Revolution, Citizenship and Democracy in Post-Dictatorship Arab Societies

As the Arab uprisings continue to unfold, the word “revolution” is often bandied about with complete disregard for what an actual revolution entails. A coup; a pacted or managed transition between elements of the ancien régime and opposition forces; or even simple regime change do not constitute a genuine revolution. Revolution, properly defined, means that society changes both from the top-down and bottom-up, and looks very little as it did before. Some famous revolutions are more dramatic in this context than others. It’s obvious that the Russian and French revolutions, for example, changed everything almost overnight and dramatically for the people of those countries. The revolution against British rule in the United States, on the other hand, changed a great deal but also preserved much of what had been long-established, but was being challenged by the Parliament in London against the will of the American colonists. Nothing was ever the same in the United States after the revolution, for truly it was revolutionary, but the change was more cautious, gradual and heavily debated than the vanguardist transformations in Russia or France.


By these standards, the only Arab country which could possibly be described as having actually undergone a “revolution” is Libya, and one of the reasons for this is that Col. Moammar Qaddafi created so few real social and governmental institutions that any alternative government, even one following his natural death, would have been faced with the need to build such institutions from their very base. And yet even in Libya, there are real questions about how “revolutionary” the transformation will really be. The head of Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC), Mustapha Abdul Jalil, after all, previously served as “the Secretary of the General People’s Committee of Justice” (essentially the minister of justice, as defined in the bizarre lexicon of Qaddafi’s Libyan Arab “Jamahiriya” – itself a neologism reflective of his twisted thinking). There are plenty of opposition figures in the new Libyan leadership, such as it is, and a very different political scene, especially given the absence of Qaddafi and his sons. But even in Libya there are solid grounds to question whether what is taking place actually constitutes a “revolution” in its proper sense.


In Egypt, there was certainly no revolution. The military was forced to perform a regime decapitation, removing former President Hosni Mubarak and his family, and some other elements of the elite as well as the ruling National Democratic Party, in order to try to save as much of the existing power structure — particularly their own prerogatives, privileges and economic holdings — as possible. Much of the former regime remains intact, including the Ministry of the Interior and its secret police. Egypt is now the scene of an intense, complex and convoluted power struggle between three established forces: the military, the remnants of the former regime (including the MOI and secret police) and the Muslim Brotherhood, with the liberal street protesters who brought down the former regime serving as an unorganized and unstructured fourth factor that can be brought into play in the context of a crisis. Nothing that has happened there reflects a real political or social “revolution.”


In Yemen, the street protests were hijacked by a power struggle between forces loyal to Pres. Ali Abdallah Saleh, his son and nephews, and those aligned with the Ahmar clan and rebel generals such as Ali Mohsen Ahmar (who, in spite of his last name, is related to Saleh, not his rivals in the Ahmar clan and their de facto leader, telecommunications tycoon Hamid Al-Ahmar). Whether this power struggle between the elites in Sanaa has been resolved or not remains to be seen, but even if it has, that elite will then have to deal with a revivified “Southern Movement” which seeks either radical autonomy or independence for the south; the strengthened Houthi rebellion; some other secessionist movements; numerous Salafist-Jihadist groups, including but by no means limited to Al Qaeda, which control large parts of rural territory; a drought; a Somali refugee crisis of considerable proportions; and a population that is by far the most illiterate, unemployed, under-educated and heavily armed in the entire Arab world. In other words, the factors working in Yemen’s favor for a brighter future can be listed on one hand (possibly with superfluous fingers remaining), whereas the list of challenges — only touched upon above — are virtually endless. Failed statehood, or a situation always threatening to deteriorate into that status, is not a revolution either.


