The Arab Reawakening

With rebellion sweeping the Arab world, Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies, talks to Columbia Magazine about the prospect for real change.

Published Spring 2011
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COLUMBIA: You and many others have written about the image of the Arab in the West. But how do Arabs view themselves? A young Egyptian told the BBC in February: “We have felt passive and had always been told that our problems were someone else’s fault — America, Israel, the Jews.” He went on to say that in Tunisia and Egypt they’ve seen what they can do themselves. Does this represent a major change in the way Arabs see themselves?

KHALIDI: Across the Arab world, these patriarchal, patronizing, autocratic regimes — whether monarchies or nominal republics — have infantilized their citizens. They have treated them as subjects and taught them that they’re incapable of doing anything themselves. The rage that develops in response to being treated without dignity diverts into all kinds of perverse religious, sexual, violent, and criminal behavior. Now that there is a sense of agency, there’s a desire for dignity that was denied by the regime and which is now being achieved. 

Sometimes when we hear calls for dignity, what is meant is not just human individual dignity, but the dignity of whole countries whose regimes have allowed them to become weak, submissive, and passive. The Arab world was once upon a time a region where there were powers that played a role in the world. Today there are three Middle Eastern states of any importance: Israel, Turkey, and Iran. There’s not an Arab country that has any weight in international affairs at all. So the call for dignity means: “We’re a people of 300 million. Why do we have no weight whatsoever in the world? Why do we have no self-determination? Why is our future determined from outside the region?”

The degree to which Egyptian television has been exuding patriotism since January 25 is impossible to overstate. The old nationalist anthems are being dredged out of the archives. You hear Umm Kulthum, you hear Abdel Halim Hafez, you hear the great singers from the ’50s and the ’60s talking about the glories of Egypt, how we all love Egypt — stuff we hadn’t heard for decades. Until January nobody was proud of Egypt — and Egypt stands for the rest of the Arab world. When Egypt is in an ignominious situation, to some degree so are all Arabs.

Photo: © Iason Athanasiadis / CorbisCOLUMBIA: Is there a secular, noncorrupt figure waiting in the wings in Egypt or elsewhere? An Ataturk, perhaps?

KHALIDI: I can’t talk to a journalist, American or Arab, without being asked, “Where are the leaders?” The activist and journalist Nawara Negm, a wonderful young woman who is one of the organizers in Egypt, as far as one knows, was asked about this. She said, “The age of zaims is over.” Zaim means “strongman.”

The Middle East had that. There was the shah in Iran, Abdel Nasser in Egypt, Hussein in Iraq. That model decisively failed. Mubarak is the last in the line of such zaims. At least we hope he was the last. I don’t think that the kind of society that’s thrown up this movement is going to tolerate another zaim, and I think this society has moved beyond that, at least in the case of Egypt. That doesn’t mean that such a system may not be imposed, but that is a recipe for instability and it wouldn’t last.

The Egyptians have shaken off a lot. They have not yet succeeded in finally and fundamentally making a lot of changes, but one of the things that they have changed is the sense that you need a supreme leader.

I’m a historian; I’m never happy predicting the future. I don’t see the Ataturk model. But if you say to me the Turkish model, with a military that eventually ceases to intervene in public life; with an evolution of a secular system, which can incorporate religious parties; with a greater and greater degree of democracy, which is what the Turkish model so far represents, that I can see. That has a lot of appeal in the Arab world, partly because Turkey is a little bit like the Arab societies, partly because it is so successful. It is a model in multiple spheres, not least of which is the constitutional and political, but also the economic and the cultural. At the same time, Turkey is a modern society. And it’s rich. There is humongous Turkish investment in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, and North Africa.

COLUMBIA: Is democracy necessarily the way to go? And, at least outside Egypt, will democratic institutions have to be constructed from scratch?

KHALIDI: Each country differs. There’s a democratic tradition in Egypt and in a number of other Arab countries. It doesn’t exist in Yemen or Saudi Arabia.

But frontiers and minds are more permeable in the 21st century than they ever were before. It does not take three generations for someone to understand some aspects of Jeffersonian democracy. One thing that’s been astonishing to me is that across the Arab world, the same basic ideas about constitutions are being expressed. Clearly, there are prerequisites for a successful democratic system to be established — people have to be educated, they have to be literate — but for a number of these countries, those conditions do exist. And even in those where they don’t, it’s possible to make a beginning.

Jordan has had parliaments. Before the dictatorships that started with the Baath coup of 1963, Syria had a parliamentary regime inherited from the French mandatory period. Egypt had a parliamentary regime from 1922 to 1952, and there were constitutional debates going on in Egypt in the 1870s and early 1880s. There were elections in the Ottoman Empire, which included much of the Arab world, in 1876, 1908, 1912, and 1914.

My point is you’re not building on sand. There are countries with respected legal professions: Egypt is the most notable case of this, but it’s also true in Lebanon and Kuwait, where the idea of an independent judiciary is respected.

Democracy by and of itself won’t solve everything. It may not even be achievable in some of these countries. And then there are powerful vested interests, a problem not unfamiliar to Americans. It’s been a problem in all democracies, ever since democracy began. In many cases, the reason democracy failed in the Arab world is that democratic parliamentary regimes were unable to deal with those countries’ problems in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s.

COLUMBIA: Problems such as education and literacy?

KHALIDI: There is a huge youth population in Egypt and a large educated population for which suitable jobs don’t exist, as well as serious problems of infrastructure, housing, and inequality of income. Cairo has a community living in obscene luxury, in gated communities around the ring road that circles Cairo, while millions of people in the city live on $2 a day. That’s hard to sustain without its breaking down from time to time. Addressing these issues will not be easy; the Mubarak regime failed in that regard. Then sustaining economic growth, bringing down the birthrate, educating whoever is born, and getting them into decent jobs — you’ve got to get 7, 8, 9 percent growth in these countries to keep up with this youth boom. Well, good luck to the democratic regime that has to deal with that. So democracy is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for real changes.

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I'm certain others have commented as I am going to do. The idea that "experts" are "completely false" who doubt the "Arab Spring" -- and I didn't get much further along reading since the pov is stated so absolutely and clearly -- is now dated and absurd. It's obvious that sectarian (that is, religious) violence is a big part of more the Arab Winter, this true in Jordon, Bahrain, and Syria. What is going on in Yemen and Lybia is more tribal, I suppose. But anyone charactrerizing any of this as mainly about democracy -- it might be about a hopeless standard of living, but that is more again capitalism and corruption -- has some false agenda of propaganda. Egypt, of course, is on hold, it is a basket case economically -- none of these countries can much compete in the international marketplace beyond oil -- and now Christians are being attacked by fundamentalist Islamists. Maybe nothing much happened there, the army still in control, or what happened is also likely to bring about a Muslim Brotherhood at least sharing power. I doubt if this would bother the author much, but then I suppose he likes Hamas too, but I stopped reading. If this is the propaganda that passes for expert analysis at Columbia, I can only quote Saul Bellow when meeting Sartre and other communist existentialists around 1948: "I knew more in high school about communism than they do now."

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