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.’


  1. Floyd

    Huzza for your article Kenan, this is one in the eye for those on the left hyper-ventalating over a revolution by proxy and also to the David Cesarani’s who has just seen in the Libyan example his logic taken to its logical conclusion. Not to mention those like Melanie “Is that Caliphate Kosher?” Phillips.

  2. MattC

    You’re a great writer and your critcisms of multiculturalism and the nasty old left are quite compelling. But I don’t think you have broken with them entirely.

    Your second last paragraph is Pilgeresque. In fact there has been widespread support from western countries and western leaders for a greater democratisation in the Middle East. But, there are valid reasons why politcal leaders are cautious. Firstly and most obviously it is because transitions to democracy can be bloody. Western Governments want stability to avoid bloodshed, not to prevent Arabs from achieving democracy.

    A second reason for caution is that democracy that endorses undemocratic and illiberal Governments (eg: HAMAS) cause more problems than they solve, both domestically and internationally. Can anybody really argue that the Hamas Government in Gaza is helping the Palestinian cause. They kill more of their own people than the Israeli’s do.

    America has long attempted to promote democractic change in the region. Sometimes well, sometimes not, but always change. In Egypt the circumstances are quite unique. The major opposition group is the Muslim Brotherhood. A group which specifically claims to renounce revolutionary violence, but still advocates a number of represive and illiberal policies. You would be aware that Hamas is an offshoot of that particular organisation, and that the MB in Egypt endorces the activities of Hamas in Gaza (including violence). Can you blame western Governments for not wanting the MB to come to power in Egypt.

    Ultimalty what the western governments are proposing is incremental change on a well thought out program. Not an overnight transition (see above).


  3. Floyd Codlin

    MattC, your reply while thoughtful and cogent was also wrong. You make the mistake of seeing western goverments as essentially having the Arab peoples best intersts at heart when you say “transitions to democracy can be bloody. Western Governments want stability to avoid bloodshed, not to prevent Arabs from achieving democracy”.

    Is that why in the past various 3rd world goverments have had either sanctions imposed on them or been invaded when they make the wrong choices? Lebanon in 1958, Iran in 1953, Houndouras 1954, Chile 1973 will serve as some examples.

    It is also the fact that the west has found that an “Outcome of a Tiananmen Square-style crackdown” is desirable and is predictable” to quote David Cesarani.

    In 2003 George Bush (jnr) made a speech where he lauded to the skys the fact that America would not supported freedom and democracy in the Arab world…just before invading Iraq. I note your comment that democracys can be bloody, this is not true, the fight for democracy can be bloody but that is not a reason not to have it and it also follows on from your other point that “A second reason for caution is that democracy that endorses undemocratic and illiberal Governments (eg: HAMAS) cause more problems than they solve, both domestically and internationally”

    Essentially then you must support then the activities of Ben ali, Mubarek, Ghaddafi, the rulers of Bahrain, Yemen, etc as that is the argument they would make.

    What is happening in the M/E is a re-awakening of the people from the slumber of authritarian rule wether it came under a green flag of Islam or Arab ationalism. This means that all sorts of questions and debates are taking place over what sort of society that people want.

    Yes it is far from the smooth polished tones of democracy where the people if they are consulted at all is manly as an after thought. It will be noisy, at times heated, at times chaotic. A democratic space has been opened and no-one knows what will fill it but people are willing to take that chance..they are not afraid of the future..why are you?

  4. MattC

    Thanks for your response. As it happens, I do not “support then the activities of Ben ali, Mubarek, Ghaddafi, the rulers of Bahrain, Yemen etc…” at all. I think a democratic wave of progress in the Middle East would be a great thing for the region, its people and the world. However, I am extremely wary about the path of current events. Let me explain my reasoning.

    However, before I do, I would like to clarify one point. I did not say “democracys can be bloody [sic]” as you suggest I did in the 4th paragraph of your response. I said “transitions to democracy can be bloody” which I submit is a separate proposition. This difference is the essence of my argument. I don’t think western Governments are at all worried about Middle Eastern countries achieving democracy. The point I am making is that they are concerned about the transition period between authoritarian rule and democracy. That is historically the period when a lot of people are killed, the period when failed states emerge and when regional stability can be fractured.

    What the statements made by representatives of Western Governments essentially emphasise is the need for a stable, and more importantly, a peaceful transition to democracy. This caution is justified by the dangers of violence, civil war and a breakdown of civil society (think of Algeria in the 1990s). Governments that are concerned about such matters tend to emphasise the need for an orderly transition, and ultimately the only way to achieve this is with the cooperation of formally powerful elites. Hence western Governments proscriptions for incremental change based on a consensus.