In Bahrain, demonstrators never sought a revolution, except perhaps the fringe led by Hassan Mushaima and Al Haq that called for “a republic” instead of the monarchy. But most of the mainstream opposition groups, most notably Al-Wefaq, were not talking in terms of revolution or even regime change, but rather stronger forms of constitutionalism to produce a greater balance of power between royal and popular prerogatives, and redressing grievances specific to the long-marginalized Shiite majority. Even though the uprising, for the main part, did not seek to remove the monarchy, it was successfully crushed by force and therefore by no means can anyone speak of “revolution” in Bahrain. A “revolutionary situation” might be brewing because of growing tensions between the opposition, particularly the Shiite community, and the government; the lack of any forum for dialogue to find a reasonable accommodation; and the splintering of leaderships on both sides and the rise of radical fringes, including what appears to be the beginning of urban terrorism and sabotage by radical opposition forces and the simultaneous rise of Sunni vigilante gangs, particularly of a previously unknown Salafist variety, that have been attacking Shiite villages. But revolutionary situations frequently don’t produce genuine or stable revolutions, but rather yield open-ended conflict, which presently appears to be the direction in which Bahrain, which also finds itself very much in the grip of Saudi hegemony, is headed.


Syria seems not only to have a fully-fledged “revolutionary situation” but also to be inexorably headed towards full-blown civil war, probably of a sectarian nature. The government is manifestly uninterested in and patently incapable of, reforming itself. Meanwhile the opposition is deeply divided politically, militarily weak (armed opposition is strictly at an insurgency level; unable to control and hold any territory); lacks proper coordination between disparate armed groups and divided political ones; and has not been able to articulate a coherent alternative vision for the future of the country or inspire confidence that it constitutes a viable alternative leadership, as the NTC in Libya did. Civil wars, especially of a sectarian nature, are unlikely incubators of anything that could legitimately be described as a “revolution.”


This rather long-winded summary of why the most dramatic Arab uprisings don’t really qualify as revolutionary begs the question of what would. The essence of what is genuinely revolutionary is a transition that fundamentally changes the nature of the relationship between the individual on the one hand and the society and/or the state on the other hand. Regime changes, coups, civil wars, etc. that maintain the same fundamental relationship between the individual and the state that existed before cannot be described as revolutionary. This is the missing element in all of the Arab uprisings: none of them can yet be said to have fundamentally changed the nature of the relationship between the individual and the state. Revolutions, it should be added, need not constitute an improvement in that relationship: the Leninist “new man” became essentially a slave of a vanguardist socialist clique; fascist revolutions aimed to produce mindless nationalist automatons; some revolutions, like the Khmer Rouge’s in Cambodia, recast many if not most, individuals as enemies of the new society, marked for death. So revolution and the change that it brings is not necessarily positive, but it must be comprehensive.


In none of the Arab uprisings cited above, have the essential relationship between the individual and the state been yet transformed. At a superficial level, more has changed in Libya more dramatically than anywhere else. But the country is too chaotic, deeply in flux, and reverting to tribal, clan and regional affiliations that actually predate the Qaddafi era to clearly identify a new, more healthy, relationship between the individual and the state or society. Indeed, throughout the Arab world, the uprisings are driving people back into more atavistic identities: sectarianism, both local and regional; tribal affiliations; clan loyalties; subnational regional agendas, etc. have all enjoyed a terrible resurgence.


It remains an open question whether or not the Arab world is really ready for a new political and social consciousness that fundamentally reshapes the relationship between the individual and the society. If so, that must be at the level of citizenship. The concept of citizenship, with its complex, interlocking and mutually reinforcing and interdependent relationships of rights and responsibilities, has been almost entirely absent from every element of modern Arab political discourse. Citizenship is a new idea, and the struggle to define it is at the core of where the most promising of these uprisings might lead, particularly in the one country whose uprising I have not yet dealt with: Tunisia.


Over the past decade or so, a new idea has taken root in most strains of Arab political thinking: the notion that legitimate governance requires the consent of the governed and its corollary that only regular, multiparty elections and the peaceful transfer of power can demonstrate that consent. As far as I can tell, the basic outlines of this idea are now accepted by almost all current strands of Arab political thought with a few notable exceptions: existing ruling elites and their courtiers (whether in republics or monarchies), although some in such circles do seem to appreciate this principle more than others; and extreme Salafist groups, particularly Salafist-Jihadists, who reject the whole idea as “unIslamic.” Even illiberal organizations such as Muslim Brotherhood parties and many other Islamist groups seem to understand the centrality of this concept, at least in theory. So, most of contemporary Arab political thought accepts the right of the majority to exercise power through the ballot box. Again, at least in theory.


