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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 October 2018

The West and its fixation with the Arab strongman

HA Hellyer reflects on the anniversary of the Egyptian uprising in 2011
Friar Antonin Jaussen, who in the early 20th century lived among the Bedouin tribes of Jordan, with Thomas Edward Lawrence, in Cairo in 1917. Courtesy of the Dominican Institute for Oriental Studies
Friar Antonin Jaussen, who in the early 20th century lived among the Bedouin tribes of Jordan, with Thomas Edward Lawrence, in Cairo in 1917. Courtesy of the Dominican Institute for Oriental Studies

There is something fortuitous about anniversaries. This week provides a reminder of the moment the poorly named Arab Spring began to be taken seriously five years ago. Until then, most people outside Tunisia thought that Ben Ali fleeing Tunis was a fluke – that change in the Arab world was unlikely and undesirable. Most people were wrong about the first, change happened. Were most people right about the second? Was it actually undesirable?

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to visit the University of Warwick, my alma mater and former employer. I’d not had the opportunity to go back there since 2008 – and had been invited to address the student body on an interesting topic. The subject I was given was tantalisingly provocative: “Demystifying the Orient”.

I suspect the students left only more confused than before they listened to my talk, in part because the Arab world defies simple answers. Indeed, one of the questions I received was even more provocative: “Are Arabs simply better suited to having strongmen dictators rule over them?”

On its own, the question is challenging. It becomes even more so when one realises that the question came from an Arab. It wasn’t the retort of a bigot, which in many ways makes it all the more depressing. The essential point of the question is rather simple: to disavow the need for any kind of positive change in the Arab world, sacrificing it on the altar of stability. There are more than a few who would be perfectly willing to do so.

When one looks at Libya, for example, one sees chaos – and it is difficult to ignore that this chaos began in the aftermath of the removal of Libya’s own “strongman”.

Muammar Qaddafi liked to describe himself as the “King of Kings” and it seemed that after his removal there were many who have sought to lead Libya and fill the vacuum that he left behind. Is that, one wonders, proof of the original notion – that Arabs cannot function without a strongman, Pharoah-like dictator?

It’s a tempting idea and it leads to certain policy prescriptions.

This kind of thinking has persisted for years and it feeds into the idea that stability is based merely on a simplistic definition of security.

Of course, that misses the reality that Qaddafi did not simply leave a vacuum – he created it. There wasn’t a vacuum when he came to power in Libya. On the contrary, there was a thriving civil society.

Over the years, he and his brand of leadership decimated civil society and created the vacuum.

When he was gone, there was nothing but a shell – and in the wake of upheaval and no institutions, it’s hardly surprising that there would be a crisis.

The only way to avoid such a scenario is to have a vibrant civil society – which is no easy task, for sure – so that when crisis does hit, it is not simply state structures that are left to keep the country together.

Of course, there are conditions to that kind of societal strengthening – and that is a sense of ownership.

I remember being in Tahrir Square in 2011, and being impressed and inspired by the way in which Egyptian citizens took care of that space.

It was a dignified declaration of citizenship. They had a stake in it – and thus, they wanted to take care of it. What the Egyptian authorities considered to be a threat to stability and order was nothing of the kind.

Rather, it was – and remains – something to be celebrated. A real and genuine social contract requires a sense of ownership – and with it comes a resilience that nothing else can provide.

As I left Warwick, I thought to myself – you can’t go home again. Indeed, after almost a decade away, things have changed a great deal. New people, new challenges – but all still thirsting for an education, and a way to enter the world. In a way, that’s the same in the Arab world.

There may be some in the region who think they can put the genie back in the bottle – but indeed, you can’t go home again. There is a generation who still yearn and thirst for the right to build their own futures – and they will not be denied. Rather than resist that, we ought to embrace it. The alternative is only delaying the inevitable.

Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC

On Twitter: @hahellyer