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How history has shaped Arab intellectual responses

Two dates in recent Arab history - 1967 and 2011 - stand out as turning points for the modern Arab world

Both 1967 and 2011 were turning points in contemporary Arab history.

In each case, Arab intellectuals have engaged in critical reflections on the meaning of those historical events and their own work within them. The former, 1967, was associated with the defeat of three Arab armies by Israel following the hopeful years of preparation for the confrontation under Gamal Abdel Nasser’s charismatic leadership. The latter, 2011, was the sudden eruption of mass protests across a number of Arab countries. Most Arab intellectuals agree that these two events have profoundly changed the realities with which they had previously been familiar.

The years following 1967 saw the establishment of revolutionary regimes across the Arab world, including in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. These quickly developed into dictatorial regimes which transformed those countries into police states and culminated in the ruins from which arose the 2011 revolts. The damage inflicted by those regimes covered the economy, education, culture, health care, environment, media, liberties and politics. A generalised absence of the rule of law, coupled with an unbridled corruption and neoliberal policies introduced in the last decades, left people to fend for themselves in situations of increasing pauperisation, repression and hopelessness.

What characterised the years between 1967 and 2011 was a disenfranchisement of the people and the outlawing of political life. The defeat of 1967 discredited Arab nationalism, and the regimes cracked down on all opposition forces. This was true as much of the Left as it was of Islamism. In the first instance, in fact, Islamism was used against the Left and later it was instrumentalised as the evil against which the regime alone could serve as a bulwark.

This eventually led to the demise of most ideologies, with the exception of Islamism, which filled the void created by state repression. But it too had started to lose some of its credibility and appeal by the turn of the millennium. During those four decades, democracy, real party politics and liberties were banned and people were forced to “mind their own business”. All along, there had been waves of protest against this state of affairs, but none in the magnitude of those of 2011 when anger, humiliation and revolt apparently reached such high levels that they could not be contained by state intimidation anymore.

Yet, the demands for freedom and dignity voiced in 2011 were not new. They had been expressed in the 1970s and 1980s in popular uprisings in Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia. But they had now become louder and stronger and were more determined to reclaim the political space that was hijacked from them throughout those years. They focused on freedom and dignity, on the cessation of police brutality, corruption and power abuse and the institution of a more accountable management of public affairs.

Arab intellectuals, not unlike most fellow Arabs, experienced the defeat of 1967 as a humiliating trauma that led to deep soul-searching on the causes, meanings and implications of this debacle. Many saw in it the signs of a failed modernisation while others understood it as a consequence of an alienating westernisation. Some thought it was the result of a misappropriated tradition (turath) that needed a new, revolutionised interpretation. Clearly, the defeat exacerbated a cultural malaise in societies that had not yet released themselves from the pangs of decolonisation and were in search of empowerment. Two main reactions to this malaise polarised the intellectual scene. One called for the radicalisation of critique and another considered Islam as the solution to this general predicament. Cultural identity and authenticity became dominant themes of intellectual discussion that often ceded to culturalism.

However, among those intellectual thinkers who were keen on radicalising critique, the real problem behind this malaise was politics and not culture. The disenfranchisement of people, the banning of civil liberties and the absence of democracy were for them the fundamental causes behind an increasingly disenchanted post-independence era.

Despite the mounting repression after 1967, those critical voices continued to denounce the dehumanising effects of despotic regimes. However, given the levels of repression, their lucidity and moral courage could not translate into any concrete institutional change. In their writings, they expressed the overwhelming feeling that had dominated the pre-2011 epoch and that could perhaps best be described as powerlessness.

From such impotence and despair erupted the recent Arab revolutions, albeit without the presence, let alone leadership, of Arab intellectuals. Many of them though were overjoyed by the upheavals.

Critical intellectuals knew, as their fellow citizens did, that they were witnessing historical moments. They were not the leaders of those movements. However, they felt validated and empowered albeit also humbled by a people who could collectively regain a political space that the intellectuals themselves, as individuals, could not reclaim earlier. Many of them had come to understand the importance of engaging people and saw their role as articulating the moral and political stakes involved in these momentous upheavals to connect the present struggles with those past ones that they had witnessed and participated in.

But things got more complicated and the initial euphoria yielded to a pressing anxiety that another uprising for human dignity and freedom could be crushed in the Arab world as a result of brutality and division

Could it be that another defeat now stares in the face of Arabs and their intellectuals? Or is it valid to posit that the long decades of fortitude have shown that the deep quest for dignity and freedom cannot be extinguished easily?

Elizabeth Kassab is the author of Contemporary Arab Thought and a 2013 winner of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award. She will lecture on 1967 and 2011: Arab Intellectual Responses at NYUAD Downtown Campus in Abu Dhabi on October 29

Details at nyuad.nyu.edu

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