Sovereignty in the Middle East


By Dina Jadallah

It is a sad state of affairs, but indicative of the times, that talk of sovereignty around the world is usually limited to the level of the state. 

What about the people?  Are they not (ideally) the body for whose benefit the state exists? Do they not constitute the basis of the nation-state? Consequently, should we not be focusing just as intently on sovereignty’s people-based counterpart, agency? 

Until the revolution in Tunisia, these questions were especially irrelevant from the point of view of Arab rulers and of their Western-backers. This is definitely the case with the “moderates” among them who “normalize” relations with Israel. It is as if states are denuded of people. While they retain subjects (in the subjugated sense), they lack citizens. 

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the modern usage of the word sovereignty as “supreme power, especially over a body politic,” and as “autonomy” or freedom from external control. Sovereignty is usually used in reference to states, who ideally, possess this quality both internally and externally. It is further associated with a specific territory, a fixed population, a monopoly on the use of violence, and the decisional ability to make the laws. 

Intellectually, the conceptualization of sovereignty took two divergent paths. 

One argues that sovereignty is dependent on the inherent rationality of laws that are constituted by the people who reside within the state. This position relies on the concept of a social and political contract that bridges the gap between the people and the state.  Theoretically, the contract embodies the sovereignty of the people, who are ultimately the source of the law as well as being simultaneously subject to the law. This capacity for effective action is called agency. In many respects, therefore, there is an intertwined relationship between the two concepts of sovereignty and agency. It is this relationship that lies at the source and center of rationality, meaning, and purpose at the levels of the polity and of the individual or group. Intellectually, this conception was developed by Locke, Rousseau, and Kant. 

The alternative view of sovereignty depends on the exceptional decision and might of the sovereign ruler who alone chooses when to uphold or suspend the law. The state of exception argument was propounded most forcefully by (Nazi German jurist and political theorist who is currently admired by neo-conservatives) Carl Schmitt. It has been articulated also in the work of Giorgio Agamben. Intellectually, it relies on the intellectual legacy of Hobbes and Machiavelli. This latter conception is usually conceived as a temporary phenomenon invoked when there is a threat to the underlying democratic constitution of the state. 

On so many levels, the preceding discussion is of little relevance to the reality of politics in the Middle East. This includes not only all Arab governments but also occupying states such as Israel (and the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan) who, as dispossessing and occupying states, have no democratic basis to return to — should they miraculously and uncharacteristically — choose to suspend the state of exceptionalism that has become the norm. 

Not only is there a permanent and unbridgeable divide between state and people under these conditions, but dispossession, occupation, and fake sovereignty mutate the (Humanist) assumption of national progression through time. Instead of benefiting the people, state power is pursued for its own sake.

Middle Eastern states negotiate the modern age through the standards set by dominating powers. The peoples’ awareness of this reality often means that proclamations of sovereignty by rulers creates cognitive dissonance. This is in addition to provoking derision! 

The hegemonic imperialism that is practiced in the Middle East today, especially in the form of “interventions” (“humanitarian,” rhetorical, and military) typify ethnocentric assumptions as they simultaneously enhance exploitative power. Rhetoric like “protecting our way of life,” “freedom,” “security,” and “stability” are all examples of the greater “good” of the world being served by hegemonic interventions. Such rationalizations derive from assumptions of the universal applicability of Western-derived “rational” standards that supposedly propagate an Enlightenment project of “progress” for the rest of humanity. 

In practice, intervention entails a denial of agency for the people who are the objects of this interventionism. Counter-intuitively from the perspective of the hegemon, but predictably from the long view of history as well as from insights into what it means to be fully human, this has led to increased resistance (aka. instability), the very opposite of the hegemons’ intent.

Parasitic Symbiosis and al-Karama

The reality is that most Middle Eastern governments exist in a state of symbiosis with the Western hegemonic powers. This symbiotic congruence of hegemonic interests practices parasitic forms of extraction, oppression, and subjugation for the benefit of external beneficiaries. Some of these beneficiaries may be of the local variety. Nevertheless, their parasitism and externality reside in their roles, not in their “nationality.” This is similar to the Philippines model of American imperialism which was practiced through a circumscribed ruling cabal. (Notice that the Philippines is the only country in East Asia that has not experienced the Asian economic “miracle” – even if we contest how a “miracle” ought to be socio-economically defined.) 

The Philippines model was exported and is practiced in many parts of the world today, especially the Middle East. Tunisia had its Trabulsi and Ben ‘Ali clans and their cohorts.  Yet, there are still today replica-Trabulsis and Ben-Alis all over.

The opposite of this state of parasitic symbiosis, also known as (fake) sovereignty, in the Middle East is al-karama. Fundamentally, it is in each individual. But it needs the collective to reach its full potential. Herein lies its power: it has the ability to connect the practice of sovereignty at the level of the people, with its actualization at the level of the state.

Al-Karama is a word that is rich in meaning. It has far-reaching semantic, intellectual, socio-cultural, and political dimensions. Simply put, it means dignity. Its Arabic root is karam, which means magnanimity and generosity. The two concepts are related at many levels. A person’s dignity is naturally multi-faceted. It implies that one has basic needs such as life, food, health, intellectual, associational, political, and expressive freedoms, the capacity to have meaningful and fulfilling work, and so forth. 

