Bernard Lewis, the doyen of modernising Orientalists, asked some decades ago "What went wrong?" in the evolution of the countries in the Arab world. His response to his own question was that Arabs were burdened with a cultural inability to overcome traditions bestowed by Islam that prevented neoliberal economics and Western technologies from providing their societies with the supposed miracles of modernisation. Instead, according to Lewis, Arab civilization was paralyzed by the politics of resentment administered and exploited by autocratic regimes that were content to keep the masses at bay while luxuriating in palace life.
This narrative of Western self-vindication led critics to highlight the deforming colonial legacies of the region. They reinforced such pushback by blaming the ultra-stability of the Arab world on predatory arrangements favouring international capital and kept stable for decades by American neo-imperialism and grand strategy. Cold War geopolitics was also alleged to be partly responsible by unconditionally privileging political alignments that served their ideological worldviews regardless of the consequences for the nation. This Western post-colonial regime was also ready and determined to do whatever necessary to ensure continuing favourable access to the region's oil wealth.
Undoubtedly, the most flawed feature of Lewis' contribution to the neocon effort to restructure the Middle East when they were in control of American foreign policy was its arrogant imperial contention that Arab peoples are not capable of making their own history, and that they will be better off if they allow the West to do it for them, including by periodic military interventions.
We should also not forget the closely related Huntington hypothesis of 'a clash of civilizations' that gained such currency in political thinking in the West after the 9/11 attacks. Lewis actually used the famous phrase prior to Huntington, and both authors associated the Islamic rise since the late 1970s as expressive of their deep envy of the West because the Arab world was not being able to match its power and wealth, a case of monumental geopolitical sour grapes! Odd that oil, Israel, the Suez Canal, betrayal of World War I promises to Arab leaders of political independence are never mentioned in their extensive writings.
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How would citizens of the United States or Europe feel if their governments were shackled to political interests centred in Cairo or Damascus, with Arab military bases scattered throughout their country, and their wheat and corn exported at artificially low prices while the mass of Americans struggled to maintain subsistence standards?
Additionally, Israel has been a constant irritant to the Arab peoples in the region, but not necessarily to the political instincts of their governments, which were willing to make a realistic "cold peace" and aware that a satisfactory relationship with the US would be greatly eased by normalising relations with Israel. As time passed, and Israel exhibited its military prowess, it moved on Washington's balance sheet of geopolitics from the liability column to the assets column. Increasingly, Israel could provide the West with a strategic presence that shared its broad regional goals, but also added a dimension associated with its own worries and ambitions that resulted in a series of wars that seemed to establish a certain geopolitical discipline supportive of sustaining Western overall economic, political, and ideological interests.
The Arab Spring arrives
Then came the initial shock of the Arab upheavals, starting in Tunisia in late 2010, and spreading throughout the region, most rapidly and spectacularly to Egypt in early 2011. The results were electrifying: Massive nonviolent uprisings challenging the established autocracies in country after country that had long been assumed immune from politics-from-below, or more generally, from politics-from-within, except for occasional coups.
These welcome happenings led to a surge of spontaneous enthusiasm, giving rise to a mood of global excitement, widely celebrated as "The Arab Spring". Despite some reservations by those who felt celebration was premature, such a designation seemed at the time to strike the right note for political events that were as remarkable and original in their style as in their immediate results: The fearlessness in the face of the violence of the state, the role of youth and its use of social media, the ability to overcome sectarian and ethnic divides, the call for freedom and equity, the spectacle of peoples winning back control over the destinies of their own country, the general rejection of corrupt and cruel government, and the anti-imperial sub-text demanding an end to the American role as the master puppeteer. The political incubators of these Arab uprisings seemed genuinely inspirational. Overall, a new political subjectivity was being born, or so it seemed at the time, and still maybe so.
The dsappointing morning after
Yet, it was clear that not all the flowers in the regional garden were destined to bloom as roses. Several Arab monarchies made slight accommodating gestures, staving off more fundamental challenges, while the regimes in Damascus and Tripoli bared their fangs, using the blunt weaponry of the state to the utmost, often in the most viciously criminal ways to crush populist challenges being mounted within their borders.
In some countries, there seemed to persist the remnants of the old order, but without the hated dictatorial face at its helm, what came to be known as "Mubarakism without Mubarak," but understood as applicable more widely than Egypt. Leaders had departed, but their regimes were left behind, continuing to run the country, often with the armed forces claiming to provide the only sea wall separating society from chaos.
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Each national situation needs to be treated as distinct, with its own historical and cultural characteristics, and particular political context. Only in Libya, once NATO had driven Qaddafi from power, did it seem as though there was almost a governance vacuum, allowing a successor leadership to engage in a state-building enterprise or, failing that, to live with an alarming dispersal of power to tribalised communities run by militias that has dragged human security below tolerance levels.
Early on in Libya and Syria, what started as nonviolent popular demonstrations, mimicking what had seemed to succeed so dramatically in Tunisia and Egypt, encountered violent responses determined to suppress rather than to give ground. There was certainly no willingness by these governments, and others, to go with the flow. If anything, the eerie calm of Algeria amid the tumult was the success model that influenced several regimes to uphold the established order with every instrument of control at their disposal.
