Analysis Amr Hamzawy

The Autumn of the Patriarchs: Where Is the Arab World Headed?

The past months have seen dramatic changes in the political sphere of the Arab world. In his analysis, Amr Hamzawy makes an optimistic prognosis but warns that radical Islamism and ethnic violence are still influential factors in the region

The past months have seen dramatic changes in the political sphere of the Arab world. In his analysis of the events, Amr Hamzawy makes an optimistic prognosis but warns that radical Islamism and ethnic violence are still influential factors in the region

photo: AP
In Egypt, at protests rallies against the Mubarak regime, Islamists and liberals temporarily joined forces

​​Unusual scenes are unfolding these days in the Middle East. Peaceful mass demonstrations in Lebanon, joint protest rallies put on by Egyptian Islamists and liberals against the Mubarak regime, and local elections in Saudi Arabia are shaping the region’s image, along with pledges of non-violence on the part of Palestinian resistance groups, and multi-party negotiations to form a government coalition in Iraq.

The Arab world is changing – in far-reaching ways. In contrast to the simplified ideologically colored debates, particularly in Washington, on the question of to what extent current developments might have been triggered by the Middle East policies of the Bush administration or whether local and regional factors have likewise played a part, the true challenge of the present moment lies in comprehending the various directions in which such profoundly different nations as Lebanon and Saudi Arabia are heading today.

Elections in Iraq and Palestine were fair and pluralist

In view of the great regional diversity here, three complementary readings of present events seem to be plausible. First, there is no avoiding the optimistic conclusion that the tide is turning in favor of democracy. Indeed, evidence is accumulating of nascent political transformation in many countries in the Arab world.

Iraq and Palestine have held elections, which, although under the auspices of the American or Israeli occupation, were nevertheless fair, pluralist and enjoyed a high turnout.

The power constellation that emerged out of the Iraqi elections effectively prevents the feared hegemony of the Shiite majority and forces Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani and partners to deal with the demands of other groups by striving for consensus.

The Islamist movement is one force among several others

At least there is no longer any reason to fear a theocratic Iraq based on the Iranian model anytime in the near future. In Palestine, the Hamas Islamist resistance movement has been voicing its desire to take part in the parliamentary elections scheduled for this July.

This comes as no surprise, since the last local elections in the occupied territories secured the party 70% of the mandates in Gaza and 25% in the West Bank. The ceasefire with Israel and the general tolerance for the new Palestinian president, Abu Mazen (Mahmud Abbas), are thus being cemented through a pragmatic about-face.

The Islamist opposition is well on its way to gradually defining itself as an actor among others in the legal political arena, where ideological battles and conflicts of interest are fought out peacefully in the context of democratic institutions. The future Palestinian parliament will function as a school where Hamas can learn moderation and tolerance.

From developments in Iraq and Palestine, we can doubtless only draw qualified conclusions about the rest of the region. Both models will retain their exceptional character, especially in Arab eyes, for a long time to come. Nevertheless, the two countries no longer appear quite so anomalous when one considers the changes currently underway in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Authoritarian leadership model has lost its grip over society

Taken together, the events in these three countries demonstrate a break with the dominant authoritarian pattern characterizing the relationship between state and society. Faced with dissatisfied majorities and increasing criticism from the West of their undemocratic forms of rule, the authoritarian regimes in Riyadh and Cairo, as well as the Lebanese-dominated government in Damascus, have increasingly seen themselves forced to inaugurate political reforms.

Certainly, the Saudi Arabian elections, from which women and other groups are excluded, or the promises to pull Syrian troops and secret service agents out of Lebanon, do not constitute any kind of comprehensive reform in the sense of a lasting process of democratization.

Just as real is the danger that the change in the Egyptian constitution will be rendered meaningless by presidential elections conducted along the lines of the Tunisian model, in which Bin Ali stages his inevitable next term in office as if it were a pluralistic victory.

Public is more receptive to ideals of democracy than ever before

But what is decisive here is the realization that it has finally been possible to push the autocrats to make concessions.

Today, the prominent father figures of the Arab world no longer react as they once did to internal protest movements, reaching into their diverse arsenal of repressive measures, but instead yield to pressure from a public that is more receptive than ever before to the ideals of democracy and human rights.

For the political culture of lament and passivity that is so widespread in this region, this transformation is paramount to a true revolution. The autumn of the patriarchs has begun.

There is still militant Islamism and ethnic violence

But enough rosy images! Because the second possible reading shifts the analytical viewpoint to the inherent dangers of militant Islamism and ethnic violence in today’s Arab political landscape. By contrast to countries like Algeria and Egypt, in which the waves of violence have ebbed considerably, one can find particularly in the Gulf States increasing radicalization among the Islamist protagonists.

Inspired by the survival of Bin Laden and the terrorist momentum in Iraq, these splinter groups see the situation in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, just to name the two most explosive examples, as an end-game against the infidel.

Everyday life here is characterized by the senselessness of fatalistic violence, compelling the state authorities to resort to repressive counter-measures. Taking into consideration the profoundly backward-looking culture prevailing in today’s Gulf States, the menace of radical Islamism turns into an impending conflagration.

