The brutal, blood-soaked response of Arab rulers, especially those in Bahrain and Libya, to the revolts engulfing their nations exposes the desperation of old tyrants clinging to the past. But the revolts themselves reveal the extent to which the Arab political landscape has irrevocably changed.
The ‘strong man’ model of rule that has held sway over much of the Arab world for the past half century has rested primarily on two props: the ability to constrain opposition at home, and willingness of a Great Power, America in particular, to shore up dictatorship. Both the internal and external props of autocracy have become fatally weakened.
When Gamal Abdel Nasser first swept to power in Egypt in an army coup in 1952, he inspired popular support with his promise to modernize the country and to defend its national dignity. He undertook land reform, encouraged state-led industrialization and used hostility to Israel as a means of entrenching national identity. This became a template for other autocratic one-party states from Algeria to Syria. But the dream soon soured: industrialization faltered, the economy collapsed, and Arab nations were humiliated by Israel, most notably in the Six Day War of 1967.
As the legitimacy of the regimes ebbed away, so the power of Arab autocrats came to rest increasingly on the brute force of a police state and the crushing of all political dissent. The one space they could not fully police was the mosque. Mosques become, therefore, centres of political activism, and Islam the language of opposition.
The Islamisation of political opposition created tensions with secular authorities. But it also served Arab autocrats well. The religious establishment has always been hostile to popular democracy and less concerned with challenging for political power than in controlling public morals, less interested in overthrowing autocrats than in forcing women into the hijab. Many autocrats have acceded to the Islamisation of their societies in the hope of winning a new kind of legitimacy for their regimes.
The political power of the mosque has itself, however, waned in recent years. The paradox of Islam, as the French sociologist Olivier Roy observes, is that Arab societies have become more visibly Islamic, but Islam has become less political. Just as politics has moved into an individualized, post-ideological age, so has religion. ‘Social and cultural re-Islamization – the wearing of the hijab and niqab, an increase in the number of mosques, the proliferation of preachers and Muslim television channels – has happened’, Roy notes, ‘without the intervention of militant Islamists and has in fact opened up a “religious market”, over which no one enjoys a monopoly’. The Islamists, he adds, ‘have lost the stranglehold on religious expression in the public sphere that they enjoyed in the 1980s’.
From the first day that Tahrir Square started filling up, Western commentators were haunted by the spectre of an Islamist victory. Ironically, though, it is the weakening of Islamism that has opened up the space for the democracy movements. What crowds in Tahrir Square made clear was the willingness of a post-Islamist generation to separate personal religious beliefs from collective political demands.
As both the legitimacy of secular regimes and the political authority of the religious leadership have eroded, so new space has opened up for political movements. In Egypt, the revolt was driven by two main forces, one old, one new. The first, and most visible, at least to the Western media, was the Facebook generation: young, often middle class, activists, for whom social media have acquired a role analogous to that of the mosque for a previous generation. In a post-ideological age, in which popular movements often spring up with no leaders and little formal organization, Facebook and Twitter provide an important space in which people can converse, organize and thwart any attempt to shut down public political forums.
The second, probably more important, but less noticed, group driving the Egyptian revolt was the working class. Neo-liberal policies have in recent years transformed the Egyptian economy, boosting growth, but boosting also unemployment, food prices and disparities of wealth, and unleashing a torrent of strikes. Over the past decade more than two million workers have taken part in industrial action, in the teeth of ferocious repression, not least from the Egyptian Trade Union Federation itself, the only legal union in Egypt, but one which has functioned as an arm of the state.
The demands of such working class action have been mainly economic. But the very act of organizing industrial action in a country like Egypt is deeply political. The April 6 Youth Movement, that has played a prominent part in organizing the current revolt, takes its name from a call for a general strike on that date in 2008, a strike that never happened because of brutal suppression by the state. This time however, a wave of strikes, across the nation and in all spheres of life, played a major role in pushing Mubarak over the edge.
The Egyptian revolt exposed the weaknesses not simply of Arab autocracy but also of American power. Pax Americana has been built on the ability of the USA to maintain ‘stability’ by propping up authoritarian regimes that favour Western interests, and undermining those regimes, dictatorial or democratic, that hinder them. For much of the Cold War, Egypt leaned towards the Soviet Union. Over the past 30 years, however, America has viewed Egypt as a steadfast ally, central to its Middle East policy and to its war on terror.
Despite the close ties between the two countries, and the pooling of intelligence between their security services, Washington failed to predict the revolt, initially backed Mubarak, then attempted to impose its own man in Vice President Omar Suleiman, the CIA’s bagman in Cairo, and finally, when it decided that Mubarak had to step down, was humiliated by the President’s refusal to go until forced to do so by the Egyptian military. Little could have exposed more clearly a superpower unable and unwilling to act decisively and stumbling blindly through historic events out of its control. Whatever happens in post-Mubarak Egypt, the idea of Pax Americana, and the belief that dictators who do Washington’s bidding can rely on the USA to keep them in power, has been dealt a grievous blow.
These changes, both internal and external, are not peculiar to Egypt. Hence the spread of the contagion of revolt throughout the region. Yet, there are differences as well as similarities. Other Arab nations, especially Gulf states such as Bahrain and Yemen, have a more fragile middle class, a weaker labour movement and a less developed civil society than Egypt, making it harder to challenge autocratic power. And other dictators, having witnessed events in Egypt and Tunisia, have been far more willing to use lethal force to suppress change, for they have little left but the use of such force. What we are witnessing in Libya may well be repeated elsewhere.
Even in Egypt the future remains unclear. Dictatorship has been replaced by military rule, and the army’s true agenda has yet to be determined. How far the army will accede to popular demands, or whether it will create a faux-democracy in which the military continues to pull the strings, is still to be seen. The military council has already banned strikes and threatened to ‘confront’ strikers, which does not augur well for the democratic process.
One thing, however, is certain. Whatever the outcome of the revolts, in Egypt and throughout the Arab world, there can be no going back to old forms of rule. The old props of autocracy, both internal and external, have corroded. New ones may, of course, be fashioned. But even if autocrats manage to hinder the democratic process, the revolts have irreversibly transformed the political landscape of the Arab world. When millions of people, across myriad countries make so clear their aspirations, and their willingness so fearlessly to stand up for them, there can be no going back.
Nor is it the landscape of the Arab world alone that has changed. The revolts are helping remake much of the vocabulary and thought patterns through which Western commentators and policy makers relate to that world. They have exposed the hypocrisy underlying much discussion of democracy in the West. For decades the talk from Western politicians has been about the importance of democracy. Now that Arab people want democracy – and want it now – many in West are telling them to take it slowly, that it may take years, even generations, to create the conditions and institutions of ‘deep democracy’.
The revolts are challenging, too, many of the lazy assumptions that have been transformed into received wisdom: assumptions about Muslims being intrinsically opposed to secularism, about political change in Muslim-majority nations inevitably providing a platform for Islamists, and about liberal democracy being unsuitable for Arab culture. Perhaps most of all the revolts are reminding us of what true regime change means. ‘Freedom’, as James Baldwin once put it, ‘is not something that anybody can be given. Freedom is something people take.’