At the very beginning of the Arab independences of the last century, the populations that had just freed themselves from the yoke of humiliating colonization and cultural enslavement by the West were in a state of euphoria bordering on madness. Everyone believed deep down that the future was going to be rosy for them and full of happiness and peace of mind.
The Wealth Gap
The populations in some Gulf countries have, certainly, benefited greatly from national resources and the largesse of their states and have become rich individuals but yet, somehow, assisted citizens, with a sickly dependence on the kindness and generosity of the welfare state of their respective countries.
In these countries, where the oil resources were enormous and the population smaller, the people became, sadly, slaves to the consumption of products imported from the West and mostly simplistic technology for amusement and welfare. Worse, the abundance of financial means, easily acquired, created in the population a latent laziness which pushed the state to import everything including the Asian labor or other labor in large numbers. Currently it is estimated at about 13 million people, if not more.
In the non-oil countries, despite the lack of means, the states have struggled to offer education, employment, health and housing to their population, with the meager means at hand at the beginning. But very quickly the inequalities increased between the rich and the poor and each country became two countries cruising at two different speeds and spawning so much pain and turmoil nationwide.
At the beginning of independence, the setting-up of a national economy, the installation of a national administration and the graduation of the first technocrats from universities and colleges and their subsequent employment by the state temporarily created a middle class, but the life of this class, unfortunately, only lasted a few decades and soon, under the effect of the economic pressure, it quickly disolved went to swell the ranks of the class of the poor.
After independence, instead of solving the problem of national identity in each country separately, firstly, by taking into consideration its cultural and religious minorities, and then by fitting them into a federal political system, the Arab leaders awkwardly opted for a single identity: Pan-Arabism under the impulse of two political movements (socialists with nationalist texture):
- Nasserism (originating in Egypt), and
- Baathism (originating in the Levant).
These nationalist movements lulled the Arab world into illusions of grandeur from which it would only emerge several decades later, following:
- Repeated defeats in wars against Israel;
- The arrival of political Islam and oppressive Islamism after the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, and;
- The crushing defeat of Saddam Hossein in 2003 in his war against an imperial America.
Birth Of Islamism
Political Islam settled, as best it could, in the whole Arab world and thus it became, by force of circumstance, the defender of the deprived classes that it recruited easily, for its political project, thanks to two important arguments:
- The Islamist party is the party of Allah (hizb Allah), for the glorification of Islam and the preservation of the religion against the materialistic and atheistic West doomed to failure and obliteration; and
- Social aid offered to the poor in the fields of health, education, housing, etc., while the state has totally disengaged itself from these fields, under the pressure of international financial institutions such as: World Bank and IMF (edifying experience of the Ikhwan in Egypt which served as an example to the Islamists of the rest of the Arab world).
Emboldened by Khomeini’s Iranian revolution of 1979 and the jihadists’ victory over the Soviets in Afghanistan in 1989, Islamists tried to take power in several Arab countries by sheer use of force and violence. Technically unable to do so, they opted for blind terrorism.
However, the advent of the Arab Spring revolutions offered them power on a silver platter in some countries, such as Tunisia, Morocco and Libya.
The awakening of minorities
Towards the 1980s, the ethnic minorities of the Arab world, emasculated since independence, woke up furiously: the Amazigh in the Greater Maghreb and the Kurds in the Mashreq.
The Amazigh scattered in the great geographical space of the Great Maghreb, in the form of linguistic and cultural islands called Tamazgha, could not aspire to a real independence. The Kurds are in the same impasse, except that those of Iraq, autonomous for a long time, helped the Americans to defeat Saddam Hossein and the Americans promised them independence in return, which they are trying to achieve, today with great difficulty, given that regional powers such as Turkey and Iran, which include in their ranks such minorities, are indeed against such nationalistic designs.
The Amazigh of Libya, long abused and repressed by the dictator Qaddafi, helped the insurgents of the Arab Spring to get rid of him but are now, somewhat, still marginalized by those in power who do not want to recognize fully and openly their linguistic and cultural aspirations.
As for the religious minorities, especially the Christians in the Arab world, they are now today in a very difficult situation. They have been killed, repressed and violated by the Islamic State, ISIS, in Iraq and Syria and weakened in other countries like the Christians of the Levant and the Copts of Egypt.
Military Dictators: Patriarchy And Tribalism
The military took power by force of arms and established repressive political regimes based on tribal allegiance, oppressive patriarchy, harmful and profitable corruption and abusive co-optation.
