Armed with social media: Facebook, Twitter, etc. and a determination to access democracy and modernity, at any cost, Arab youth, emasculated for so long, took their protest into the streets and chased in a humiliating fashion such hardened dictators as Tunisian’s Ben Ali, Egypt’s Mubarak, Yemen’s Ali Saleh, and Libya’s Qaddafi.
However, these countries did not achieve the much-wanted democracy because counter-revolution occurred in the form of a “salvation” military coup that brought Sissi and the military to power in Egypt and subservient and opportunistic Islamists in other countries that reestablished the pre-Arab Spring of 2011 status-quo. Does this mean that there is no hope, whatsoever, for the Arab world and that autocracy is probably its second name?
In 2019, there is the Arab Spring redux in countries not affected in the first wave, mainly: Algeria and Sudan, ruled, hitherto, by the army directly or indirectly. Would these popular revolutions meet the same fate and be defeated, in the long run, by counter-revolution, which always changes shape, approaches, and narratives to survive? The masses in these two countries want civilian rule, but will the soldiers go back to their barracks or would they use other subterfuges, short of violence, to stay in power? Only time will show.
Why is democracy not successful in the Arab world?
The Arab Spring started in Tunisia in 2010 and swept through most of the Arab world creating a domino-effect process that toppled many a dictator. In its wake, civil war tore many countries and some are still in the midst of its throes: Syria, Yemen, and Libya, with no hope of respite. Only Tunisia is walking with a limp towards democracy if it ever arrives to achieve it and remain safe and sound.
The Arab world in spite of its various cultural and material wealth has not been able, in the least, to attain democracy, and one, quite rightly, wonders why that is? The answer to this daunting question is undoubtedly, multi-faceted:
The strength of tribalism
Throughout the history of the Arabs before and after Islam, power was the appanage of tribalism. Indeed, tribal identity and solidarity was always the key to power and a good example of that is this well-known saying in Arabic:
أنصر أخاك ظالما أو مظلوما
Onsor akhaka daliman aw madlouman
“Stand by your brother (tribesman) whether he is right or wrong in his doings”
Historically speaking, the strong Muslim dynasties of Arab extraction like the Umayyads (661–750) and the Abbasids (750–1258), always derived their strength and might from tribal support and set the example to all ruling dynasties up to the present time.
Nowadays, all Arab monarchies are tribal dynasties; a good example is Saudi Arabia (1777-present). Indeed, in 1848, the Saudi tribe allied itself to the charismatic religious leader Muhammad Ben Abdelwahhab (1703–1792) on the ground that he spreads his austere form of Islam which became known afterward as Wahhabism and they take care of temporal politics.
Today, the Saudi predatory tribe and their many prince members control the whole country with an iron fist: they buy allegiance with money and positions but, on the other hand, meet any form of opposition, sedition or resistance with sheer violence. The Saudi journalist Khashoggi was eliminated by the entourage of Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) in a horrible manner to serve as an example to the opposition. Also, recently 37 people were beheaded in Saudi Arabia, in a gruesome way, 32 of which were Shiites. The total capital punishment in the world, in 2019 is 172, and Saudi Arabia is third behind China and Iran, in the number of executions per year.
During the first round of the Arab Spring, fearing a popular backlash, Gulf leaders all, with no exception, bought social peace with direct generous cash handouts.
Ruling tribes customarily put their members in control of the key ministerial jobs but, also, in the army and often have an elite military corps, in reserve, to protect the regime in case of a military coup or military disobedience or any form of upheaval or insurgency.
Even in Algeria where the army is the ruling tribe, to stay in power the generals support each other (tribal solidarity) and share equally the dividends of the oil revenues as a means of creating a virtual rentier tribe, where profit is the central form of identity.
Ex-President Bouteflika grafted his clan on the military tribe and made his family benefit from the spoils of oil to the extent that his brother became the de facto president from 2013 when he became physically incapacitated as a result of a heart attack.
Patriarchy in the Arab world is the conjunction of extreme tribalism (blind and unquestionable allegiance) and minimalist Islamic religion (religion used to serve tribal interests like Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia).
The clan owes its survival inside of a highly competitive social order and system for material favors and political power to the strength and intelligence of the patriarch. In return, the patriarch requires unflinching support from its members and total obedience. In the system seniority is synonymous of wisdom and power and, as such, the youth is emasculated and women folk are treated as mere furniture of the house that can be disposed of at will.
The worst expression of patriarchy is tradition. Respect of tradition means nothing can be changed unless the change respects tribal hierarchy and omnipotence, which in most cases means no change whatsoever, even if it is good for the general public: منفعة manfa’a.
The strength of patriarchy surpassed that of tribalism in the 14th century when the door of ijtihad اجتهاد “jurisprudence” was closed in favor of al-i’timad ‘ala as-salaf as-salih الاعتماد على السلف الصالح “respect of the past rulings and approaches.”
As a result of this, the era of traditionalists started with much strength, putting an end to innovation and creativity, be it technological or intellectual. In the wake of this movement appeared a number of sheiks to be known as sheikh al-Islam شيخ الاسلام like Ibn Taymiyyah (1263–1328) that encouraged austere traditionalist Islam leading to the establishment of patriarchy and tribal oppression instead of consensus of early Islam.
