Westerners have long felt the need to lecture Arabs about Arab history. “We know the civilization of Egypt better than we know the civilization of any other country,” Lord Balfour told the British Parliament in 1910. “We know it further back; we know it more intimately; we know more about it.” Indeed, the unmistakable message of this quintessential colonialist was that “we” know the Arab world better than the Arabs do, which is why “we” have every right to rule in their lands, whether directly or indirectly. As the late historian Edward Said observed, this “orientalism” became a sort of justification for colonialism “in advance.”
More than 100 years after Balfour, and after the demise of so many erstwhile empires, it’s amazing the extent to which Western pundits (even some from Muslim backgrounds) still echo his sentiments. Having utterly failed to predict the revolutionary movements that erupted in Tunisia and Egypt a year ago, they continue prognosticating with shameless confidence about the eventual triumph of “counterrevolutionary” forces of dictatorship and demagoguery.
“There are many possible outcomes—from restoration of the old order to military takeover, from unruly fragmentation and civil war to creeping Islamization,” the usually-smarter-than-this Robert Malley and Hussein Agha wrote in The New York Review of Books in September. “But the result that many outsiders had hoped for—a victory by the original protesters—is almost certainly foreclosed.” In other words, the ineluctable forces of the Arab world’s sorry history will decide the Arabs’ sorry future.
Yet the most striking thing about these revolutionary movements has been the extent to which they put history aside, both their own and that invented for them by foreigners. How else to explain the resilience of the Tahrir Square protesters, many of whom vented their violent rage against elections they feared were rigged, then voted anyway—and enthusiastically! How to fathom the sheer endurance of the locked-down population of Syria’s embattled city of Homs week after week, month after month? Where would you find the precedent?
As Al Jazeera analyst Marwan Bishara writes in his forthcoming book, The Invisible Arab: “Never has the power of the people appeared so humane, so inspiring, so personal, so determined as in Tunisia, so daring as in Syria, so diverse as in Yemen, so humble as in Bahrain, so courageous as in Libya, or so humorous as in Egypt. If, as one keen observer noted, every joke is a tiny revolution, the Arabs, and most notably the Egyptians, are revolutionaries par excellence.” And the biggest joke is the received wisdom that in the Arab world the past always determines the future.
The anciens régimes in various guises keep trying to play by the old rules, expecting the people to fold, yet the people—tens and hundreds of thousands of them—keep pushing back. To state this fact is not to romanticize the revolutionary moment, but rather to begin appreciating it as something different in scope and kind from anything that has come before. Never has such a vast region had such young populations. Half the people of Egypt are not yet 25; half those of Syria are younger than 22. In Yemen the median age is 18.
Where landlines used to be hard to get, most Saudis now have more than one mobile phone.
The level of contact and communication these Arabs enjoy was inconceivable to their parents. And yet the young people take it for granted, as part of the natural order in which they’re growing up. Twenty years ago, there was no 24-hour satellite news station in Arabic. Now there are many. By 2009, according to a University of Maryland survey of the Arab world, some 80 percent of the respondents were getting their international news from television, and most (58 percent) were getting their headlines from Qatar-based Al Jazeera. Follow-up polls find that the Arab public has widened its range of news sources: about 27 percent of those connected to the Internet have signed on to the Web for the first time in just the past year. Perhaps most important, in a region where telephone landlines were difficult to obtain and tightly monitored until the late 1990s, roughly a third of Egypt’s people now have mobile phones. In Saudi Arabia, most people have more than one.
Anybody paying the least attention to the Middle East knew those two basic trends in Arab fecundity and connectivity. But no one really foresaw what would happen when you stirred them together on the streets of Tunis or in Tahrir Square. And anyone who claims to have figured out exactly where that volatile and creative mix will take the region is still just guessing. The only certainty is that the Arabs will keep surprising the West, and very often themselves: pushing back when historically they would have been expected to submit, developing new strategies for thwarting demagogues, and over time—it’s impossible to say how much time—shaping their own sorts of democracies.
