Sunday, October 16, 2011

2011: The rise of the Arab Ego

Joseph El-Khoury

A healthy ego is essential for the sound functioning of any individual. Societies and groups also require the healthy equivalent of an ego, which can be defined as a set of guiding principles in how they perceive themselves and their relationship with others.
It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that the Arab ego had been fairly damaged over the course of the 20th century but even probably beyond that to the era of Turkish domination, from Seljuk to Ottoman.  The last century was particularly harsh as it opened on hope in a dawn of self-determination, prosperity and unity.  What follows is well documented: From the failure to establish an Arab state in the wake of the 1916 revolt to the Invasion of Iraq in 2003, passing through the Sykes-picot agreement and the creation of the state of Israel, Arab history reads as a succession of defeats, retreats, disappointments and foreign domination. For lack of better strategies, the Arabs fell back on an unhealthy introversion; the type that generates resentment, suspiciousness and misunderstanding of the other without providing viable paths for self-validation. The series of civil/sectarian/ethnic/social conflicts that have plagued the Arab hemisphere for decades with frequent overspills onto the global scene can be, in my view, directly linked to this battered and bruised ego in need of rescuing.

Enters the Arab spring… Pushing the Arab masses to the global stage as a force to be reckoned with and lifting in its wake the Arab ego. As the action unravels months later, this exercise in confidence building might actually be the only long-lasting tangible effect of the Uprisings. 

We will soon celebrate the one year of anniversary of the Tunisian spark of what later became the Arab Spring, suitably dubbed by a Western media machine until then hostile and dismissive. We have also started discovering the vulnerability of the process and how easily it could be reversed, compromised or hijacked. Any of these three scenarios are likely to lead to a fragmentation of the Arab ego; an outcome with practical implications for individual countries and for the leading nationalist ideological drives that have dominated the political scenes for in excess of 100 years.  Arab nationalism, in its secular and religious (Pan-Islamist) components is unlikely to resist another humiliating failure. The more so humiliating as it would be self-inflicted through internal divisions, the lack of direction and a naïve dichotomous outlook on the modern world. The unfortunate scenes in Maspero, Cairo a few days ago should not have come as a surprise to anyone not blinded by the myths of a united Arab society liberating itself from foreign shackles in one deep breath of freedom. 
The Arab uprisings are a necessary evil, akin to a painful corrective surgical procedure; and an equally painful convalescence is to be expected. It would still be wrong to delude ourselves with an inflated sense of our self importance and our achievements. But if the Arab twittersphere is anything to go by, grandiosity and stubbornness is on the agenda uniting Islamic revivalists, pro-western liberals and traditional Nationalists from Egypt to Syria. At the time of writing, a summary report would include a change of guards in Egypt, an unsettled democratic process in Tunisia, a tribal struggle in Yemen, a religious rift in Bahrain, a revolution backed by NATO in Libya and a bloodbath with sectarian undertones in Syria.  The umbrella term of ‘Arab spring’, which is essentially another Orientalist myth fails to capture the essence of these events or to predict their outcomes. Our own misguided contribution has been to dismiss the internal contradictions plaguing the Arab land and the Arab identity from long before the first Zionist settler and the first oil pipeline.

A new Arab ego based on self delusion is still an unhealthy one. Honest blunt introspection is required, but no progressive political force or intellectual circle has so far been willing to provide it while remaining effectively connected with the wave of popular anger. This is leaving the fray open for the hordes of populists and opportunists with less than shiny credentials.

Hope remains that in the coming months someone somewhere will rise to this challenge.