After the independence of most Arab countries in the middle of the last century, they became patriarchal systems protecting the individual in spite of him, from the outside world which is seen as a corruptive influence. Of course, the patriarch was a dictator in the deceitful form of the father figure abu al-umma اب الامة “father of the notion” or the unquestionable leader zaim زعيم Gamal Abdel Nasser (1954–1970) was seen as such and was regretted on his death.
However, all the Arab zaims: Nasser, Saddam, Qaddafi, etc. were all fierce dictators that eliminated physically the opposition without the slightest remorse.
Nasser imprisoned and killed the Ikhwan الاخوان (Muslim Brotherhood), Saddam gassed the Kurds and Qaddafi butchered the Islamist and secular opposition.
Arab patriarchy in the form of Pan-Arabism, not only ostracized political opponents but, also, all form of expression of cultural and ethnic identities, Amazigh, Kurdish, Copt etc, because for them patriarchal pan-Arabism was the only solution to all the problems of the Arab nation and “pluralism is a mere chimera invented by the West to dominate the Arabs,” and still many pan-Arabists believe that today in the form of the Conspiracy Theory.
The power of the past
Since the end of the era of Ijtihad in the 14th century, Arab traditionalist narrative chanted the praise of time past: tradition is best because secure, future is unknown and innovation is risky.
As a result, most Arabs are shackled to tradition for life. In this narrative, status-quo is seen as security, peace, and conformation to religious norms and rules of al-khalaf as-salih الخلف الصالح “the venerable predecessors” and change as danger and risk, not to say, of course, a ruse or a subterfuge made use of by as-salibiyun الصليبيون “the Crusaders” to attack Islam and weaken it.
In the Arab political tradition of regimes in power, the “Great Past” was glorified and such topics as the “Victory of Saladin in Jerusalem,” the “Arab civilization in Spain,” and the “Golden Age of Islam” are celebrated on end. The Arab dictatorships used this narrative to discourage their people from seeking change and democracy and settling, instead, indefinitely for the status-quo.
The Islamists, as a matter of fact, are even more past-prone than the pan-Arabists because they abhor modernity and see in it a challenge to their religions power, virile supremacy, and religious patriarchy. Islamists have always seen democracy as a Trojan horse and as an arm to destroy Islam and eliminate its glorious tradition.
Political opposition in the Arab world has always been weak at the exception of the Ikhwan in Egypt, political parties have been and are all imbued with tribal supremacy, patriarchal philosophy, and predatory instinct. Most of the time, the party is put together not to defend the interest of the electorate, but to have access, as much as possible, to privileges from to the regime in place and the latter, as a matter of fact, generously rewards the docile and obsequious parties with money and political positions.
The opposition is, also, ineffectual because it is fragmented by political design. The regime in place prefers to have many small parties than one or two strong ones, for ease of political manipulation such as playing one party against the other in order to create tribal feuds. The establishment, also, encourages tribal groups to have their own party to defend their tribal interests and, as a result, the whole political spectrum becomes tribal with many actors seeking personal gain and as such Arabs remain endlessly tribal in spirit and practice.
Being a real opposition means being able to criticize the government/establishment and present a plausible alternative, be it economic, social or political. Nevertheless, tribal parties do not have any platforms, whatsoever, because their membership is not based on meritocracy but only on tribal identity and solidarity. The PJD of Morocco is a good example of this; they have been in power for two terms since 2011 and have no economic platform but only vague religious literature encouraging obedience to the party patriarchs.
As such, in these situations governments are, generally technocratic and not political and are not submitted to accountability by the parliament since the parliament itself is a mere rubber-stamp institution that furthers a make-believe democracy and rule of law but is, in essence, a self-perpetuating institution.
The Arab regimes have always used the carrot more than the stick and the carrot scenario works marvelously. Co-optation is a phenomenon that is not only made use of in politics but a, also, in all other walks of life: culture, economy, religion, etc.
Co-optation has emasculated the press and media and, as a result, most Arabs do not trust local media because it is subservient. Independent media, if it exists, it is either underground or abroad because the regime otherwise will stifle it with economic quarantine and push it to declare bankruptcy.
Counter-revolution on stand-by
The revolution in Algeria and Sudan are marvelous expressions of Arab search for freedom and democracy but probably, with time, they will be defeated because they are not seconded and supported by an able political opposition that will manage the post-revolution period. The regimes in place will make concessions, for sure, to let the storm pass and come back in a different form and format, to perpetuate their rule.
The Arab world is very much in need of a new generation of politicians, modernist in philosophy, responsible in approach, accountable in spirit and democracy in action. Today, there are many Arabs who have been educated in the West and who hold important degrees and have been exposed to democracy and respect of human rights and most importantly modernity.
There are, also, millions of Arab millennials who want a total change and want, also, jobs, a say in politics, meritocracy, and freedom. If these two groups join hands, surely democracy will come about, if not it will take many Arab Springs to bring home the much-needed change, alas.