There are grave misgivings about this new dynamic in the West. There’s the sudden and unsettling realization that the old deals cut with Arab despots may not sit so well with the despots’ former subjects. And yes, those despots’ peace treaties and tacit understandings with Israel could be examples. But the hoary enmity toward the Zionists is, like most other history, not especially relevant at the moment to the Arab kids who are taking over the Arab world (unless the Israelis give them reason to care anew—and as of this writing, that has not happened).
Saddam kept copiers under lock and key, as if they were weapons of mass destruction
It’s hard to let go. Like resentful and condescending stepparents, we conjure visions of all the bad things that might happen to the kids, “from restoration of the old order to military takeover, from unruly fragmentation and civil war to creeping Islamization,” as Malley and Agha’s essay put it. But the truth is that the West’s policymakers and pundits are most worried about the sheer inconvenience of the new (dis)order.
It used to be a given that just about everyone south of the Mediterranean or east of Suez lived in a closed society, largely cut off from the rest of the world and, indeed, from each other. Generals and royals were the only go-to guys who mattered. Balfour could tell Parliament with absolute confidence in 1910 that throughout the whole history of the East, conqueror succeeds conqueror, tyrant succeeds tyrant, and “never in all the revolutions of fate and fortune have you seen one of those nations of its own motion establish what we, from a Western point of view, call self-government.”
There were reasons. Thanks to the paranoid tyranny of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, the information revolution created by movable type—the Gutenberg revolution that transformed Europe in the 15th century—did not arrive in the Ottoman Empire’s subject nations until more than three centuries later. (More recently, Saddam Hussein banned the private ownership of typewriters in Iraq, and kept copying machines under lock and key as if they were weapons of mass destruction.)
The impoverished peasants who subsisted in this information-starved world resembled the rural society Karl Marx described in France in the 1850s: a conglomeration rather than a class. Its members had no interconnectivity outside their families and villages. They were like “potatoes in a sack,” Marx wrote: “They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented.” Edward Said, tellingly, used that line as the epigraph for his magisterial Orientalism precisely because it fit the common Western conception of Arab society.
But the West’s received wisdom about faith, fatalism, and fanaticism in the Middle East is, today, essentially misleading. As Bishara points out in The Invisible Arab, “religion, development, and culture have had great influence,” but “the origins of the miserable Arab reality are political.” And that is the core problem now. “The use and misuse of political power has been the factor that defines the contemporary Arab state,” says Bishara. “Arab regimes have subjugated or transformed all facets of Arab society.” Now, with those regimes gone or going, there’s room for a new political environment to take shape.
The old military establishments will try to hang on to their prerogatives and their bank accounts. But their goal is essentially to rule—to make the big decisions—while eschewing the responsibilities of day-to-day government. And that, as Egypt’s generals have discovered, is a plan much easier to imagine than to execute.
The rich, conservative monarchies are viewed with deep suspicion by young democrats, who are sure the Saudis and Qataris are underwriting retrograde Salafism at the expense of secular liberalism. But the royals also seem to be supporting democratic freedoms elsewhere as a way of coopting dissenters at home. (They once did the same with jihadists.) Is that a risky proposition? Sure. But they’re no better at reading the entrails of sacrificed dictators than anyone else has been.
The religious parties, no longer at the mercy of regimes that once kept them on a short leash, will do well, at least initially. In the first rounds of relatively fair elections—suddenly a regular feature of the Arab political process—that may be inevitable. The well-organized Muslim Brotherhood and its spinoffs are everywhere in the Arab world, a whole “ecosystem of Islamism,” as Lebanese author and blogger Amal Ghandour calls it. And the history of the long-established Islamic regimes in Iran and Sudan is hardly encouraging. But none of that means the Brotherhood’s strategy is “one man, one vote, one time.”
And even if it were, the era when such takeovers were feasible has passed. There are too many men and women who have too many ways of making their voices heard, whether on the streets or in cyberspace. There’s no looking back. These once-closed societies are now open or opening, and that process cannot be reversed. The history of the modern Arab world has only just begun.
This essay was published in Newsweek International's Special Edition, 'Issues 2012,' on sale from December 2011-February 2012.