Thursday, July 21, 2011

Is Everything Up in the Air in the Arab Spring?

To blog or not to blog? It has been this kind of month. If your site is not in the business of archiving and commenting on the day’s happenings—or, as a friend volunteered, if you’re knitting your way through history--it makes little sense to join the hysteria. With the detritus of theories and scenarios clogging up the view and numbing the senses, you find yourself rhapsodizing about the wisdom of silence in the throes of frenzy.

I suppose it’s time for more knitting.

Moods here have this lull in their swing: the ebb and flow of euphoria as doubts accumulate about the uprisings’ ability to sustain their original sprint. The odds were great to begin with, they say, and now, after the initial shock, stasis and the many forces that love it are rebuilding stamina again, threatening to turn the race for deep change into a tedious push and shove game. Ironically, both those who are reveling in and squirming from the moment are sounding the same alarms, the former warning of sabotage, the latter rooting for it.

So, here we are, seven months into rebellion. Outrage still in Tahrir Square. Frustrated fury in Yemen and Syria. A not so quiet simmer in Bahrain, while Libya roils, as Qaddafi and the rebels, inch by inch, fight for precious terrain. 

Conspiracy talk, dire predictions, accusations from the left huffing and puffing about the West, rants from the right pissing on the brash audacity of the East are giving the uprisings the run around, by turns pumping them up and smacking them down. Adding to the noise are those with seriously offended sensibilities or wounded ideologies, who, like drunkards, are stumbling their way through events, at whim applauding or fulminating against the revolts.

And, pray tell, the skeptics are asking: Where do the region’s age-old maladies fit in all of this tumult? The sectarianisms that are supposed to divide us; the colonial legacies that mar us; the greed that stalks us; the feeble democratic impulse that cripples us; that religion that shackles us… 

Opinions are colliding, but the same overarching question wraps up almost every argument: Will we find ourselves starting afresh a few years down the line, or will we be stomaching more of the same under a different name? As in, is this for real, or is fate just pulling our leg?

Bizarrely, lost in the storm of words and actions is the heavy baggage that the uprisings have already dumped from the surface of these realities. True, the systems in Tunisia and Egypt were only too happy to decapitate tottering heads if only to save themselves; worse, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria—each for its own set of reasons--have yet to begrudge their people even this fleetingly gratifying gift. But a look back at the past seven months, however hasty, is enough to remind us that had the old narrative been that sturdy we wouldn’t be struggling for the ground in these tectonic shifts.

In 2007, Annia Ceizadlo, a correspondent with a remarkable feel for the region’s politics, wrote this: Once again, Lebanon is facing the oldest, saddest choice in the modern Arab world: between undemocratic religious militants and a greedy, corrupt elite whose biggest selling point is its dubious ability to keep the militants at bay.”
The revolts, nascent though they are, have already damaged much of the area’s political fabric, none more severely than this storyline by which we have lived and been smothered to near death in the last 40 years. And with it, the parts that have made it strong and whole are coming under severe pressure to evolve: the authoritarianism that enveloped it; the Islamism that was nurtured by it and thrived because of it; more recently the neoliberal economic policies that were supposed to shore it up but ended up undermining it; the geopolitics of the area that drew its rationale from it…

The impression among many is that the current fight is about how much of the old status quo can be saved, when in actual fact it’s about how much of the new one can be tamed and made to deliver.

Hence the rise in accolades waxing lyrical about the Turkish model that has married the least noxious brand of political Islam with the most believable type of democracy to the most robust market-friendly economy. Equally conspicuous is the distance between Turkey and the region’s other masters in capitalizing on the potential windfalls of the Arab Spring.

In Turkey’s growing shadow, you are sure to glimpse Iran’s nervous swagger in the hard knuckle race for regional influence. Not far from both are the tensions between a miffed and recalcitrant Saudi Arabia, with suddenly so much and so many to buy off and nothing to sell, and the US, which has caught the trend and is looking for the most effective way of sublimating it to its dynamic interests.

Witness the openness being expressed towards an Arab Muslim Brotherhood whose credentials appear most appropriate to the moment: their innate capitalist instincts; their strong fealty to the army and/or strong channels of contact with the powers that be; their strength in the mainstream and their eagerness to deal; conveniently, their newfound willingness to graciously (if always clumsily) give and take with society’s other constituencies

Note as well the pace and nature of dissent coming from within these movements in places like Egypt, which, for the first time in decades, are having to compete and reinvent themselves in a deregulated marketplace of political parties and ideas.*

Nothing about this emerging status quo is neat or even remotely irreversible, all thanks to the popular stirrings, which ironically were the ones to let loose the forces that made the previous one so indefensible. Nothing in the Turkish experiment—not the stubbornness of the state and army’s secularism, not the particularities and size of its economy, not the tactical and wily pragmatism of its Justice and Development Party--finds its likeness anywhere in the Arab world. Moreover, we have yet to figure out where to place in the looming panorama the extraordinary sight of a “democratic” Israel turning more illiberal and more bigoted still, law by law, settlement by settlement, Netanyahu by Lieberman, as its Arab neighbors, for the first time in recent memory, clamor for a freer future.

But if the details pack the devil in them and the contradictions and uncertainties are littering the path to the new order, the vision and intent, for those who like to think of themselves as the deciders, is this. And in their efforts to put together the nuts and bolts of the new Middle East, perhaps the biggest challenge will be the single most significant realization by the rebels yet: that their voice matters and it is at its most effective when it is relentless and ground up.

*  For some of the best reporting on Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood follow Yasmine Al Rashidi in The New York Review of Books.