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.

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