ISSN 2330-717X

A Spring In Arab History – OpEd


By M.J. Akbar

IBN Khaldun, the classical Arab historian, ascribed the great revival of the Arab spirit to “asabiya,” a term that can loosely be equated to “group solidarity,” a consciousness that rose above traditional loyalties like tribal identity and released the inspirational energy that made oasis dwellers and nomads into world conquerors.

Nothing can compare with that seminal 7th century resurrection, but there is a touch of “asabiya” in the transnational Arab Spring that has turned a dormant Arab street into a revolutionary force that is clearing the septic cobwebs which have turned a great people into victims of local despotism and tyranny.

The pace and trajectory of a revolution can never be predicted, nor can its re-formation into a stable order be guaranteed. But the Qaddafis and the Assads are clinging desperately to a world that is dead, along with their bankrupt ideas and alibis, all of which have been a thin cover for devastating regimes that turned national wealth [including oil] into personal property and castrated the people’s right to freedom and democracy.

These army-police states tried to garner international respectability through a thin middle class, which shared some prosperity as reward for loyalty to the new hereditary, civilian regimes. Could there be a worse instance of medieval despotism than the Qaddafi family, whose anarchic flamboyance was tolerated for so long by the rest of the world?

The sons of Qaddafi were busy buying football clubs in Italy and London School of Economics doctorates in England with money snatched from public funds, when they were not brutalizing personal staff in Switzerland. Puffed up by the sycophancy of foreigners, the despots became oblivious of the mood at home.

Western powers were indifferent to values they professed at home as long as despots honored their regional security concerns: An Egyptian somehow did not need democracy as much as an American if Hosni Mubarak was obedient. Now that Tahrir Square has decided otherwise, traditional relationships are in disarray. America and Europe have not been able to save clients in Tunisia or Egypt, even while they mobilize on the side of street anger to destabilize regimes in Tripoli and Damascus.

With the Soviet Union long buried, and Russia and China hesitant to offer more than verbal reassurance, the establishments in Libya and Syria are fighting their last battles with incremental brutality against their own people. They have a lot to lose: their loot. They will fight hard to preserve their obnoxious oppression, and the process will be neither easy nor predictable. Change may be delayed; it cannot be deflected or denied.

What the West is beginning to appreciate is that this is not a zero-sum game: The emerging Arab street is not going to be hostile to the West just because Washington propped up authoritarian Arab regimes. In fact, the biggest catalyst is the urge toward modernity. You cannot be a modern society or nation without democracy and gender equality, which are the paramount features of Western nations. Democracy will eventually produce governments that will be neither hostile nor servile.

Paradoxically, if the pro-West monarchies have shown a greater flexibility in the management of dissent, it is because they have been closer to their societies than republican despots.

But that, in the long run, or even medium run, is insufficient. It would be a mistake to underestimate the implications of the current demand of Saudi women for driving licenses, and the right to drive cars as equal adults, instead of being dependent on a male relative.

There are many layers of meaning in the campaign for driving licenses. Saudi women are asking a loaded question: If Ayesha, one of the wives of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), could drive a camel at the head of her army, if women could go to mosques in Makkah and Madinah and take part in consultations after the advent of Islam, then why cannot they drive cars. The question juxtaposes current reality with an old republican ideal in which there was far great gender equality than in most modern Arab nations. The debate is opening minds. Open minds demand open societies.

Hafez Assad, founder of what he thought would be a new Syrian dynasty, and a ruler who had no compunction in killing 10,000 civilians to put down an insurrection, had a slogan on every city gate and public building: “Our Leader forever is President Hafez Assad.” His son Bashar shares this pompous conviction. Time and the tide of “asabiya” wait for no man.

— M.J. Akbar is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London, and editorial director, India Today and Headlines Today. Akbar’s latest book Tinderbox: Past and Future of Pakistan is now available in good bookshops.

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Arab News

Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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