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The Democratic Hope of the Arab World

eye on the news

The Democratic Hope of the Arab World

Tunisia models a new political future. October 27, 2015

The Nobel Peace Prize has not always been awarded fairly. The unrepresentative micro-juries of bishops and retired Norwegian politicians who choose the winners have often demonstrated how easily they can be influenced by current affairs, trends, and political prejudices. This makes the announcement that the 2015 prize has been awarded to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet—a coalition of civil society groups—all the more gratifying. The Quartet did nothing less than save democracy in Tunisia. In the process, they spared their country from a civil war of Syrian proportions or an Egyptian-style dictatorship, and highlighted that the Arab Spring could do more than just topple dictators. It could lead to healthy political regimes and economic development.

Some may object that Tunisia is a nation unlike any other in North Africa or the Arab Middle East. While certainly an Arab nation, the country is marked by its economic and cultural symbiosis with Europe, and it has generally only hosted moderate forms of Islam. Tunisia is in fact more “westernized” than Libya, Egypt, and Morocco. This didn’t prevent it from serving as setting for the dawn of the Arab Spring, a movement that began after Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest after being mistreated by the police. While the Arab world saw itself in Bouazizi’s suffering, his death was proof that Tunisia under the dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was amassing the same afflictions that had plagued the Arab world since the 1950s. If the Quartet worked in Tunisia, it could be a potential model for the rest of the Middle East.

The 2015 Nobel Peace Prize offers a chance to review certain truths about Islam and the Arab peoples. The first of these truths is that disorder, misfortune, and exile are less present in Muslim nations per se than they are in the Arab spheres within the Muslim world. The largest Muslim countries by population are non-Arab: Indonesia, Bangladesh, India, and Malaysia. Islam—broadly speaking—is not inciting violence in these places. The world witnessed an Arab Spring, not a Muslim Spring. The current instability across the Middle East is borne of Arab-specific civilizational troubles.

How can we explain this “Arab question?” The answer lies not in the Koran, a complicated work of countless interpretations, but in the history of the twentieth century. The division of the Ottoman Empire and the decolonization that followed created countries with unmanageable borders that failed to track the geographic contours of local ethnic populations or religious practices. A host of dictatorships, ranging from republican to monarchical, were born. Their purpose was to rally their various peoples under a single flag and an illusory national identity. These dictatorships were doomed to failure; only democracy could have led to functional coexistence.

As these new Arab countries freed themselves from their western colonial masters during the 1960s, they turned to the Soviet Union for support. In addition to aiding dictatorships in Syria and Algeria, the Soviets also exported their statist economic model, which, for some at the time, seemed more efficient than capitalism. These combined influences led to the eradication of entrepreneurs, functioning middle classes, and academic and journalistic freedoms. The intellectual poverty in today’s Egypt is an example of the collapse of a nation that, prior to the pro-Soviet regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser, was the Arab world’s intellectual and spiritual center.

As its political, economic, and artistic spheres dwindled, the Middle East served as a breeding ground for Islamism, a twentieth-century ideology drawing its inspiration from fascism. The Muslim Brotherhood’s charter echoes that of the Italian National Fascist Party. Islamism is indeed a form of fascism more than it is a derivative of teachings from the Koran, which simply serve as an alibi. In the same way that fascism was based on nostalgia and representations of the Roman Empire, today’s Islamists worship an ancient Golden Age—the time of the Prophet. In both cases, we find ourselves faced with what sociologists call “the invention of tradition.”

It is worth reviewing these facts, as Westerners tend to know little about Arab history or the colonial origins of many of today’s major conflicts. Even Arabs are relatively unfamiliar with their history. The intellectual elite understand it, but they are starved of influence in their own countries. Who in the Arab world actually remembers the Arab Renaissance Al-Nahda, which preceded the Arab Spring by a century? This movement saw the introduction of schools for girls, a free press, and constitutional monarchies in Egypt and the Middle East run by European-educated bureaucrats, such as Egypt’s Rifa’a al-Tahtawi.

The Tunisian Quartet’s approach is less a departure from the current mood of the Middle East than a potential return to the Arab Renaissance after decades of socialist and dictatorial digressions. Tunisia aside, other Arab countries must now reconnect with their own history to show the world—and themselves—that they are not fated to live under dictatorships, fascism, or Islamism. This process will be long and difficult, but it remains achievable. Westerners can contribute to it if they recognize that Islam can prove compatible with political and economic freedom.

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