This is not to say that a person who lacks these things does not have dignity, because that is clearly (and fortunately) not the case. Many maintain their dignity despite living under conditions of political and economic deprivation and oppression. Nevertheless, such systemic subtractions of individual dignity necessarily mean a violation and a degradation of a quality that humans possess. Idealistically, one wants the opportunity to substantiate and practice this inherent quality in order to attain the limits of one’s potential. 

It is at this point that karama intersects with karam, its root. For it is difficult to give that which one does not possess. Not impossible, just difficult. Moreover, karam adds a sociological dimension that is imbricated and intermeshed with the ability to possess and to practice life with dignity. One is generous to others. Furthermore, generosity with what is most dear – especially with qualities that are not material, but which are inherent in what it means to be human – is especially significant. Frequently, in Arabic the term karam is conjoined with al-akhlaq (a complex word that combines culture with ethical behavior). Karam al-akhlaq therefore implies that culturally- or communally-inspired ethics, insofar as they constitute each individual, necessarily reverberate onto the larger community, to the benefit of all. Bonds formed out of these relationships are not captured in the economic accountancy of “national gross domestic product(s).” And yet without them the latter could not be. One is magnanimous when one interacts in a positive and meaningful way with one’s community as well as with those who share one’s life, including those who are spatially far, but intellectually and ethically close. Thus, what is thought of as a personal quality is really no such thing. It flourishes best, it means the most, and it may practically exist only insofar as it is part of a larger network. The resultant reciprocal and reinforcing relationships are positive and cumulative in their ability to benefit all. The communal network formulates, activates, and practices those activities that are deemed meaningful and that give meaning to every human’s life. 

There can be no dignity without generosity. There can be no dignity without the collective. To achieve all of these things requires an act of will by many. That is what the Tunisian Revolution has shown the world. 

There is oftentimes contestation between the will and reason. Tunisian poet, Abu el-Qassem ash-Shabbi wrote a famous poem that most Arab schoolchildren learn. It is called Iradat al-Hayat (the will to life). Al-iradah is also an instinct. Living things instinctually desire life. Ash-Shabbi collectivizes this instinctual will to life to the level of a people. His poem expresses an insight that is revolutionary as such, and also in its potential. Al-Iradah (the will) has the ability to be optimistic even when political apathy and frustration, combined with decades of oppression, can stultify the mind into a state of utter pessimism. This pessimism is both an expression of, but importantly, is a (non-practice) of life, of dreams, of hopes….
These insights have socio-political repercussions. The Tunisian people, in what is described in Arab media as the “venge-less” (as opposed to vengeful) revolution, are showing the world (so far) a variant that is unique, authentic, and culturally-defined. Despite numerous (and heretofore Western-backed) attempts to subvert and abort the revolution, the mass of the Tunisian people have voiced a principled insistence on attaining their karama in all its dimensions. These include the right to represent themselves both personally via the free articulation and dissemination of their views both institutionally and in traditional and cyber medias; as well as the right to choose representatives who are true to the meaning of the word (but not to historical- and political- type!). 

Tunisians also call for justice and restitution – in a legal manner. They further insist on revolutionizing politics and not merely reforming it. Reform has acquired a bad taste in the age of American hegemony. It risks not only keeping some old, coopted, and corrupt figures in new disguises, but it also risks maintaining the (non-democratically formulated) constitutional framework that would maintain the oppressive system even if the faces change. 

Despite years of oppression, of subjugation to the will and whim of corrupt rulers, of decades of frustrated economic and political aspirations, the Tunisians are expressing their inherent karama. They are practicing their agency as political actors who wish to make their own history. 

Very importantly, their karama is drenched in karam. This is demonstrated internally and externally. Inside, the revolution mobilized the vast majority of Tunisian society. The Tunisians’ rich culture managed to welcome diverse identities into a meaning-producing, cohesive entity that is networked, expressive, mobilized, and able to be politicized in the most positively meaningful way possible. Externally, their karam extends to the rest of the people in the Arab world, especially those who are downtrodden and oppressed. It is most vividly and meaningfully expressed in countless interviews and in chants that animate their demonstrations. One with particular resonance all over the Arab world (despite decades of Arab governments attempting to obliterate it as a mobilizational or even theoretical pan-Arab cause) is:  el-raheel, el-raheel, ya ‘isabat israel (departure, departure, you gang of Israel). It falls on masses of welcoming ears. 

May the Tunisians’ karam be reciprocated. And may karama prevail everywhere in the world.

– Dina Jadallah is an Arab-American writer and artist. She has a background in political science and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies at the University of Arizona. She is the author of numerous articles dealing with political developments in the Arab world, especially Palestinian issues. Her work was published at Palestine Chronicle, Counterpunch, Arab Studies Quarterly, Ramallah Online, and Global Research, among others.  She contributed this article to Contact her: [email protected].

Palestine Chronicle

The Palestine Chronicle publishes news and commentary related to the Middle East Peace Conflict.

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