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The persistence of the old order in the Middle East

We are approaching the third anniversary of the beginning of so called “Arab Spring.” Has anything changed?

Hisham Melhem

Published: Updated:

We are approaching the third anniversary of the beginning of the season of Arab uprisings, or what was erroneously called the “Arab Spring,” when a 23 year old street vendor in the central Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid, in an act of desperation and defiance, set himself on fire. The self-immolation of Mohammad Bouazizi, who snapped after a humiliating encounter with the local police, also set ablaze the cruel world that millions of angry and alienated Arabs in Tunisia and beyond inhabit. The stunning unfolding of events that followed in the next few weeks in Tunisia and Egypt brought to mind Vladimir Lenin’s smart insight that “sometimes decades pass and nothing happens; and then sometimes weeks pass and decades happen.” Later, the fire consumed Libya and then spread from Africa to Asia to burn Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. At times it seemed that to varying degrees of intensity every Arab country was potentially combustible. In those heady days, it appeared that Bouazizi’s ultimate sacrifice ended the decades-long stagnation and decay and gave rise to weeks and months of rapid and, at times, bewildering change.

During that “moment of enthusiasm,” particularly in Egypt that led to the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, many spoke of the promise of revolution and change, of a youth movement that creatively mobilized previously disparate social strata through the use of social media, and of the radical transformational trends in society and polity that would sweep the region and with it all the entrenched inheritance of oppression suffocating Arab societies since formal independence. Three years after the initial intoxicating days of rage and wild celebrations in the streets following the demise of the supposedly last despots in Tunisia and Egypt, even those who dubbed the uprisings, the shining “Arab Spring,” admit now that their spring, maybe with the exception of Tunisia has turned into a dark long winter. It is true that it may be too early to render a definitive judgment about the long arc of these uprisings and whether it will bend towards positive change, it is also clear that the harvest so far has been very meager; and the uprisings, have pushed the Arab region into a terra incognita.

Transitions and their discontents

Yes, decades did happen in few weeks in Tunisia and Egypt when the tip of the old despotic pyramid was toppled, and yes presidents Ben Ali and Mubarak are gone, however the whole pyramid or the super-structure of oppression remains intact. This structure encompasses the old political and economic order as well as the cultural/religious inheritance. All the countries that were swept by the uprisings are still going through varying degrees of intense transitions; those that achieved limited results through removing the tip of the old order ; Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and the remaining two, Bahrain where the uprising was rolled back by domestic coercion supported by outside intervention and in Syria where the besieged Assad dynasty is fighting ferociously to crush an uprising that turned violent and plunged the country into a frightening civil war-cum regional conflict with terrible consequences for the already tense Sunni-Shiite fault lines. Looking at the mixture of complex politics, violent mobilizations on the part of religious ,tribal groups, militias and the security apparatus of the old order, growing political, sectarian/ethnic/tribal tensions and other strange phenomenon during these tumultuous transitions, one can begin to see the wisdom in Antonio Gramsci’s brilliant observation of the complexities of transitions : “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in the interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

It was thought initially that Tunisia, and to a lesser extent Egypt, are likely to achieve transition to representative governance not marred by violence and intimidation, partly because both countries are largely homogenous with well-established cultural and national identities and relatively developed civil societies. However, the political polarization in Egypt and the violence that marred both the rule of the armed forces immediately after Mubarak’s ouster and the Mursi/ Muslim Brotherhood year in power and the bloody overthrow of the Brotherhood has plunged Egypt into an open ended transition that is not likely to end soon or without much blood, sweat and tears. Tunisia remains the only country with realistic, albeit difficult prospects, of graduating from its current transition towards a more representative governance and political and economic reforms, mainly because of its secular tradition, its relatively tolerant polity, educated women, labor unions and a small armed forces with no history of violently oppressing domestic dissent.