After respective independences, Arab governments set in motion huge programs to modernize infrastructure, education, health, employment, housing, etc., but all of them have rejected modernity, however. Thus, patriarchy has been maintained and strengthened and with it tribalism and related forms of allegiance and social enslavement.
The heads of state became “Fathers of the Nation” (ab al-umma), then leaders (za’im) and finally dictators (ar–ra’îs al-khâleld, “eternal president “), some of whom were openly bloodthirsty, such as Saddam Hossein, while others practiced soft dictatorship (the use of carrots and sticks) like Qaddafi in Libya, Mubarak in Egypt, Ben Ali in Tunisia, Ali Saleh in Yemen and Assad in Syria.
In order to stay in power, these undemocratic leaders, who in principle have reached the supreme magistracy on a military tank, or through monarchical succession in the case of some monarchies with a long tradition (Morocco) and others more recent (Arab Gulf and Jordan), have joined forces with:
- Military leaders;
- Subservient political parties;
- Wealthy families;
- Religious leaders, and;
- Tribal chiefs.
And they have encouraged corruption, nepotism, cronyism and patron-client system. As for the rank and file they were maintained under food perfusion and subjected to repressive control, through:
- Subsidized basic food stuffs (flour, oil, tea, sugar, etc.) and products (propane, water and electricity, etc.);
- Employment, long or short term;
- Financial privileges;
- Sporadic repression with velvet gloves, etc.
The political parties, in the case of the existence of a multiparty system, were all co-opted and the real opposition repressed, imprisoned or forced to leave the country.
These dictators had little trouble doing their dirty work because illiteracy was maintained, tribal identity encouraged and safeguarded, and political police activated, in order to keep the population “subjects” fully docile instead of making them full enlightened “citizens”, which means, in other words, expecting unconditional and unrequited allegiance from them, at all times and under any circumstances.
Alas, no Arab country has opted for the promotion of full democracy after independence. In fact, there were in reality two kinds of dictatorships:
- Corrupting monarchies: The Arab Gulf countries are dictatorships with religious legitimacy and economic lining. Indeed, these monarchies have a tacit contract with the governed: social peace and acceptance of total governance in return for cash donations and economic opportunities and tax-free economic living.
- Classical monarchies: These are monarchies that are either based on historical and religious legitimacies (Morocco) or resulting from a learned political equilibrium and are characterized by a margin of political freedom to maintain the regime in place and a sophisticated system of cooptation where the regime and the political actors find their own way and tribal allegiance (Jordan). These monarchies use a simulacrum of democracy to lull public opinion and fool international opinion.
The Arab Spring
The advent of the Arab Spring was a God-given opportunity to the Arab masses to liberate themselves from Arab dictatorships, in their “soft” or “hard” versions, that had their heyday for more than 7 decades. Thus, these Arab uprisings ignited by the match of Bouazizi in Tunisia in 2011 and driven by a youth in search of employment, dignity and freedom led to incredible changes in governance, though not what was hoped for in most cases. This unheard of political tsunami represented an unprecedented opportunity for the establishment of a true democracy. Unfortunately, the Arab Spring turned into a huge disaster for two main reasons:
1- Takeover by the Islamists: The revolts were initiated by the youth who were bruised by the archaism and the violence of the regimes in place but because of their lack of organization and political first-hand experience they lost the upper hand to the Islamists who were highly-disciplined, well-organized ideologically speaking and regimented in their moves., and;
2- The fall of the military dictatorships opened the door to large-scale insecurity and horrendous civil wars which continue to this day in some countries such as Yemen, Libya and Syria making out of them kind of failed states.
Why The Decline?
The Arabs of modern times have not benefited from geology (mineral wealth) nor geography (proximity to European liberal democracies) to develop and serve their countries and their citizens. The oil countries have created welfare populations, unable to take care of themselves and to free themselves from the yoke of the past and access modernity.
The political systems in place have created an Arab man limited in knowledge, experience and sense of freedom of enterprise and thought. He is:
– A man who is afraid of the government; of the gendarme and of the system, because of repression and overt violence;
– A man who is unable to think freely and make constructive criticism;
– A man dominated by the trinity of tradition, religion and tribalism/patriarchy;
– A man who is obsequious in his political culture and uses honeyed language to please governments and extract favors from them;
– A man crushed by poverty and lack of social justice, and;
– A man for whom bread is more important than democracy because he has been oppressed to make him docile and has become, as it were, a compulsive slave of food and peace of mind.