The Arab Spring: Disorder may be good?

Low-key temporary disorder, although disruptive, can yield positive benefits to burgeoning democracies.

Protest against President Mohamed Morsi
Although many Western observers are quick to point out the legitimate flaws in Egypt's draft constitution, Western countries went through their own growing pains when constructing law and order [EPA]

Like many, I have heard the word “civil war” bandied about in association with Egypt from all kinds of sources, including highly erudite scholars. Egypt will not plunge into civil war – no matter what. Egyptians have every right to disagree. After 60 years of singular rule, they are “learning” how to disagree.

The Americans and the French killed each other more than two hundred years ago when they were rebuilding their societies, re-imagining community, and reconstructing democratic identities and futures. What the Egyptians are enacting today through protest and counter-protest is part and parcel of a similar process of self-knowing and seeking new futures and new identities.

Arabs can never win when the scholarly mantra was “strong state, weak societies”, and when, today, they are equally damned because the masses – from Cairo to Kuwait City – are subverting the paradigm in search of “strong society, weak state”. The challenge of blending horizontal with vertical forms of political organisation, mobilisation and speech is compounding the march towards dignity and freedom.

What is now being branded Islamist fascism in some parlance ignores the complexity of democratic reconstruction: Remnants of old regimes and their adversaries, such as the Islamists, cannot build politics on their own. Neither should be relegated to the discursive realm of “fascism”, a non-neutral term overlaid with neo-con overtones.

Horizontal politics

Across the Arab canvass, the cries of freedom and dignity should not be Orientalised into inhospitality to democracy, as many argue today. Rather, every riot, every protest, and every demonstration manifests forms of horizontal politics without which resistance and interrogation of old hierarchies and attendant power relations cannot be enacted.

Embodied in the emerging horizontal-wards politics are all kinds of discourses, forces and voices. Some are more equal than others by dint of resources, access, organisation, visibility, and the degree of impartiality arrayed against it. I would not go as far as lumping all of this dynamic under some kind of “crowd” or “street” politics, but the decentralised “public sphere” positions itself as an antithesis of centralised notions and practices of power.

The post-American Middle East

To an extent, it is the decentralising trend – with it fissiparous manifestations – that define the current political moment.  Arabs have had enough of “dirigisme“. Syndicalist forces, professional unions, the unemployed, women, minorities, and majoritarian Islamist power claimants are battling it in the public squares, all armed with sets of verities, indigenous and foreign, Godly and secular, liberal and illiberal, and even outright lay people whose political fluency is neither underpinned by any “-ism”. Rather, it derives from hunger, marginalisation, indignity and uncertainty. 

In the absence of strong political parties and legitimate institutions in partly vacuous bodies politic, in which personalism spars with institutionalism and civic openings with persistent primordialism that share in the duel of a nascent democratic ethos and a revolutionary ethos. For now, each is playing a kind of zero-sum game, seeking a margin of existence at the expense of the other. Ideally, however, Arab politics in its descent towards temporary disorder should invent its own kind of “third-way” that obeys neither the constraints of formal democratic politics and horizontal power relations nor the fluidity of informal activism that disobeys conventional rules of the game in favour of horizontal margins of existence.

In my mind, this is still the missing link in the uprisings Tunisia kicked off and Egypt fashioned as routes to transition into democratic futures.

On the whole, the adversarial engagement is not necessarily bad; what is negative about it is that it has to be turned into positive dialectics that does not preclude dialogue, compromise, mutuality, reciprocity, and equality, and does not settle for “iqsa” (exclusion). Varying degrees of violence is inevitable in the dialectics of change within a heightened state of polarisation.

However, people regrettably die every day for a cause or for no cause, and neither violence no matter how low-key can be sustained nor can disorder be blamed for it. Rather, violence has to do with routinising the wrong kind of order. This is what might be detonating dissension everywhere across the AME’s vast political landscape. Horizontal channels of organising politics are making this more possible than ever before.

The West in all of this…

There probably is more intervention in Arab affairs, regardless of its bad or good intentions, than ever before. Academicians, journalists, experts, spies, NGOs, officials, and Arab Spring “tourists” are all part of the mesmerising melee one witnesses at any given time in the countries where uprisings have taken place.

In all of these, the indigenous often feel like serving either as “informants” or being at the receiving end of all kinds of pontificating about how they frame their constitutions, uphold order and stability, develop large middle classes, increase their stocks of social capital, and obey transitions scripted by Huntington or elicit dynamics and outcomes found in some European revolution or another.

As demonstrated by the cacophony about the Egyptian crisis of late, all kind of noise including by those who hardly know the country, much less pronounce names of towns and people correctly are bidding into the debate about Morsi’s dictatorship, Muslim Brotherhood control of Egypt, and the doom and gloom of soon-to-be Sharia order.

