AD 2011 will go down in history as the year of revolutionary change in the Middle East and North Africa comparable to 1989-90 in Russia and Eastern Europe. Historians, political analysts, government officials and journalists – as well as the men and women in that metaphorical “Arab street” – continue to ask this question even if the answer – so far – is still shrouded in uncertainty.
Years before when I went off to university, to my surprise, my introductory world history course was not about great men, famous dates and battles. Instead, it examined the question of what is the nature of history. We dug into whether the Roman philosopher, Lucretius, was right to say that while historical events move past us like the water of a river flowing past us, the essence of what that river really is stays the same. Or was history more like the Homeric judgment of the decline from a near-mythic golden age to the mediocre, diluted present? Or, perhaps, was the sweep of history more like the concept of a grand, cyclical movement – in which the cosmos ultimately returns to the place it first left?
Eventually we came to the Hellenistic-Hebraic synthesis that nurtured the Christian worldview. In broad strokes, this was a teleological description of a world moving inexorably towards a transcendental goal. As a side note, when this teleological approach was applied to evolutionary biology – as in the Lamarckian idea that a giraffe’s desire to eat the tallest leaves made its neck grow longer – it didn’t make much sense, let alone fit the evolutionary facts. However, human history was a different matter entirely.
This vision first came in religious terms – man’s goal was eternal union with a Supreme Being in the hereafter once mankind embraced the Truth. Eventually, the Enlightenment and industrial revolution set this idea on its head, arguing material progress for here and now was the outcome of human ingenuity and thought. And, of course, Marx put the finishing touches on this vision by describing the economic gears that drove history forward.
In our own time, as the cold war ended, two divergent ideas gained notoriety. Responding to Francis Fukuyama’s end of history thesis, Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington (Fukuyama’s academic mentor) argued instead that the world held a collection of very different civilizations – Western European, Middle Eastern, Eastern European, Indian, Chinese and so forth. These have fundamentally divergent ideas about how society is to be organised. Because their approaches are so different, their struggles will continue forever. Fukuyama had taken a teleological view of history instead, arguing that the end of the Cold War had finally sorted everything out – mankind had reached the end of history and struggle. The materialist nirvana had arrived, in the arms of social liberalism and economic capitalism. Even if subsequent events have poured some serious cold water on his rosy view of history.
A challenge for historians, social scientists and philosophers has been to take the basic human urge towards progress and square it with the material evidence all around them, considering for example the “Age of Revolution” in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the so-called year of revolution in 1848, the student risings of the late 1960s, the end of communism in 1989-90 and now, perhaps, the Arab and Middle Eastern rising of 2011.
But were these waves of revolt actually aimed at fundamental societal restructurings? Italian social philosopher Vilfredo Pareto had argued that, although it often looked like a revolution, what usually happened instead was a more cynical circulation of elites where revolutions usually meant the replacement of one elite by another. Or, as Pareto wrote, “It will help if we further divide that class into two classes: A governing elite, comprising individuals who directly or indirectly play some considerable part in government, and a non- governing elite, comprising the rest.” In crude terms, when the whistle of revolution blows, the two elites simply switch sides.
So, which is it for the Middle Eastern revolts – the switcheroo of elites or something more fundamental? After all, the age of revolution never quite came to grips with the problem of slavery and how it fitted with the theories of freedom and individual liberty.
Perhaps other forces – scientific, technological, and economic – have been important as well. The Reformation had gained momentum from the spread of printing – printed Bibles, printed sermons and printed religious tracts in vernacular languages, even as the Counter Reformation was fuelled by the wealth extracted from Catholic Spain’s empire in the western hemisphere.
Photo: File photo of people gathering in front of the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party headquarters after the country’s communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu fled the building using a helicopter in Bucharest December 22, 1989. Ceausescu was toppled and shot on Christmas Day, 1989 together his wife Elena. More than 1,000 Romanians were killed across Romania during clashes between demonstrators and Ceausescu’s security forces, in what amounted to eastern Europe’s most violent anti-communist revolution. Picture taken December 22, 1989. REUTERS/Lucian Crisan.
By the Age of Revolution, new, explosive thoughts and words moved across borders via more secure postal systems and the distribution of newspapers across the American colonies or Western Europe. These ideas spread further in the wake of Napoleon’s armies as they marched across Europe. And by the revolutionary periods of 1830 and then 1848 were aided by a transportation and communication revolution under way with steam powered ships and railroads.And, of course, the socialist movements at the end of World War I (or, in the case of Russia, during it) grew out the growing technological ability to spread mass destruction and death, as well as the turmoil from the realignment of populations and borders.
And all this had been exacerbated by millions of men moving across Europe as part of the citizen armies of the warring nations.
While the student revolts of the late 1960s drew their energy from the worldwide baby boom generation, communications technology fed the great changes of 1989-92. Email even had an impact on hastening the end of apartheid when the ANC’s Operation Vula began to use low speed modems and public phone booths to transfer money and people internationally. Similarly, international shortwave radio broadcasts and fax machines gave crucial support to the Velvet Revolution and all the rest from Berlin to Moscow.