What is not nearly as widely understood, even in theory, is the other side of the coin of democracy: limitations on the powers of government; separation of powers between different branches of government (particularly the need for an independent judiciary to enforce those limitations); and, above all, the inviolable rights of minorities, women and, especially, individuals on the basis of their status as citizens. In some countries, such as Egypt, the current struggle of political ideas essentially revolves around efforts by Islamists, who are probably at the peak of their influence, to try to assert as much as possible maximal authority for “majority rule.”


But throughout the Middle East, and above all in Tunisia, the Arab country which is by far the furthest along in developing a constitutional and, possibly, democratic post-dictatorship system, Islamists are disturbingly taking the lead in promoting and defining the concept of “citizenship.” This has deeply ominous implications: consider, for example, the harm done to the concept of “secularism” because of its abuse by Arab republican dictatorships that framed themselves as “secular,” only to use this as an excuse for radical forms of repression at all levels of society, including against real secularists as well as Islamists or any other opposition groups whatsoever. In other words, when the wrong people define important concepts, words can be stripped of their meaning to the point that they become unworkable and even anathema. Damaging mischaracterizations and misunderstandings of indispensable ideas thereby poison healthy political dialogue.


If the Arab uprisings are to be genuine revolutions, they will have to transform ordinary Arab individuals from subjects (or, indeed, objects) of the state — to be managed and controlled — into citizens who define that state, fully empowered to participate freely in all aspects of society with no unreasonable limitations. The essence of citizenship is that the individual has inviolable rights — freedom of conscience, religion, speech, property, equal treatment under the law, equal status with all other citizens, etc. — and also unavoidable responsibilities — paying taxes, public service, abiding by the rule of law, cooperating with legitimate authorities, etc. The most fundamental element of real citizenship is that individual rights cannot be compromised by “democratic” decisions of tyrannous majorities. Genuine democracy requires balancing the rights of majorities and majority coalitions to executive and/or legislative power, with limitations on government, and inviolable minority and individual rights protected by an independent judiciary. If citizenship is defined in any other way, it, like secularism, will become a term that becomes poisoned in the Arab political discourse and rendered virtually useless for at least a generation.


Tunisia is central because the Islamists in that country are the most advanced, sophisticated, imaginative and, indeed, crafty in the Arab world. It’s ironic that few Arab liberals or progressives pay as much attention to the concept (or at least the rhetoric) of citizenship as Ennahda’s spiritual guide Rashid Ghanouchi or its main spokesman Said Ferjani. Indeed, anyone looking at the rhetoric in the contemporary Arab world without any context or historical understanding might be tempted to see Ghanouchi and Ferjani as fully-developed liberal, constitutionalist Muslim Democrats, in the manner of the Christian Democratic parties of Western Europe. Obviously, in reality they are nothing of the kind, at least for now. They are probably the Arab Islamists furthest along in any evolution in this direction, if in fact that is where they are going. But, it’s important to note that “citizenship” as defined by Islamists like Ghanouchi and Ferjani is still framed in the context of “Islamic traditions” and “Islamic values.”


Ferjani, in particular, is exceptionally eloquent on the concept of “citizenship,” and has correctly identified it as the key to creating genuinely pluralistic, democratic post-dictatorship Arab societies. Yet his party remains absolutely committed to an interpretation of not only Islam, but also “Islamic societies,” that claims authenticity based on socially reactionary ideals. Arab Islamists, including Ennahda, frame religious equality in interfaith terms: they would recognize, in other words, (again at least in theory) the right to be Sunni, Shiite, Christian, Jewish, etc. So, a certain respect for this kind of “freedom of religion” may be accepted by such Islamist parties, insofar as they understand that there are different kinds of Muslims and also people who are not Muslims but belong to a different religion. But the idea that there might be citizens who have no faith at all, who are atheists, agnostics or skeptics, and that these citizens might not only want, but have a right, to publicly question religion, engage in blasphemy, satire, scholarly interrogation of the history of various religions (including Islam), or promote radical skepticism and rejection of religion seems outside of their frame of reference altogether.


