Authoritarian rule in the Arab world

Nurturing the Arabellion phoenix

The restoration of authoritarianism after the turmoil of 2010/11 lured some analysts into drawing the over-hasty conclusion that the Arab Spring had been doomed to failure from the start, because the citizens of these countries lacked political maturity and a real desire for change. A miscalculation, argues Emad Alali in his essay

It is widely recognised that the Arab world we knew prior to 2010 no longer exists. The renowned Middle East expert Volker Perthes provided sufficient evidence to back up this thesis in his essay "The end of the Middle East as we know it" (2015). Perthesʹ considerations, however, mainly focussed on the geopolitical perspective.

But the thesis has another dimension, which has barely been discussed until now: the caesura in the (political) thinking of people in the Arab world following the revolutions of the Arab Spring. The revolts of 2010/2011 failed politically, but at the same time they brought forth a new type of person, a "political animal" – zoon politikon – that the ruling elite cannot ignore.

With hindsight: the de-politicisation of the Arab peoples

During the 1950s and 1960s, political instability held sway across the Arab world and powerful elites succeeded in cultivating their autocracies. There was a growing mistrust among the population towards politicians and the military, which led to a general sense of apathy and despair – and as a result, Arabs increasingly distanced themselves from politics.  

Above all, it was the systematic marginalisation of the individual that was responsible for this de-politicisation of the people. Individuals were not permitted to speak about politics, participate in politics, or take a stance on political issues. In this way, the Arab political system managed to make the Arab individual disappear completely from the political landscape, reducing his right to exist to private life and providing for his family.

Doing away with political freedom also meant doing away with political life itself, with the socio-political consciousness formed in the public sphere that can exert an influence on the political actions of governments and rulers. But doing away with political life means that politics loses its very essence. Hannah Arendt rightly stressed that freedom is not the direct aim of political action, but the real raison dʹetre of politics.

Syrian opposition protesting against the Assad regime in front of the Arab League headquarters in Cairo in 2012 (photo: Reuters)
Despite everything: "the Arab ʹpolitical animalʹ continues to have a public voice. His existence is so significant because he is crucial to the anchoring of new political systems that are willing and able to push through reforms, and can respond to the interests and demands of their populations. These new prospects smooth the way for a rule of law that will preserve and protect the rights of all citizens," writes Emad Alali

The Arab nations today may have underpinned their power by doing away with the political Arab, but it was also precisely this that led them into a crisis. The ongoing effects of suppression and despotism began to come to a head; and the power constructs that limit the thought and actions of Arabs are now increasingly revealing themselves as unsuitable for the times we live in. 

Social injustice as the cause of the uprising

The relationship between citizens and state has also changed dramatically. While in the past, Arab people were still able to shape their individual lives independently from the state, in todayʹs world this independence is no longer possible. The growth in population and unemployment were two of the essential factors that led to this change. Social injustice was what initiated the Arab Spring and forced the Arab people to become politically and socially engaged.

Arab culture was permeated by deep flaws such as corruption, poverty, unemployment, abuse of power and social injustice. The Arab governments were – by their despotic nature – unable to adapt to the socio-political and economic changes taking place in their countries. They needed to take measures to find their way out of the crisis and initiate plans to take up or deal with these changes.

But this they failed to do. They didnʹt take on board the fact that the world had shrunk in the age of globalisation and technology. Arabs living in poverty, with no work or prospects, could now see the huge differences between their homelands and other countries in Europe and the West. They felt the political and economic injustices and deficits more clearly than ever before.

The shift into open violence

The general scepticism regarding the Arab governmentsʹ ability to introduce political and economic reforms now reached its zenith and people felt compelled to take direct action. They saw the revolutions as a necessity, as the consequence of social conditions they felt would never improve. It was the social crisis that awakened a political consciousness in them.

In some countries (Libya, Syria, Yemen), the revolutions tipped over into open civil war. If we compare the tense situation in these countries today with conditions there before, which were stable despite the political deficits, the obvious conclusion is that the Arab revolutions have failed.

But such attempts to interpret the region are one-sided. The shift into violence resulted directly or indirectly from various (power-)political developments that were hard to avoid. The systematic use of violence on the part of the Arab regimes provoked a backlash of violence in return. Without taking into account the numerous reasons and factors for the escalation of violence, it must be noted that this negative development had a severe impact on the future prospects of the revolutions and those of the new Arab zoon politikon.

The re-birth of the Arab "zoon politikon"

Nevertheless, Arabs continue to be politically and socially active today. This political activism can be observed on social networks, on political and social blogs and forums – and in the comments on particular issues in various online media. There you will find discussions about political, social, cultural and economic events.

The Arab "political animal" continues to have a public voice. His existence is so significant because he is crucial to the anchoring of new political systems that are willing and able to push through reforms, and can respond to the interests and demands of their populations. These new prospects smooth the way for a rule of law that will preserve and protect the rights of all citizens.

Freedom graffiti in downtown Tunis (photo: Reuters)
From dictatorship to freedom: while the uprisings in countries such as Egypt, Syria or Libya gave way either to authoritarian restoration or bloody civil war, the fall of the Ben Ali dictatorship in Tunisia marked the path to democracy. After the Arab Spring, Tunisia was the only country in the region to introduce far-reaching reforms. However, social peace in the country remains fragile

There are two important aspects to be viewed against this backdrop: first, the establishment of this rule of law can only be accomplished by degrees – meaning only in the medium and long term. Educating people to be political animals, aware of themselves as social and political beings and possessing an ability to think critically, is one of the most important factors here.

Second, fulfilling these parameters means creating a democratic form, especially if it exists in a minor way in a transitional phase, since the existence of the political individual can be regarded as a guarantee for the further development of democratic forms. Democracy, which numbers freedom, social justice and human rights among its core values, represents the natural political form of life. Dictatorship, by contrast, is a phenomenon tied to a situation which has no hope of survival, for the simple reason that it cannot meet the needs of people in an age of globalisation.  

Reformism versus despotism

If the only result of the revolutions had been to give birth to the political animal, the world would probably have unanimously declared the Arab Spring to be a success. The turmoil would have made it clear to the Arab rulers once and for all that in future, they have a duty to act in a politically responsible way and to pursue reforms primarily oriented towards the well-being of their citizens.

It remains doubtful whether Arab leaders are seriously intending to implement any political and economic reforms. After all, any road to reform also threatens the existence of their despotic leadership; at bottom, reformism and despotism are mutually exclusive.

Today, it appears possible and even to be expected that the Arab regimes will attempt to subdue the new Arab zoon politikon permanently. But the contradiction remains: the Arab regimes are not capable of really rectifying the problems in their countries – problems that were created and continue to exist thanks to their own policies.

Emad Alali

© 2019

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin

Emad Alali is a literary and political scientist. His research interests include political thinking and the history of political ideas in the Middle East after the Arab Spring.

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