Many rightly perhaps worry about the breakout of violence in Egypt yet a few weeks ago many more chose silence when Gaza was being pounded by Israel, finding all kinds of excuses of why Hamas had to be punished regardless of the price exacted on an entire civilian population whose arm-less and innocent children had to die unnecessarily.

There are, as many Western observers correctly point out, several wrongs with Egypt’s draft constitution. However, it is not a permanent or sacred constitution, and voters can defeat it if mobilised properly and if a case is made ably and professionally by dissenters – voter turnout will reveal all after December 15.

Boycotts are expressions of legitimate public disobedience but may not equate with referenda in themselves when the option to vote “no” is recorded officially and could hold the promise of changing the course of political history. Unless the dissenters, whose legitimate grievances and criticisms deserve Morsi’s response, fear contest for lacking the numbers; and thus prefer to resist through protest – not the vote. However, this is one impasse that may defy the number crunching game integral to democratic majority-minority equations.

However, Western observers weighing in on this debate speak and reason through idealisation of constitutions. The ideals of these constitutions did not always speak to the realities of how Western democracies began their journey. Had that been the case, we would not have recorded endless constitutional demerits: Disenfranchised blacks in the US, not to mention the plight of the native Americans who were nearly wiped out.

The incremental and gradual nature of constitutions cannot be emphasised enough. It is an organic life connected to the citizenry of a state, the effective tool of amendments in the challenge to keep on infusing a democratic spirit into formal and procedural vertical structures in society. Such amendments were passed in the US Constitution to enfranchise women, blacks and Native Americans (1924). However, especially for blacks and Native Americans, formal endorsement of their political rights did not necessarily translate into actual participation. Legal disabilities persisted to rob the right to vote from these two historically wronged groups (slavery and quasi-genocide). No equivalent exists in Egypt.

On the whole, there are no constitutions devoid of gaping holes. When perfect in word, their failing is mapped out in practice in the political world.”

That is, on the US side. On the French side, the equality of humans was not a fraternity as the Algerians discovered in the 1830s. Not even Montesquieu, a key reference of Western democrats objected to French colonialism in Algeria.

For argument’s sake, even if in theory a Sharia-based order that excludes the Copts is endorsed, it will never lead to the kind of atrocities colonial France committed in the North African country. All Morsi has to do is to give the option of referring to Sharia courts to those Muslims who subscribe to the idea, and preclude those who prefer civil courts lest they fear “occupation” by Islamists.

Canada, for instance, has a democratic constitution. However, in practice what does that mean for the indigenous people now dispossessed and downsized – in spite of land rights and recognition? So may be rights then are first founded for in living cultures and norms.

That is what the Arab Spring should be: A space for cultivating the kind of norms that constitutions uphold, rather than expect constitutions to cultivate rights that cannot be upheld in reality. Britain does not have a written constitution – but the maturity of rights accorded to difference outweighs those in neighbouring France with its historic constitution.   

On the whole, there are no constitutions devoid of gaping holes. When perfect in word, their failing is mapped out in practice in the political world.

Disorder route to order?

There is no fixed set of answers. However, the Arab Spring is not a “winter” in spite of the killing fields of Syria, the polarisation across many an Arab polity, and stalled transitions. This is one instance in Arab history when chaos may be geared towards the delivery a much vaunted good: Self-government.

Kuwaitis are rejecting a newly elected parliament they view to undermine democratic rules of the game; the Sudanese blame the current leadership for the continuous woes and bleak horizon for plurality and unity; many Moroccans are extending solidarity to prisoners of conscience and many more peacefully have not given aspirations for more equal rights of citizenship; the same goes for Yemen where despite an estimated 60 million pieces of arms, citizens mostly use peaceful means on behalf of demands for substantive democratic transition; in Iraq, Lebanon and Libya violence lurks because of both horizontal forms of political organisation as well as problems that await institutional input. Jordanian protesters are in the midst of a waiting game, and who knows where the season of Arab discontent will lead or whom it infects ten years from now.

And finally in Egypt and Tunisia, the Arab Spring has brought degrees of freedom that have allowed formerly morbid foes, with little or no prior equal rights of sharing a nascent public sphere, of being at loggerheads in defence of rigid positions that will, in time, wear thin and tatter as stocks of social capital enabling compromise, mutual recognition, power-sharing, and acceptance of democratic defeat increase.     

Turmoil in the Arab Middle East is not just over oil, soil or bread. Freedom, dignity and equality are its master codes. In the long run, they will be worth it if low key disorder is temporarily disrupting local lives or the conventional construct of “stability” Western powers try to impose on the region.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).