Similarly, Islamists who promote “citizenship” have a major gender issue problem. If, as they try to do, they say simultaneously they are in favor of equal citizenship for all, but at the same time claim that all of this equality will be grounded in “Islamic traditions,” they face an impossible conundrum. Most traditional interpretations of Islam give Muslim men more rights than Muslim women in terms of inheritance, divorce, child custody, court testimony, and many other matters, both familial and social. They also give Muslim men more rights than non-Muslim men, in some of the same contexts. It’s absurd but symptomatic that in both Tunisia and Egypt there are huge controversies among Islamists about whether non-Muslims (inevitably defined as Jews or Christians, rather than atheists or agnostics, the second pair being entirely outside their frame of reference as noted above) should legally be allowed to potentially serve as president of the republic. In neither case is this a likely scenario given that both Egypt and Tunisia have over 85 percent Sunni Muslim majorities. So the whole question boils down to one of formalizing discrimination rather than really worrying about the rise to power of a Jewish Tunisian or a Coptic Egyptian president (neither of which are conceivable under the present circumstances and political cultures of those countries).


The point is that the struggle for good governance, equal rights, pluralism, tolerance, and actual democracy boils down to the question of citizenship, and how it is defined and incorporated into post-dictatorship Arab societies. If Islamists are allowed to monopolize the discourse regarding citizenship, turn it into a vehicle for an all-powerful majority rule that sets the stage for tyrannous majorities that oppress the rights of women, minorities and individuals, and hijack the concept of citizenship the way the former dictatorships hijacked the concept of secularism, distorting it beyond recognition, there will be no Arab revolutions at all. There will simply be the transfer of one form of authoritarian rule (republican or monarchical, but not Islamist) to another (Islamist or Islamist-influenced, possibly bolstered by consistently strong electoral results with limited separation of powers and very few protections for the rights of individuals, women and minorities). There is every reason to be deeply concerned that Islamists are dominating the conversation about citizenship at the moment in Arab political discourse. If one had any confidence that they were sincere, or even capable of being sincere, about the rights of citizens inherent in their individual citizenship, this would be a welcome rather than a worrying development. But any such confidence would be grossly naïve.


Therefore, one of the most urgent tasks facing those who seek an actually revolutionary, genuinely liberatory, and practically progressive Arab post-dictatorship future is to immediately get involved in the struggle over the definition of the concept of citizenship, and ensuring that Islamists are not able to hijack this ideal to defend oppressive majority rule, but rather to inculcate a sense that citizenship is about defining and defending the rights of each and every individual, woman and man, alike. Liberty, at its root, means maximizing the range of choices for every individual in any society while protecting the rights of others from encroachment by those choices. It’s a difficult balancing act, but it’s one that most of the rest of the world is much further along in negotiating than the Arabs are.


What most Arabs, above all the Islamists, but also many “liberals” who would unwisely and indefensibly prefer the old or re-jiggered dictatorships over potentially Islamist-dominated but genuinely limited and constitutionalist governments, need to understand is that real freedom — the only freedom that really counts — is the freedom for others to be radically wrong in one’s own eyes. Of course, in acting out such “mistakes,” citizens cannot violate other’s inviolable rights either. But if the Islamists cannot understand why one would be secular, agnostic or atheist, and if atheists, agnostics and secularists cannot understand why anyone would be an Islamist, that’s the whole point of freedom. Pluralism means accepting the right of somebody else to choose to be, in your opinion, completely wrong, and defending that right in the context of freedom of conscience. This, now, is the idea that must quickly make headway in the Arab world if real citizenship, genuine democracy, pluralism, tolerance and women’s, minority and individual rights will actually be protected in post-dictatorship democracies. That would transform, irreversibly, the nature of the relationship between the Arab individual and her or his state and society. That would be a REAL revolution.