Arab Spring vs. tradition

The struggles in the Arab world are more about the shaping of neo-traditionalist politics than a straight fight for democracy and civil rights.

The struggles in the Arab world (photo credit: MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY/REUTERS)
The struggles in the Arab world
THE FAILURE of the “Arab Spring” to produce more democratic societies is often depicted as a result of an uneven struggle between Western-oriented modernists and anti-Western traditionalists.
But the situation is more subtle and deep-rooted.
Throughout the Arab world, there is a powerful synthesis between modernism and tradition, a pervasive neo-traditionalism that permeates virtually all areas of society. It is this neo-traditionalism, suffused with authoritarianIn Iraq, following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the US expectation was that the people of Iraq, as individuals, would establish a Western style pluralist, democratic, party system. But instead, opposing Muslim groups, Sunni and Shi’ite, went to war with each other, and now, over 10 years later, that conflict is still claiming about 1,000 lives every month. In Syria, an outburst of opposition in March 2011, which ostensibly began over the individual grievances of peasants on the periphery, quickly developed into a horrific sectarian civil war between the ruling Alawites and much of the Sunni majority.
Libya and Yemen are both extreme examples of tribal-based conflicts that are threatening, along with other regional, factional or sectarian cleavages, to tear these countries apart.
The territorialization of collective identity: One of the European ideas that permeated Middle Eastern societies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the linkage between community and a specific contiguous territory.
In the traditional Ottoman order, communities lived side by side throughout the Empire, with almost no regard for territorial boundaries. With the momentum of nationalism, the idea that communities or nations inhabited, or should inhabit, spaces of their own gained widespread currency.
The Ottoman reforms of the mid-19th century, the Tanzimat, introduced the principle of equality before the law. This came to replace an arrangement in which the various religious communities, Muslims, Christians and Jews, lived under their own legal systems. With the application of the new principle of equality, state law was applied, for the first time, to all subjects of the Empire throughout the territory under its sovereign control.
This gave rise to new forms of collective identity, such as Ottomanism, in order to unite all Ottoman subjects as one nation.
Ottomanism, however, never met with much success and was soon succeeded by Turkish nationalism and other ethnic nationalisms that aspired to link community with language and specific territory. Thus the Balkan nations, Greeks, Serbs, Bulgars and others, instead of becoming equal under the law as Ottoman subjects, preferred equality in countries of their own, and sought and eventually obtained independence.
This same problem of territorialized identity led to the Turkish-Greek population exchange of 1923 and to many other ethnic conflicts throughout the former Ottoman lands, from the Greek-Turkish conflict in Cyprus, to the wars of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans of the 1990s, and the present-day sectarian struggles in Syria and Iraq, which like earlier such conflicts include numerous instances of communal warfare and even ethnic cleansing.
When central governments in modern Arab states were able to dominate their societies and instill the “fear of government” (haybat al-hukm) in their peoples, they could maintain internal order in these communally divergent states. But that is no longer true in countries like Iraq, Syria, Libya or Yemen, which possess neither powerful central governments nor consensual social contracts. For some of these countries, even their continued existence within current internationally recognized boundaries is increasingly in question.
Reform from the top down rather than from the bottom up: Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries Western-style modernizing and secularizing reforms were introduced in the various countries of the Middle East – by Muhammad Ali and his dynasty in Egypt and the Tanzimat in the rest of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century; and the reforms of Kemal Ataturk in Turkey of the 1920s and Gamal Abdel Nasser and the other officer regimes in the Arab states of the mid-20th century.
Secularizing reforms, however, were introduced top down, and not bottom up. They were never introduced in the wake of popular agitation. Quite the contrary, they were always imposed from above, often on an unwilling and uncooperative populace. Secularization never penetrated very far or very deep in Middle Eastern societies. The Iranian-born scholar Asef Bayat once described Egypt as a “seculareligious” state, a fitting epithet for other Arab countries too.
These societies, for the most part, are going through a prolonged phase of socioeconomic crisis and distress, often coupled with a sense of profound hopelessness. In such circumstances it is hardly surprising that many tend to seek the comforting and familiar embrace of neo-traditionalist political trends and organizations, whether in the form of political Islam, sectarian associations or tribal loyalties.
Thus, the struggles of the Arab Spring, for the most part, are more about the shaping of neo-traditionalist politics than a straight fight for democracy and civil rights per se.  Prof. Asher Susser is the Stanley and Ilene Gold senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies tendencies and a greater regard for group rights than the rights of individuals, that fuels the resilience of traditional society and is the main single force militating against progress towards the formation of pluralist, democratic societies.
As the “Arab Spring” upheavals have shown, critically important characteristics of traditional society, such as the intimate association of religion and politics, and the salience of sectarianism and tribalism remain important facets of Middle Eastern societies, albeit in neo-traditional forms.
Present-day neo-traditionalism is not simply an unaltered replica of the past, but more often than not, it is itself a product of modernity and an effort to contend with the challenges of the modern world through the mobilization of often reinterpreted traditional values.
The neo-traditionalists differ from the modernists in that the latter are generally future-oriented, whereas they tend to look to the past in their search for answers to the challenges of the present. Neo-traditionalists are not averse to all that modernity has to offer and modernists do not reject everything about tradition.
But the two are usually situated at very different points on the modernity-tradition continuum. It is not a clear-cut black and white dichotomy, rather a matter of degree. Nonetheless, the degree of difference is significant.
The European experience of state formation and modernization, coupled with broad secularization, was not reenacted in the Middle East. The partial adoption of secularizing policies by 19th and 20th century Middle East states failed to produce secular societies.
Though organized religion did decline, new religious movements with mass followings emerged.
There are four main reasons for the resilience of tradition in the Middle East: The non-separation of religion and politics; the inherent tension between individual and group rights; the territorialization of collective identity; and a reform process that was initiated from the top down by governments and by narrowly-based intellectual elites, rather than from the bottom up.
The non-separation of religion and politics: The ideal Western type of “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” distinguished clearly between the sovereignty of man and the sovereignty of God. This separation was never fully endorsed in the Muslim Middle East (with the exception of the first few decades of Republican Turkey).
The Islamic reformers of the late 19th century went to great lengths to promote a synthesis between Islam and modern science and Western- style progress, arguing that there was no real contradiction between them.
The intellectual “attack on tradition” in 1920s Egypt was met in the 1930s by an energetic Islamist reaction. Westernizers and Islamists have been in fierce competition ever since, not only in Egypt. Over the years secular regimes made concessions to the Islamists in order to maintain political equilibrium, allowing religion back into the constitutions, the courts and the school systems.
The tension between individual and group rights: The explosion of the “Arab Spring” had far more to do with economic grievances and hopelessness than with the demand for individual civil rights. Neither the popularly elected Muslim Brotherhood regime of ousted former Egyptian president Muhammad Morsi, nor the current regime of Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who came to power on the wings of a widely supported coup d’état, had individual rights as a high priority on their respective agendas.
If anything, the very popular Sisi regime is more brutally repressive of opponents of all stripes, religious and secular, than its Islamist predecessor. The struggle between the two was never mainly about civil rights for individuals but about how best to achieve power and prosperity for Egypt and about its collective identity: namely, its place on the spectrum between religion and secularism, between tradition and modernity.