There’s an interesting article in the most recent issue of the New York Review of Books that echoes some of the thoughts on Via Meadia about the Arab Spring. The authors show that the events of 2011 in the Arab world were far from unprecedented; in fact, the sentiment that swept Mubarak and Ben Ali from power is quite similar to the wave of hopelessness and anger that propelled Nasser and Pan-Arabism to prominence:
At the time [of Nasser’s rise], many people were moved by the illegitimacy and inefficacy of state institutions; rampant corruption and inequitable distribution of wealth; the concentration of power in the hands of parasitic elites; revulsion with subservience to former and current colonial masters; and humiliation, epitomized above all by the Palestinian catastrophe and the inability to redress it. Slogans from that era celebrated independence, Arab unity, freedom, dignity, and socialism…What [eventually] emerged were ruling coalitions of the army and various secular nationalist movements. These yielded authoritarian, militaristic republics whose professed ideologies of modernism, pan-Arabism, and socialism were more make-believe than real. They exercised power through extensive internal security organizations—the much-dreaded Mukhabarat; the suppression of dissent; and enlistment of diverse social groups in support of the regime—merchants, peasants, industrialists, and state bureaucrats. Politics was the exclusive province of rulers. For others, it became a criminal activity.The experiment ended in unmitigated failure.
The authors are correct in pointing to the pervasive sense of depression and hopelessness that lifted Nasser and similar autocratic leaders and parties to power across the Arab world, but which did not disappear through the 60s and 70s. Yet the piece scants a vital part of that picture then and now: The inability of Arab states to destroy Israel has been and remains a major contributing factor to the pervasive sense of failure and rage.The serial humiliations of the Arab world at the hands of the Israelis, and the never popular peace agreements between some Arab countries and the Jewish state, continue to fester. Nasser made the ability to defeat Israel a definitive test of his leadership, and the cause of secular Arab nationalism never recovered from the humiliation of 1967. That failure still haunts Arab politics today, and the revolutionary governments will have to find ways of dealing with it.What many Arabs want most out of the revolution is world class living standards; they want the Arab world to enjoy the kind of success that East Asia and Singapore have had, so that the gap in living standards across the Mediterranean disappears. As far as Via Meadia can see, not one single Arab revolutionary regime has the faintest prospect of achieving this or anything like it anytime soon — regardless of how much foreign aid they get.Failing real economic success, people look for symbolic and vicarious triumphs. Defeating Israel or at least spiting it, achieving Islamic governance, asserting national dignity against unpopular external powers, punishing the symbols of the old regime: these are the kinds of ‘victories’ that governments unable to offer economic growth will be expected to provide.The Arab Spring looks less and less like a happy ending to the political journey of the Arab world and more and more like yet another stage of a long, unhappy and arduous journey through the wilderness. The solutions to the problems of the Arab world are long term: improving, for example, Egypt’s shambolic university system so that more Egyptians with university degrees have the skills and background needed for success in the modern world. Making good information more widely available in Arabic would help: books, newspapers, magazines, even the occasional blog so that that Arabs outside the tiny English speaking elite would have direct access to the global conversation — and to the ideas and debates that have powered human development in the last three hundred years.None of this will produce the kind of change that Arabs want soon enough. We can hope that the new governments emerging from the Arab spring will provide a more benign environment in which Arab human development can take place — and we can cooperate with them to accelerate the educational and intellectual revolutions that more and more Arabs are trying to bring about.But for the foreseeable future, Arab politics is going to be driven by frustration and discontent, and governments will be tempted and perhaps forced to look to symbolism and demagoguery because they can offer so little in the way of substantial progress.The pilot has illuminated the seat belt signs; we have entered a zone of turbulent air.