A spring in Arab history

A spring in Arab history

By M.J. Akbar | 3 July, 2011
Libyan women chant pro-Gaddafi slogans while attending a weapons training session in Bani Walid, Libya on Tuesday.

Ibn Khaldun, the classical Arab historian, ascribed, in his majestic work Muqaddimah, the great revival of the Arab spirit to "asabiya", a term that can be loosely equated to "group solidarity", a consciousness that rose above traditional loyalties like tribal identity and released the inspirational energy that made oasis dwellers and nomads into world conquerors. Nothing can compare with that seminal 7th century resurrection, but there is a touch of "asabiya" in the transnational Arab Spring that has turned a dormant Arab street into a revolutionary force that is clearing the septic cobwebs which have turned a great people into victims of local despotism and tyranny.

The pace and trajectory of a revolution can never be predicted, nor can its recreation into a stable order be guaranteed. But the Gaddafis of Libya and the Assads of Syria are clinging desperately to a world that is dead, along with their bankrupt ideas and alibis, all of which have been a hypocritical camouflage for devastating regimes that turned national wealth (including oil) into personal property and castrated the people's right to freedom and democracy. These army-police states tried to garner international respectability through a thin middle class which was offered some prosperity as reward for loyalty to the new hereditary, civilian sultanates. Could there be a worse instance of medieval despotism than the Gaddafi family, whose anarchic flamboyance was tolerated for so long by the rest of the world? The sons of Gaddafi were busy buying football clubs in Italy and London School of Economics doctorates in England when they were not brutalizing personal staff in Switzerland, with money snitched from public funds. Puffed by the sycophancy of foreigners, the despots became oblivious of the mood at home.

Western powers were indifferent to values they professed for themselves as long as these tyrants honoured their regional security concerns: an Egyptian somehow did not deserve democracy as much as an American if Hosni Mubarak was obedient. Now that Tahrir Square has decided otherwise, traditional international relationships are in disarray. America and Europe have not been able to save clients in Tunisia or Egypt, even while they mobilise on the side of street anger to destabilise regimes in Tripoli and Damascus. With the Soviet Union long buried, and Russia and China hesitant to offer more than verbal reassurance, the establishments in Libya and Syria are fighting their last battles with incremental brutality against their own people. They have a fortune to lose: their loot. They will fight hard to preserve their obnoxious oppression, and the process of transition will be neither easy nor predictable. Change may be delayed; it cannot be deflected or denied.

What the West is beginning to appreciate is that this is not a zero-sum game: the emerging Arab street is not going to be hostile to the West just because Washington propped up authoritarian Arab regimes. In fact, the biggest catalyst is the urge towards modernity. You

cannot be a modern society or nation without democracy and gender equality, which are the paramount features of Western nations. Democracy will eventually produce governments that will be neither hostile nor servile.

Paradoxically, if the pro-West Arab monarchies have displayed greater flexibility in the management of dissent, it is because they have been closer to their people than republican despots. But that, in the long, or even medium run, is inadequate. It would be a mistake to underestimate the radical implications of the current demand of Saudi women for driving licenses, and the right to drive cars as equal adults, instead of being dependent on a male relative. This campaign asks a loaded question: if Aisha, one of the wives of the Prophet Muhammad, could drive a camel at the head of her army in battle, if women could go to mosques and take part in consultations after the advent of Islam in Mecca and Medina, then why cannot women drive cars in a country ruled by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques?

Dropcap OnThis fundamental question juxtaposes 2011 with a pre-monarchical republican ideal in which there was far greater gender equality than currently exists in many Arab nations. The Saudi debate is opening minds. Open minds demand open societies. If Arab monarchs do not turn their abodes into a Buckingham Palace, and substitute total authority with a ceremonial role, the spirit of "asabiya" will rattle their gates.

Hafez Assad, founder of what he thought would be a new Syrian dynasty, and a ruler who had no compunction in killing 10,000 civilians to put down an insurrection, plastered a slogan on every city gate and public building: "Our Leader forever is President Hafez Assad". His son Bashar shares this pompous belief in "forever". Time, and the tide of "asabiya", wait for no man.


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