On July 1, 1798, just before disembarking on the shores of Alexandria — in what is often depicted as the moment when the West, indeed modernity itself, landed in the Middle East — Napoleon enlightened his troops: “The first city we will encounter was built by Alexander [the Great]. We shall find at every step great remains worthy of exciting French emulation.” By noon, the Mamluk army had fled; the modern force had had its way, oriental emulation notwithstanding. Napoleon now called upon the local population to distance themselves from their usurpers: “People of Egypt, they have told you that I come to destroy your religion, but do not believe it... I come to restore your rights.” He did not.
For two long centuries, the Arab Middle East has struggled to meet the challenge of modernity, a task exacerbated by the lingering, and increasing, dissonance between the glorious past and the shameful present. Measures were taken, of course. But they were just that — means to ends, rather than the essence of change. Techniques and technologies were imported, as were the shells of ideologies. Turning to copy-paste (with special formatting), Arab autocrats capitalized on post-colonialism, socialism and pan-Arabism ostensibly to restore Arabs’ rights. They have not.
Then came the war and the writing on the wall. The defeat of 1967 prescribed for many the age-old panacea: “Islam is the Solution” (الإسلام هو الحل).
But wherever a heavy dose was taken, as in Iran and Sudan, on the outskirts of the Arab world, the patients got sicker. The oppressive Iranian regime is engulfed in an acute legitimacy crisis, and Sudan, the largest African country, is about to be dismembered for its regime’s genocidal inclinations.
It is easy to mistake the contemporary Arab Middle East for the Middle Ages. Since 2002, the UNDP series of Arab Human Development Reports, written all by Arab experts, has charted the past and present of a politically stalled region. On key parameters of progress — be they poverty and unemployment (2002), knowledge gap (2003), freedom (2004), gender inequality (2005), or human security (2009) — Arab states and societies lag behind. Enlightenment, liberty, and peace — the holy trinity of modernity — seems to have gone AWOL. Still, the riches beneath the earth, foreign aid and advanced technologies allowed the Arab world to join other developing countries in improving health, education and living standards — containing political change. This deformed social contract — combining Hobbesian politics with Lockean (ostensibly neo-liberal) economics — for long seemed to be doing well, insulating the state from the street through the former’s security apparatus and patronage networks.
Then came the revolution, the Tunisian “black swan” and the (mass) “demonstration effect” across the region. We political scientists and Mideast experts, accustomed to asking, and trying to answer, Bernard Lewis’s aching still-echoing question — ‘“what went wrong?” — may now have to recast it into “what took you so long?” Yet we lack sufficient answers. Too many theories seem now either false or non-falsifiable. We have not foreseen the future, and may have been myopic about the present as well.
Still, we must hone our vision, perhaps inventing a new one. For the last generation, since the fall of the wall, two seemingly contradictory visions have guided our political thought: Francis Fukuyama’s End of History and Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. Amidst this “clash of histories,” we now seek insights. One coded image tells it all. The photograph of the mass demonstration in the once-titular Square of Liberation, Cairo, during Friday prayer is the Rorschach test of our age.
In this digital ink we recognize the Janus-face of the shape of things to come. In the middle of the square the big banner declares the uprising’s motto: “The people want to bring down the regime.” We have seen it once before, in 1989: it must be the end of the Arab world as we know it, the end of history revisited and finally vindicated, with the universal call of democracy answered by its last outlier. Then we see the immense crowd, the thousands of orderly lines, prostrating on the ground, signaling submission (that is, Islam) to the will of God. Isn’t that 1979 reincarnated? The autocratic devil we know and can deal with now ousted in favor of a great unknown soon to be taken over by the inevitable theocracy. After all, they belong to another, innately antagonistic, civilization.
Both readings appeal to our hopes and fears, to our minds, to tell the ideal from the real. Still, we have got lost in translation.
Virtually all English renditions of the uprising’s call missed its singular, key letter: “The people wants to bring down the regime.” This seeming semantics marks a sea-change in political ethics. For in the two long centuries since Napoleon landed in Alexandria, the moral foundation of modern politics — popular sovereignty — has been absent from the Arab Middle East. The Arab people became the object for colonizers, dictators and imams, with their call to submission and arms. Never a subject for thought and action, the people lacked political agency, powerless to forge a collective moral self, let alone a nation to demand self-determination: the right to tell right from wrong in the public sphere.
Whether Arab popular uprisings will eventually transform political systems — thus nominally qualified as real revolutions — remains to be seen. But one revolution is real and clear: the people (شعب, sha’ab) was born — a collective, rather than a collection, of individuals, a whole greater than the sum of its parts. The uprising’s slogan was not simply, as one might have expected, “down with the regime.” It is precisely because the demonstrates felt that the existence of such a people, let alone one in possession of agency, is far from obvious, that they added, in a resolute speech-act — an act created by speech — “the people wants.” In an irony of fate, the autocrats’ success was their undoing. Reifying Arab states forged public patriotism; glorifying pan-Arabism brought down the dominoes; and finally, importing new technologies planted a Trojan digital horse — the information revolution — in their midst. Easily monitored, it was less a tactical resource for orchestrating the popular uprisings and more a strategic source for imagining the people, a people, in the first place. The social network undermines the fragmentation that underlines the social contracts of both Hobbes and Lock.
Nine years before Napoleon paid his visit to the Middle East, Abbé Sieyès wrote what would soon become the manifesto of the French Revolution. Pondering on the three traditional “estates of the realm” — clergy, nobility, and commoners — Sieyès challenged their division and hierarchy. His preambling Q & A echoed throughout France: “What is the Third Estate? Everything. What has it been until now in the political order? Nothing. What does it ask? To become something.”
And so it was; and so it is, with the Arab world today. By corporal and virtual social networking, it has re-found and founded its Third Estate. The deficiencies of the deformed Hobbesian and Lockean social contracts have left in their wake Rousseau’s volonté générale, the general will of the people. Whether 2011 will eventually lead to an Arab edition of 1989 or 1979 is still unclear, but 1789, better yet 1848, is near. And as with the European Spring of Nations, the (up)rising of Arab nations, while prone to mishaps, is bound to change the region’s geopolitics, ushering the Middle East into a new era of re-aligning identities with authorities, policies, and — eventually — polities.
Important as the new governments’ policies surely are, of deeper significance are the choices to be made by the peoples — between divine and popular sovereignty, between civic and ethnic nationalisms. There may be (more) blood. Not all Arab states are certain to engender peoplehood, and failed peoples may well engender failed states. Not all Mideast peoples have states, and stateless peoples may well demand they do. Asking, and, even better, answering, ‘What is the Arab Third Estate?’ will help both Arab peoples and foreign powers advance the cause of peaceful change.
* First published on The Huffington Post, 10 March 2011.