The meager harvest

Much has been written by academics, historians and journalists about the roots of the uprisings and their brittle achievements so far. One such study is published in the current issue of the Journal of Democracy, titled “Why The Modest Harvest” by Jason Brownlee, Tarek Masoud and Andrew Reynolds. The essay attempts to provide a regional model for the explanation of the various outcomes of the six uprisings as well as the resilience of autocracy in the Arab world. The authors believe that there are two variable or preexisting regime traits that account for the modest harvest of the uprisings: Oil wealth and hereditary rule (they include Syria in this category). Oil rents which endow the rulers with material resources to address economic grievances and repressive capacity with which to crush rebellions particularly when the ruler (the Assads for example) create “personalistic dictatorships” where the bonds between the despot and the agents of repression are very strong. Of course, there exceptions to this theory; oil resources could not help Qaddafi remain in power because of NATO’s military intervention, and President Ben Ali, Mubarak and Saleh of Yemen did not have enough oil rents and did not command the strong allegiance of the military.

The stunning unfolding of events that followed in the next few weeks in Tunisia and Egypt brought to mind Vladimir Lenin’s smart insight that “sometimes decades pass and nothing happens; and then sometimes weeks pass and decades happen”

Hisham Melhem

However, there are other interpretations for the meager harvest of the Arab uprisings that do not fit neatly into the “models,” “theories” and “paradigms” that scholars like to create. Given the homogeneity of the Tunisian and Egyptian societies, and a modern history unmarred by the sectarian, political, and ethnic violence that shaped the politics of heterogeneous states such as Iraq, Syria, Algeria, Lebanon, Sudan and Yemen there was little possibility of the tumult in Tunisia and Egypt spiraling into civil wars. In homogenous societies it is relatively easier for the political opposition to articulate alternative visions and strategies. The specter of civil wars has always haunted the heterogeneous states in the region when fundamental differences could not be mediated politically, thus allowing the brittle sectarian, tribal, regional and ethnic cleavages to collapse. In heterogeneous societies it is more difficult for the opposition to articulate alternative policies, given the different priorities of various groups and communities. Also, it is relatively easier for the autocrat in these societies to play on the concerns, fears and aspirations of the disparate components in these diverse societies. Baathists dictators in Iraq and Syria ruled and fought by the swords of their minorities (the Sunni Arabs under Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and the Alawite minority in Syria under the Assads).

The despot is gone but his despotism lingers on

The history of social and political upheavals from the French Revolution to the Arab uprisings shows that most of them don’t succeed and all of them including those that created new orders were resisted, sometimes stubbornly by the old order in various forms of counter-revolutions. Already the forces opposed genuine reforms and democratization are fighting back. These forces represent a whole spectrum of old entrenched interests such as the old political class, the so-called “deep state” encompassing, the security apparatus, the military institution, particularly in Egypt where it control a sizable portion of the economy, the old monopolistic business class that grew like parasites on the old political order, the judiciary system and remnants of the old state controlled media.

There are also other forces opposed to reform whose negative influence is very difficult to quantify. Under this heading one can put the cultural, religious, tribal and patriarchal inheritance that makes it practically impossible for any political movement to change or reform these entrenched, conservative, even atavistic constructs and norms. Other forces, including very conservative Islamists, oppose reform because of built-in societal-cultural prejudices, such as opposition to gender equality and opposition to providing non-Muslim minorities equal rights under the law. Their political philosophies are anathema to the fundamentals of liberal democracy. The recent survey by Reuters of the degrading status of women in Arab countries (where Egypt was described as the worst country in the Arab world to be a woman) brought to the fore in sharp relief the incredible distance Arab societies, including those that went through uprisings, have to traverse before they begin to address in any serious way gender issues. Also, the legacy of political repression in general, and the marginalization of non-Arab and non-Muslim minorities all account for the “counter-reform” campaign that the old order is waging to protect itself.

The “morbid symptoms” that we see in these transitions demonstrate the resilience of the entrenched old order and the strength of the conservative impulse in Arab societies, as well as the fragmentation and the political and/or organizational weakness and immaturity of “secularist” groups, particularly those in Egypt who are supporting the military and betrayed the initial hopes of the uprising. It may take years, probably decades before we see clearly the trajectory of those events that began on that dreary day when Mohammad Bouazizi lit the fire. What we see clearly today and in the immediate future however, is the stubborn persistence of the old order.

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Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.