Power and the Arab Revolutions – some thoughts on the latest events in Egypt

The latest events in Egypt confirm one of the salient patterns that have governed the upheavals in the Arab world of the last years. This is the troubling but unmistakable fact that despite all the chatter about peoples’ power, democracy, civil society and the rest of it, when it comes to the real, grown-up exercise of political power in the countries in question, there remain only two contenders: the forces of political Islam, and the armed forces of the ancien regime.

That this is so seems empirically irrefutable – from Algeria to Gaza, via Syria and Egypt – the forces that when the talking is done go out to do battle with one another for the crown are the Islamists and the armed men of the regime (the latter usually organized under the banner of a secular, authoritarian nationalism.)

What is currently taking place in Egypt is a military coup in all but name. The army – the force through which Mubarak, Sadat and Nasir governed – is mobilizing to end the one year rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. It remains to be seen whether Mohammed Morsi and his comrades will yield to this mobilization, or attempt to resist it.

If they attempt the latter, Egypt will stand before a situation analogous to that of Algeria in 1991, when the regime’s military sought to annul the election victory of the Islamist FIS movement. The result was a bloody civil war which in retrospect may be seen as the precursor of what is now taking place in Syria, and what may now lie ahead in Egypt.

If, on the other hand, the Brotherhood choose to acquiesce to the demands of the military, then President Morsi’s remark that this will represent the reversal of the 2011 revolution is entirely correct. What will transpire will be military rule, presumably with a few civilian figureheads placed on the mast to enable the west to pretend that it is something else.

In 2010, I wrote a book called ‘The Transforming Fire’ which contains the following sentence; “In the Middle East, it is the regimes or the Islamists; there is no third way.” I undertake the somewhat vulgar act of quoting myself not in order to demonstrate what a very clever boy indeed I’ve been, but rather to indicate that this basic fact of the presence of two serious contenders for power in the main countries of the Arabic speaking world has been obvious and apparent before the events of 2011, which are usually (though inaccurately) held to mark the advent of the historic processes currently being witnessed in the Middle East.

To paraphrase George Orwell’s poor Winston Smith, however, I understand how, but I do not quite understand why. After all, the throngs of young people that we have witnessed in recent days in the streets of Egypt are not a mirage. No more were the young civil society activists who began the uprising in Syria, or the sophisticated liberals and reformers in Egypt. What are the factors which time and time again prevent the emergence of a muscular, representative, civilian and secular politics in the Arab world?

A politics of this type, which can combine the readiness for the use of force with a commitment to the open society seems to me to be the foundation stone for workable democracy.

In my own country, Israel, it very clearly exists. The primordial call of Jewish identity is the bedrock on which the democratic structure stands and is defensible and defended. Take away the former, and the latter would soon fall too.

Now the willingness to use force in order to defend rests at root always on something ‘irrational’, ie deeper than profit-loss, self-interested thinking. It must by necessity do so, since by engagement in such activity, the individual increases the possibility of his or her own early extinction. The ‘trick’ for making the open society work and be defensible seems to me the ability to combine or harmonize this deeper, non-rational layer of human motivation with the entirely rational commitment to institutions, structures, checks, balances and so on.

In the highly populated countries of the Arab world, glaringly, this has never been achieved. The liberal reformers are quite unable to command the kind of potent loyalties by which movements sustain themselves and win. Today, in Egypt, it is not they who are the real political and military actors. The required levels of commitment exist, solely, in the hands of Islamists on the one hand, and authoritarian nationalists on the other.

For as long as this remains the case, secure, rights based societies are likely to remain elusive in the Arabic-speaking world. But is the reason why it is the case, ultimately, because of powerful, pervasive ideas and practices in these societies which militate against the development of the kind of movements and institutions which could form the basis for a defendable civil society? It may well be. An unreformed, power-oriented religion that commands the deep loyalty of masses of people, and a stress on community security over individual rights would be the most notable factors here. And if it is so, it means that the anger of the populations at mis-managed societies will continue to be mis-directed, and that much remaining strife almost certainly lies ahead.

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One Response to Power and the Arab Revolutions – some thoughts on the latest events in Egypt

  1. Jonathan Karmi says:

    Wait and see. Nothing is set in concrete, even in the Arab world. In Egypt there are three main forces in play :- a growing young, partially-educated, internet-familiar population in the cities, the less educated, religious masses who support the Brotherhood and the Salafists, and finally the Army backed by the commercial and civil service interests that were the bedrock of the Mubarak regime. Egypt could be on the verge of something new, where the first-mentioned group attains some say in government, maybe in some future coalition. The next few months will be vital to see whether it can come up with a united and credible political platform.

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