In mid-2013 there seem to be different tales of disappointment, but no clear story of fulfillment. Repression had worked in several countries. A NATO intervention with UN sponsorship had produced regime-change in Libya, but post-Qaddafi Libya achieved neither stability nor democracy.
Iraq after the American departure seemed beset by sectarian violence and the legacy of devastation associated with a decade of foreign military occupation. The governments in the Gulf used money and police to stave off incipient challenges. Tunisia managed to stay mostly off camera, and although experiencing a version of the Islamist/secular divide, still offered some hope that to those who believe that "all is well that ends well".
Undoubtedly, the most tragic regional story is that of civil war in Syria, which not only has pitted insurgent forces in pitched battle against the Assad regime, but has involved a regional proxy war between Iran on one side and Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar on the other, reinforced by the global rival involvements of Russia favouring the government and the US and Europe supporting the insurgency.
The Syrian people are caught in between in a deadly trap that exhibited multiple dimensions of polarisation: ethnic and religious minorities, sectarian divides within Islam, secular/religious, extremist/moderate, state/non-state. Despite the atrocities and carnage, the UN could do nothing more than offer its good offices, which neither side wanted as both were captive of all or nothing dreams. And so the bodies keep piling up.
Even if Russia and the US could have agreed on a course of action for Syria, there is no assurance that it would have brought the violence to an end or induced the adversaries to sit together long enough to reach a sustainable compromise. Syria is best considered "a geopolitical black hole" that has long been one of the worst features of a world order based on territorial sovereign states.
The controversial coup
At present, Egypt is commanding the most attention. The military coup of July 3, a response to a huge populist outpouring of the anti-Morsi opposition is generating wide controversy. Its proponents defend the rejection of ballot box constitutionalism to avoid national collapse and civil war by ridding the country of the Morsi leadership. The fiercest critics of this coup contend that it is a reversal of the January 25 Tahrir Square revolution, and the restoration of military governance in the style of the Mubarak period. It may be that both sides in this debate are correct, although the interim president, Adly Mansour, claims that placing Egypt in a military receivership is a temporary emergency measure, awaiting the outcome of new elections and the adoption of a new constitution.
In Mansour's view, the coup was a new stage in the revolutionary process initiated in 2011 ("we will preserve the revolution"), not its reversal or repudiation, and that the political challenge is to move forward by establishing an inclusive democratic governing process.
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It requires an act of will to view Mansour as credible. Not only is he a long-term Mubarak judicial appointee who helped obstruct the efforts of the Morsi leadership to create a smooth political transition to constitutional democracy, but in the short time he has been in office he has not raised his voice in opposition to the use of wildly excessive force against the pro-Morsi demonstrators that has already killed over 100 persons, and wounded hundreds more.
It is not only this overt violence; it is also the detention of Muslim Brotherhood leaders and the virtual criminalisation of the organisation, including the house arrest and investigation of Morsi himself, and the closing of Brotherhood TV channels. Mansour's silence or helplessness in the face of such behavior makes his words of reassurance about Egypt's future.
There are two principal battlegrounds at stake in Egypt: (1) Whose legitimacy? The procedural legitimacy of the electoral process or the political legitimacy of demands of an overwhelming number of the people in the streets. Both can be manipulated to the detriment of the public good. Neither provides assurance of decent and effective leadership. Neither should be viewed as an absolute.
Interpretation is indispensable. (2) Whose mandate? The majoritarian mandate of the winners in the political contest however it is conducted or the inclusive agendas of winners and losers, bolstered by respect for minority rights and sensitivities to the needs, aspirations, and above all, fears of the losers.
The good news in Egypt is that the new subjectivity of political fearlessness that was born in January 25 on Tahrir Square persists; deference to the state is more dependent on the performance of the government than in the past, and this reminds the leaders that public accountability is about more than elections.
The bad news is that the Egyptian people in their new mobilisation had to turn to the military to attain their political goals, and many anti-Morsi protestors seemed oblivious to the dangers of doing so. The further bad news is that the new leadership - like the Morsi leadership and the Mubarak leadership before it - is likely to turn the country over to neoliberal taskmasters, internally and internationally, in their indispensable quest for economic normalcy.
Whether this quest will include a significant dedication to equity and the ordeal of the impoverished masses remains an unknown at stage, but without such a commitment there is no prospect of durable political success, no matter how other issues are addressed.
It is trite but true to suggest that Egypt has reached a vital crossroads in its historical development, and the direction it chooses, will undoubtedly reverberate throughout the region. It is not the only vital crossroads in the region: will war with Iran be averted? Will Palestinian rights ever be realised? Will the war and violent strife in Syria be brought to an end?
When will it be time to wipe the tears away? Two years ago our critical judgment was dulled by the excitement of the occasion, and now we can hope that we cannot see beyond the storm clouds that now fill the political skies in the Middle East. As we wrong earlier by being too positive, let us be wrong again, this time by being too negative.
Whatever else, the central Orientalist claim posited so dogmatically by Bernard Lewis and his acolytes that the Arab world lacked the capacity to make history relevant to the modern world has been forever refuted. It may not be the history we or many Arabs wish for, but this second Egyptian popular mobilisation, although lacking the inspirational unity of Tahrir Square, bears witness to the insistence by the Egyptian people to claim control over their own destiny, and this is by itself quintessentially modern, whether Orientalists like it or not.
Richard Falk is Albert G Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.