x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

A new political consciousness finds a voice in the Arab spring

Even if the Arab Spring brings little positive immediate change, the wave of uprisings has made a healthy change in the way Arab peoples think about their governments.

Several writers and analysts have recently penned articles asking whether the so-called "Arab spring" has succeeded, failed or merely stalled. An essential aspect of the debate has not been sufficiently examined, however. This has to do with the psychology of this remarkable Middle Eastern moment.

Whatever the ultimate outcome in the region, the rebellions against authoritarian rule may well represent the start of a more profound transformation: an end to the mindset of submission, what the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz called "the captive mind", that was so essential to sustaining the authoritarian regimes currently being challenged.

In numerous countries, from Tunisia to Syria, passing through Libya and Egypt, we've heard a similar refrain. "The wall of fear has fallen," protesters and activists have clamoured, explaining their willingness to confront the instruments of repression deployed by their leaders. Fear was always an essential ingredient in keeping societies in their place. But there was more to it than that.

By and large, ideology evaporated long ago as a means of retaining popular loyalty. In none of the Arab countries that have revolted lately can we seriously assume that ideas had a bearing on the durability of those in power. Arab nationalism long ago died as the life-force of governance in Egypt. Hosni Mubarak was never identified with it anyway, and certainly not his National Democratic Party. The Neo-Destour party of Zine Al Abedine Ben Ali was a sordid mutation of the one that led Tunisia to independence in 1956. Syria's Baath lost much of its legitimacy decades ago under Hafez Al Assad, while Col Muammar Qaddafi's bizarre system of government in the Libyan Jamahiriya became a loincloth for tribal kleptocracy.

And yet for years Mr Mubarak, Mr Ben Ali, the Assads and Col Qaddafi managed to endure, building dynasties and even contemplating handing off to their sons or other relatives. If intimidation facilitated this, there was also the matter of patronage to explain their resilience. With their regimes controlling the main levers of social promotion and economic gain, it was easy to rally support, but also to divide adversaries and punish the recalcitrant. It is when patronage networks began fraying, when favours were spread around less equitably and those around the leader became too greedy, that the regimes began seeing the foundations of their authority dissolve.

However, there is a more intangible reason, beyond interests or terror, why people accepted overbearing leaders for so long. Being under the thumb of an autocrat is a daily humiliation, an assault on self-respect. One can say no and suffer harsh consequences or, like the majority, say yes and suffer other consequences. Having to say yes to institutionalised abuse is to accept one's insignificance, which can generate self-loathing. A natural reaction making this condition more palatable is to embrace the source of one's disgrace. Breaking the habit is not easy for it requires admitting to one's degradation, to one's mediocrity, before transcending it.

Take the situation in Syria not so very long ago. For decades anyone visiting Damascus could see how the tone changed when politics were broached in conversation. Here, it seemed, was the last of the Soviet bloc capitals, as interlocutors would lower their voices, look over their shoulders, or simply refuse to address sensitive topics. The British writer William Dalrymple once wrote, approvingly, of the Assads that they headed "a police state that tends to leave its citizens alone as long as they keep out of politics". He missed the inanity of what he was defending. Politics, the medium through which Syrians could define themselves as citizens and their vision for society, was off limits.

Thank heavens the fate of the Arab world is not in the hands of westerners who confuse cultural even-handedness with the abandonment of basic human values. If there is one message that has emerged from the Arab emancipation movements in the past months, it is the rejection of double standards. When it comes to democracy, the rule of law, and the departure of corrupt and cruel leaderships, demonstrators have implied time and again that there can be no exceptions. What goes for one Arab society must go for others.

This has created a paradox. Even as the different Arab societies in ebullition have focused on domestic beefs and reforms, they have also situated themselves in a wider narrative of an Arab aspiration to freedom and justice. In other words we could be witnessing a much broader metamorphosis in the Arabs' outlook toward their regimes than we suspected. Something is broken in the old, rigid, top-down Arab orders. Even if the counter-revolution triumphs in certain places, the region will not be able to resist a widening impulse of contestation.

There are many minefields on the road toward greater freedom, above all the prospect of civil war. We've seen this in Libya and Yemen, and the Assads have done their best to heighten sectarian tensions in Syria so as to warn that without them chaos would ensue. However, it is not easy for countries to collapse into civil conflict; and if it does come, it just reconfirms how unfit the dictator is to remain in office.

In his poem August 1968, about the crushing of the Prague Spring, WH Auden wrote of the ogre of despotic repression that "one prize is beyond his reach/The Ogre cannot master Speech". Indeed, in lieu of communication, Arab regimes have visited unrestricted violence on their own people. This is a dialect that many Arab publics are no longer willing to speak. The ogres would do well to heed their words.


Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle