifested in the emergence of the “effendi” class, intellectuals who graduated from civil universities, women’s movements, and industrial, financial, and commercial networks.

Some Arab countries like Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Tunisia witnessed the initiation of political parties, parliamentary elections, and constitutions and the crystallization of the concept of the “state” as a virtual entity founded on institutions, administrations, and legislative, judiciary, and executive powers and which are relatively independent from social and economic structures. This did not signal the end of tribes, families, or social classes, but the institutions under which all those were to be included differed from traditional patriarchal, tribal, or sectarian allegiances. Few Arab countries had gone through this experience and by the middle of the century the first liberal era came to an end with the series of revolutions and coups that kept accusing this trend of its inability to achieve national independence, its failure to achieve progress, and its defeat in the struggle for the Palestinian cause.

The first liberal era collapsed for several reasons that cannot be all listed here, yet one of them was not given enough attention. The type of liberalism promoted in this era only focused on democracy, particularly parliamentary representation. This era, therefore, focused on the mechanism through which people come to power, but did not do the same with other criteria without which progress cannot be compete like education, health care, civil society organizations that transcend sectarian, tribal, and regional allegiances, and popular movements. The liberalism of this era, thus, remained extremely detached from reality.

Liberalism loses its legitimacy

When this trend was unable to meet all the conditions that create an actual form of liberalism, it was no surprise that the first liberal era collapsed in the 1950s in the face of powerful revolutions led by generals who knew how to put an end to previous eras and to lead the Arab world towards prosperity, justice, freedom, and above all dignity… or so they said.

All this proved wrong yet with power and deceit it survived for six decades and managed to strip liberalism of its legitimacy so that it no longer became an alternative for incumbent regimes. It was then that political Islam emerged as an option whether through armed struggle or ballot boxes. This was made blatantly clear with the collapse of military bureaucracies one after the other following massive popular uprisings in the second decade of the 21st century, also known as the Arab Spring even though it turned out not to be a spring at all.

Whether in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, or other countries, the new formula constituted a deformed version of the first liberal era with no signs of learning from the mistakes of the past and which triggered the shift from liberalism to fascism. What remained from the previous experience is only this engrossment in procedural democracy that focuses on constitutions and elections while overlooking all other aspects that are necessary to prevent the collapse of these procedures and protect social, economic, political, and cultural entities from falling into a grip of a totalitarian rule.

It is quite striking that the new revolutionary and democratic structures are working hard to destroy the industrial class that has taken shape throughout an entire century under the pretext of combating corruption and to destroy civil society organizations under the pretext of foreign funding. As for popular movements, they have been destroying themselves when they turned from defending people’s rights to violence that is more related to football than politics.

The second liberal era

Nobody has learned from the first liberal era and when the second liberal era started, it introduced new forms of popular resistance to democratic procedures as manifested in low turnout in elections as well as the prevalence of instability, chaos, violence, and thuggery.

In short, the second liberal era ended before it had even started even if it remains a dream for small groups that still believe in the principle of liberalism and what it has offered to human civilization.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on March 13, 2013.

Abdel Monem Said is the director of al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. He was previously a board member at Egypt’s Parliament Research Center at the People's Assembly, and a senator in Egypt's Shura Council.

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