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.

4 comments:

Abu Kareem said...

Joseph,
An important cautionary note, if a little pessimistic. I think we are in a post old-style Arab nationalism and post Al Qaeda style Islamist extremism world. The secular nationalists and Islamists now come in a spectrum of flavors with much more overlap between the two groups than in the past. Also, the emphasis now is on nation building first which is a good thing for the long term stability of the region. Getting to that point will, I fully agree, be messy and, at times, bloody. This is the legacy of the dictators who left no stable civil institutions to full the void when they are shown the door.

Anonymous said...

Joseph,
The issue of "ego" is very interesting, indeed. Might I call self-respect?

You have rightly identified three scenarios that are likely to lead to a fragmentation of the Arab ego.

I would like to add three obstacles to democracy and prosperity in the Arab world; namely, certain interpretations of Islam, the palace ulama, and the military generals.

Rebelling against poverty, corruption, and injustice is one thing; to democratize and prosper is a different matter.

For democracy and prosperity to evolve, Islam must be separated from the state. Arabs need a combination of a Martin Luther and a Kemal Ataturk. Democracy is not only free elections. Democracy is also equality for all citizens--equality of women with Muslim men and equality of Christian citizens and other minorities with Muslims. Islam discriminates against women and non-Muslims.

How likely is it that Islam be separated from the Arab state? This too is unlikely, due to the affinity of the great majority of Arabs towards Islam. Popular uprisings thus would not separate Islam from the Arab state. They might lead to free elections, but not to equality among all citizens. Uprisings might also end the state of emergency, but would not lead to the replacement of seventh century Shari'a courts and family law with a modern legal system and family code. Uprisings could institute presidential term limits, but would not substitute the Islamic school curriculum with the teaching of comparative religions or ethics. Uprisings might also lead to transparency in state affairs, but not the belief in free will and science to replace the belief in predestination.

The palace ulama will maintain their dogmatic teaching in schools, mosques, and the media. They will persist in cementing those calibrated interpretations of the creed that suit the political agendas of the governments they serve. They will also continue persecuting those with ideas and interpretations that differ from the sanctioned discourse.

In addition, Arab military generals will remain the kingmakers. They will not take orders from civilian politicians.

Elie Elhadj

American Back To The Indian said...

A truly healthy ego comes from a peoples accomplishments not from looking at it's defeats. A need for revenge consumes all other things and a people do not flourish.

While much is said about the original peaople of the US we are still here. Govern lands reserved for us alone and are full citizens free to go where we choose and worship as we please. My ancestors the Iroquois had a democracy long before Euros arrived. We did not learn it from them, but they from us. We are a people that never had a war over religion, there is only one Great Spirit how you worship was never a government issue. Make no mistake we were and still are a warrior people. So much so we nearly wiped ourselves out before finding peace and devising our democracy. We are not ashamed of losing to a stronger enemy.

I am very concerned for the middle east that the Islamists will squash the desire for freedom of choice that is the basis of democracy. I do not see them bringing peace and accomplishment to nuture the Arab ego, only dominance of their own.

Israel is so hated, yet in Israel non-Jews are not restricted in worship. There are no laws saying how many floors a religious building can be. No riots,burnings of religious buildings or bombings. The Israelis do not run down Christians and Muslims demonstrating with tanks. Palestinians can even file suit in Israel and have won in their favor. In what ME country can a Jew or Christian do this? Is there prejudice, yes as there is in every country, but no worse than most. No of us are free of that human weakness.

Look in, do not look out to find the way forward. Read your history and learn from it more than just hate of past conquerors.

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