The Invisible Arab: Excerpt from Chapter 1

The following is the second of a series of excerpts that Al Jazeera will be publishing from The Invisible Arab: The promise and peril of the Arab revolutions (excerpt from the preface here) – Published on Al Jazeera, by Marwan Bishara, February 9, 2012 (read the text or listen it’s audio, 14.38 min):

… Totalitarian and authoritarian (You say tomato, I say tomahto):

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, Arab autocracies represented some of the oldest dictatorships in the world. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s dictatorship in Tunisia, the most recently established in the region, ruled for twenty-five years, followed by thirty years for Egypt’s Muhammad Hosni Sayyid Mubarak, thirty-three years for Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, forty-three years for Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, and forty-three years for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad dynasty.  

Saddam Hussein was removed in 2003 after twenty-four bloody years ruling Iraq. Only the Arab authoritarian monarchies precede these dictatorships in longevity. Bahrain, a repressive Sunni monarchy, has ruled over a Shia majority since its independence from Britain in 1971.

Arab regimes have differed in the degree of control and violence they have exercised – from relatively open authoritarian regimes to terribly closed totalitarian autocrats. The former allowed for limited diversity, semi-political organisation, and tempered freedom of expression, but didn’t allow for change of governments or power-sharing through free and fair elections. So, for example, Egypt allowed parties to compete in parliamentary elections but set strict criteria for the eligibility of candidates and voters, ensuring that the results favoured the ruling party whose leader remained president through phony referenda. And in the monarchies of Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, and Bahrain, parliamentary elections were held, paving the way for certain degrees of representation in parliament, and, at times, an elected government. Alas, these parliaments were curtailed or summarily dismissed by royal decree. The fact that some of these authoritarian regimes didn’t try to define, micromanage, or determine every aspect of their societies made them more tolerable for the average citizen.

Despite Mubarak’s and Ben Ali’s authoritarian regimes and their hold on their countries’ institutions and military, state and society were kept relatively separate from the regime, just as loyalties to regime and state were kept separate. In comparison to their Arab peers, Egypt and Tunisia have had strong middle and working classes, durable national institutions, and a cohesive modern identity within a long-established nation-state backed by thousands of years of collectively shared history. Tunisia has one of the highest rates of literacy in the Arab world and has had a modern constitution since 1861, two decades before the French colonised it. Gender equality was established in the mid-1950s, long before other Arab and European women enjoyed the same rights and privileges.

Egypt, with five thousand years of civilisation along the Nile, is even more steeped in history. The nation sits on strong institutions that were developed during the nineteenth century, after Mohammad Ali took over in 1805 and began to modernise the country and its main metropolis. It’s this cohesiveness, strong national identity, and culture that have been missing from the other Arab states swept by the Arab revolt.

More totalitarian Arab regimes, on the other hand, have aimed to erase features of plurality and diversity in order to establish a uniform political society based on the ruling ideology. Exercising direct censorship over the media, they monopolised political thought and all aspects of civil and political society. In Syria and Iraq, the Baath party monopolised government, the economy, and the armed forces, and enshrined its singular control of government in the constitution, not allowing for alternation of power.

The totalitarian regimes couldn’t be distinguished from their militaries and, to a large degree, the national institutions. Little space was left between the naked force of the clan-based regime and the defenseless citizens, as various protective state agents and mediators – whether legal, civic, or welfare-related – were scrapped, definanced or simply ignored.

The lines between state and regime were blurred, as were the buffers between regime and family, security, military, civic, and religious institutions. The neutrality and independence of national institutions, such as judiciary and parliament, were totally compromised. States were, for a lack of better words, turned into the private estates of the ruling families. While these regimes boasted of secular republicanism, they were run similar to the Wahhabite kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, where no political activism was allowed and where the ruling families dominated all facets of political life … (full long text).

Link: The Winter War: In the frozen peaks of Afghanistan’s Kunar province, a ferocious clash for supremacy rages amid the mountaintops (read the article or listen the audio, 25,02 min).

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