But what of present developments in the Middle East? It is still too early to tell how deeply the revolutionary spirit will spread beyond Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya and on to Bahrain, Oman, Jordan, Qatar, Algeria or Yemen – or even, potentially Saudi Arabia. Will it become a fundamental and lasting societal change as with Eastern Europe two decades earlier, or will it have more subtle or transitory effects as in 1848 and turn into a circulation of the elites after all?
However, what is increasingly clear is that events in the Middle East, are being sustained by a new generation of people. These people have been responding differently country by country to a heady mix of international satellite television (most notably Al Jazeera TV), computers and email, Twitter, Facebook and the rest of the Internet as well as advanced mobile phones.
While it is true that nowhere in Africa or the Middle East (save perhaps for Israel) does the societal penetration and impact of IT and communication technologies rival that of Western Europe, East Asia or the US, the data does say that Tunisia (at 34%) and Egypt (at 21.2%) have been among the leaders in Africa for Internet penetration. Moreover, Egypt and Libya were second and fourth in mobile broadband penetration in 2010 on the continent, and Egypt and Tunisia were among the continent’s leaders for the percentage of their populations using the Internet via a PC – 15% and 26% respectively. These levels embracing Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are almost certainly more than a coincidence. In each country the mix has been different but taken together have reached deeply into elites and those who wish to be, and allowed them access to the dangerous ideas that can break the political, social and economic stagnation and claustrophobia of societies from the Maghreb to the Persian Gulf.
In the past few days, two leading columnists in The New York Times, David Brooks and Tom Friedman, took up the threads of this discussion. Brooks chose to discuss the difference between Huntington and Fukuyama’s ideas and their relevance for interpreting the Middle Eastern revolt. Friedman, meanwhile, argued that the social impact of the new technological imperative was, is and may be a continuing trigger for a broader social revolt. Brooks argued that the flaw in Huntington’s analysis was that it left out the more universal desire for freedom.
As Brooks paraphrased Huntington:
“People in the Arab world do not share the general suppositions of the Western world. Their primary attachment is to their religion, not to their nation-state. Their culture is inhospitable to certain liberal ideals, like pluralism, individualism and democracy.
“Huntington correctly foresaw that the Arab strongman regimes were fragile and were threatened by the masses of unemployed young men. He thought these regimes could fall, but he did not believe that the nations would modernise in a Western direction. Amid the tumult of regime change, the rebels would selectively borrow tools from the West, but their borrowing would be refracted through their own beliefs. They would follow their own trajectory and not become more Western.”
But Huntington, according to Brooks, failed to realise that:
“It now appears that people in these nations, like people in all nations, have multiple authentic selves. In some circumstances, one set of identities manifests itself, but when those circumstances change, other equally authentic identities and desires get activated.
“For most of the past few decades, people in Arab nations were living under regimes that rule by fear. In these circumstances, most people shared the conspiracy mongering and the political passivity that these regimes encouraged. But when the fear lessened, and the opportunity for change arose, different aspirations were energised. Over the past weeks, we’ve seen Arab people ferociously attached to their national identities. We’ve seen them willing to risk their lives for pluralism, openness and democracy….
“[And that]… it seems clear that many people in Arab nations do share a universal hunger for liberty. They feel the presence of universal human rights and feel insulted when they are not accorded them. Culture is important, but underneath cultural differences there are these universal aspirations for dignity, for political systems that listen to, respond to and respect the will of the people.”
Meanwhile, Friedman argued that five new factors – he called them Obama, Google Earth, Israel, the Beijing Olympics and the Fayyad factors – are the new change elements in the Middle East.
Friedman wrote, Obama’s election provoked a radical change in the political conversation about the possibilities of change in a place like America (or anywhere else). Then, Google Earth, even more than Facebook or Twitter, has given everyone a chance to see the inequalities of income distribution across the region simply by comparing the strings of palaces to everybody else’s home. As for Israel, Al Jazeera’s intensive coverage of Israeli politicians brought to book for malfeasance has made Arabs sit up and take notice, comparing Israeli politics to their own straight-jacketed polities. Meanwhile, the Beijing Olympics helped pinpoint the sclerotic nature of Arab regimes in contrast to the obvious dynamism of China. And finally, the Fayyad factor, named after Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, pointed to his focus on – wait for it – service delivery, rather than simply the tired old song about resistance to the West and Israel. As Friedman concluded: “Add it all up and what does it say? It says you have a very powerful convergence of forces driving a broad movement for change. It says we’re just at the start of something huge.”
Take all these together and we must ponder if the Middle East will achieve the kind of systemic change in the regimes of the region that rebuilt Eastern Europe a generation earlier. And if that happens, we must consider if it occurred from a confluence of the importance and power of ideas and the manner by which these ideas reached those societies? Will Francis Fukuyama have been shown to be wrong yet again? Is history for this region not yet over after all? And if this last point is true, will the inhabitants of these countries find, unlike Huntington’s pattern of eternally warring civilizations, that they are motivated by more universal values after all? Will the Arab world build its next wave of monuments to the man who triggered the Tunisian revolt when he set himself alight in despair over his inability to achieve a better life? Come back in 10 years and we’ll know. DM
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Main photo: Young men shout slogans demanding further political reforms during a protest on Tahrir Square in Cairo March 2, 2011. REUTERS/Peter Andrews.
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