The results of the Saudi-Arabian elections, in which the ultraconservative Wahabis gained the majority of the mandates, and the unspeakable discussion in the Kuwaiti parliament on the political rights of women, should be understood in this light as more than simply early warning signs.

Fight against terror as excuse for political stagnation

Their implications for overall political development are fatal. The problem is that the regimes are justifying the slow tempo of the reform process (in Saudi Arabia) or its stagnation (in Kuwait) by citing the necessity to fight terror.

The West as well is refraining, for good reason, from exerting pressure on the gulf rulers to push forward democracy.

Preserving law and order in this strategic space is more important in terms of realpolitik than any dreams of democracy, especially when the oppositional forces feel committed to a different understanding of politics.

One-sided ethnic makeup of Arab regimes

Another danger zone is sprouting out of the fertile ground of potential ethnic and religious conflicts. Arab regimes frequently evince a one-sided ethnic makeup that neither reflects a country’s social realities nor has any basis in consensus.

Repression and marginalization of the Berber population have long been the order of the day in Algeria, while in Syria the Sunni majority forms the target and on the Gulf, particularly in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, it is the Shiite citizens who are excluded.

This approach was also a structural feature of Iraq for quite some time, and characterized the relations between northern and southern Sudan as well.

Now, the ethnic and religious composition of the power constellations in both countries is changing, and political institutions are gradually being established in which the representation of the various ethnic groups is to be democratically sanctioned.

This development is by no means escaping the notice of the Arab public, surely drawing the greater amount of attention in the case of Iraq. Everywhere in the region, the voices of the oppressed are clamoring to be heard, and their demands are taking on sharper contours.

Lack of means to avoid upcoming conflicts

The "underdogs" are finally finding their longed-for champions in al-Sistani and the southern Sudanese leader John Garang. Few of the countries affected have at their disposal the necessary means to defuse the apparently unavoidable upcoming conflicts.

Last year, the Syrian regime reacted with the accustomed mix of brutal repression and cheap propaganda to unrest in the Kurdish region. Even in Bahrain, where fairly democratic structures are in place, the Shiite majority is under-represented and thus justifiably feels marginalized.

Although political reforms leading to expanded opportunities for popular participation are basically the only true formula against ethnic and religious conflicts, this second danger zone has a somewhat dampening effect on democratic prospects in the Arab world. At times, one gets the impression that the rulers in these countries are dealing with the lurking risks by defending their power even more brutally and uncompromisingly.

Is an escalation along ethnic and religious lines a present threat in Lebanon as well? Most likely not.

What about Lebanon?

The main protagonists on the Lebanese scene, notwithstanding the antithetical opinions of Hussein Nasrallah and Walid Jumblat, are oriented toward a political consensus backed by the concept of the nation state.

The symbolic banning of all foreign and partisan flags from the Beirut demonstrations is just one indication of this, and even more, the visible agreement across the various camps that the fate of the country should be negotiated within the state-sanctioned political sphere, if possible democratically, and without external intervention.

This was the central message of the Hisbollah demonstrations in which several million people took part, impressively documenting their social weight and political ambitions.

The return of the nation state

The significance of national sovereignty is thus changing from an apprehensive collective of "us against the world" – no matter whether the capital of that world is Washington or Damascus – to a formula indicating a willingness to compromise: "we're in this together," which has the effect of focusing attention onto national politics.

A similar tendency toward recognizing national borders as the signpost for political demands can be felt today throughout the region. The nation-state, long derided by the pan-Arabists and combated by the Islamists, is being rehabilitated, elbowing transnational visions of an Arab or Islamic Umma into the political background.

At the last rally held by the Egyptian protest movement known as Kifaya (Enough), which took place this February, neither anti-American nor anti-Israeli slogans were flung to the masses. The situation in Iraq and the occupation of Palestine, which used to exercise such power to draw crowds, were not mentioned even once.

The importance of consensus-oriented politics

The protest stayed on-topic, demanding political reforms in Egypt. Even the disadvantaged Shiites in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia demand changes within the framework of their respective nation states.

Just as in Iraq, they do not entertain any separatist Shiite ambitions, but rather hope to achieve with their campaigns better political representation and a more just distribution of wealth between themselves and other ethnic and religious groups.

The rediscovery of the nation-state thus represents the third plausible reading of today's Arab reality, the one whose signs point to gradually more consensus-oriented political arenas, which will contribute to fostering democratic reforms.

In the preface to the first edition of his book "From Hegel to Nietzsche" in 1939, German philosopher Karl Löwith (1897-1973) writes: "The process of meaning shift is never complete, because in historical life we can never know in advance what will result in the end."

In view of the diversity and polarities characterizing developments in the Arab world today, we can think of no more humble note of caution with which to conclude.

Amr Hamzawy

© Süddeutsche Zeitung 2005

Translation from German: Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

Dr. Amr Hamzawy is Senior Associate for Middle East Politics at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington. He recently published "Kontinuität und Wandel im zeitgenössischen arabischen Denken," (Continuity and Change in Contemporary Arab Thought), Verlag des Deutschen Orient-Instituts, Hamburg 2005.

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