    Your description that change “will be noisy, at times heated, at times chaotic” is I think, at best, a euphemism for mob rule, violence and ill-liberalism. My own view, is that secular, plural, liberal democracy is the best way to organise society. Such societies however, cannot appear overnight. Each of these descriptors (secular, plural & liberal) have deep philosophical roots and in order for them to become the foundations of a modern society, there needs to be general consensus amongst citizens that they are essential. At the moment no such consensus exists in the majority of Middle Eastern countries. This is, I believe, a reason for caution and it is a major factor in the caution shown by Western Governments.

    Your accusation that I support the dictators in Yemen, Egypt, Libya etc… is incorrect. These leaders led their respective societies away from the goal of achieving secular, plural, liberal democratic societies. Nothing could be further removed from my own views.


  5. Matt, The point is not that Western governments don’t want to see democracies (even in what you call my ‘Pilgeresque’ paragraph I made the point that ‘For decades the talk from Western politicians has been about the importance of democracy’). The point is that they want democracy only on their own terms. Or, to put it another way, stability has been more important to Western governments than democracy, and stability has meant support for governments, democratic or dictatorial, that promote Western interests.

    Historically, Western powers have often intervened to prevent democratic change where such change has not suited them – from the CIA-engineered coup against the democratically-elected government of Mohammed Mossadeq in Iran in 1953, through to US support for Pinochet’s overthrow of the democratically-elected Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973 to the Western (particularly French) support for the military suppression of the Islamic Salvation Front which would have won the Algerian elections in 1992 (it had gained 48% in the first round in December 1991) except for those elections bring cancelled to prevent such a victory. It was not as you suggest, the ‘transition to democracy’ that led to ‘violence, civil war and a breakdown of civil society’ in Algeria in the 1990s, but the suppression of democracy.

    You suggest that a reason for caution about democracy is that elections can bring to power undemocratic and illiberal governments such as that of Hamas in Gaza. How did Hamas get a foothold in Gaza? Because in 1973 Israel invited the Muslim Brotherhood to set up there to undermine the authority of the secular PLO. ‘The Islamic associations’, as the Israeli weekly magazine Koteret Rashit observed in October 1987, ‘have been supported and encouraged by the Israeli military authorities’ who were ‘convinced that the activities [of the Islamists] would weaken both the PLO and leftist organizations in Gaza.’ The Brotherhood eventually set up Hamas. Israel achieved its aim of undermining the PLO and fragmenting the Palestinian resistance. But the people of the area, both Palestinian and Jew, have paid a terrible price for the cynicism of this policy.

    Such cynicism is not unique to Israel. There is, as the historian Ian Johnson has pointed out, a long history of US support, and funding, for the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization which has been seen from the 1950s onwards as a useful asset to be deployed against communists and other secular radicals. US support for jihadists in Afghanistan in the 1980s (groups from which the Taliban emerged) is well documented. The US is happy to cooperate closely with Saudi Arabia, a wahabist regime far more vicious and undemocratic than the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is likely to be were it to succeed in any coming elections (which itself is unlikely). America, in other words, is quite happy to work and fund Islamist groups and governments so long as it thinks it is in its interest to do so. It only worries about such groups when its own interests or, as in Egypt, the interests of its favoured regimes are under threat. (For a history of British cooperation with Islamist groups see Mark Curtis’ book Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam).

    You say that in most Middle Eastern countries there exists ‘no consensus’ for a secular democracy. Where is the evidence for that? Certainly, that is the argument used by autocrats, and by Western politicians who support such autocracies, to justify a lack of democracy. But, if nothing else, the current revolts should have nailed that particular myth.

  6. Floyd Codlin

    Matt, my appologies for mis-reading your comment about “democracys can be bloody”, your right that was my interpretation. You are of course also right in your insinuation when you say in your original piece when you say such a transition can in and of itself can be bloody.

    Nonetheless that is not a reason not to have it in the first place. In a society that has been freed from tyranny and at last has a chance to discuss politics, history, social questions/problems. You also pre-suppose in your comments that the hoi poloi cannot be truested to make any major decisions concerning their country and society in case they make the wrong ones.

    The above reply from Kenan put things better than I ever could. So all I will add is this. You seem to take the quotes from western goverments and institutions about freedom and democracy at face-value, despite even the most recent history urging us to do otherwise.

    You say in response to my comment that “will be noisy, at times heated, at times chaotic” that it is at best a “a euphemism for mob rule, violence and ill-liberalism”. I find this a rather chilling statement to make as it is precisely the sentiments that many a so called ‘liberal’ commentator makes after superfically welcoming the overthrow of Ben Ali and Mubarak.

    What may take place in the M/E will not (I hope) be the usual model of qiet diplomatic words amongst the elites of both countrys. What may take place in the M/E will be (I hope) the (re)emergence of those “deep philosophical roots” that you mentioned in your reply.

    There is I think we can all agree a transition period taking place..a transition that means testing ideas out in public..demonstrations..forming of trade unions and political partys and associations.

    It wont be neat and it wont be pretty but it will be vibrant, frustrating, risky and exhiliarating. Hmmmm..maybe its that which worries the elites in East and West. If you truely beleive in as you say the “goal of achieving secular, plural, liberal democratic societies”, though then it should not frighten you.

  7. MattC

    Yeah, sorry about that. “Pilgeresque” was taking things a bit too far (I’m reminded of Reagan’s “Mad Dog of the Middle East”. Is “Mad Dog of Fleet St” too much?). My apologies.

    As for other matters though, I can’t agree. Doesn’t the Ian Johnson article you link to make my point. According to Johnson, the Muslim Brotherhood is not secular, plural or liberal (it remains to be seen whether it is democratic more than once). Despite these issues it is the most vocal, most organised opposition group in Egypt. The likelihood of the group emerging as the dominant factor in Egyptian politics is reasonably high given these factors and the current state of other opposition groups. What then? Will the Brotherhood allow other parties, secular parties, that stand against its vision of an Islamised Egypt emerge? I doubt it. Numerous interviews conducted with MB figures over the last month or so tend to confirm this. Surely the situation deserves some caution? Surely Western Governments are right to advocate calm, peaceful and ordered transitions?

    I think that both you (Kenan) and Floyd are right to point out the inconsistencies of Western governments in the past. These have been mistakes, shameful mistakes made in pursuit of their own narrowly defined short term interests. It is the nature of Government to make decisions which, broadly speaking, benefit the citizens of their own electorates, not electorates half a world away. And so it’s likely that Western Governments will make similar mistakes in future.

    I have said previously that I support change. It has to come and it will be a good thing, but I suspect we will be waiting a while. As I write this, I see that the Tunisian Prime Minister has resigned, slowing down reform efforts. Likewise, although Mubarak has retired in Egypt, what else has really changed? Mubarak was a military man. Most of his appointee’s were ex-military men. They still hold power. The situation in Egypt is not much different from the Mubarak era, where military interests dominated politics. I suspect that we will see similar outcomes, perhaps with some slight reforms. In fact let me go so far as to make a prediction: The political situation in the Middle East in 2015, will look more like the Middle East circa 2005, than it does like any Western country as is being envisaged in the Western press.

    Even slight reforms though can be a good thing, and can generate momentum towards full democracy. Look at the Latin American states that were controlled by military Junta’s. These changes took time, and were built on small, but incremental moves towards democracy. This is, I think, a much better model for reform.

  8. Floyd

    Matt..sorry I know you wont thank me for saying this but your still wrong. According to you because a religious party such as the Muslim brotherhood plans on running in the election in Eqypt, this means the revolt should be stopped in its tracks. I have heard a number of people say this as well, that because they are the best organised, this puts them in pole position to win.

    What though is this based upon? In elections in Eqypt of 2005 it was said that they got between 20-25%. That election itzself however was fraudelent and neaningless.

    You also presume however that the other factions and parties will just humbly step aside for the MB to claim undeserved spoils. Again there is no evidence for this. As for the MB being in your words “not secular, plural or liberal (it remains to be seen whether it is democratic more than once)”…Well, yes but then no-one claimed it was otherwise..the point to be made however is that it has just as much right to contest the elections as and when they happen.

    Again you assign a certain innocent benevolence to western goverments and label their support for tyranny as “mistakes”. When Western goverments talk about “calm, peaceful and ordered transitions”, what they really mean is now the hard work has been done, step aside so that our chosen man can take over and carry on the neo-liberal work startec by the predecessor.

    No-one is saying that the revolt has run its course, though I suspect that those pleading caution would hope that it has. Indeed, to avoid reaching the scenario you outline in your reply above, caution is the last thing genuine democracy and freedom campaigners should want. Citing the former Latin American Juntas btw is not a positive example for orderly transitions..

  9. MattC

    Perhaps not. but it is an example of how incremental change can lead to democratic norms bein accepted by the majority (including former elites).

    It would appear that we are not going to agree. I had another lengthy post planned but I think I would be wasting my time (further responses from you would be simarly effective I suspect). Lets leave it there.



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