Revolution, citizenship and democracy in transitional Arab states

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 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 was long-established. Nothing was ever the same in the United States after the revolution, but the change was more cautious, gradual and vigorously 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. A principal reason for this is that Colonel Moammar Qaddafi established so few real social and governmental institutions that any alternative government, even one following his natural death, would have faced the need to build such structures from their very base. Yet even in Libya, there are real questions about how revolutionary the transformation will 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 and a very different political scene, especially given the absence of Qaddafi and his sons. But even in Libya there are grounds to question whether political developments constitute a bona fide revolution.

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. The liberal street protesters who brought down the former regime serve 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.

Yemen’s protest movement was hijacked by a power struggle within the elite, between forces loyal to President 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 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   is formidable. Failed statehood, or a threatened deterioration to 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 to replace the monarchy. But most 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 most part, did not seek to abolish the monarchy, it was successfully crushed by force and so by no means can we speak of revolution in Bahrain.

On the other hand, a “revolutionary situation” might be brewing because of growing tensions between the government and the opposition, particularly the Shiite community; the lack of any forum for dialogue to produce a reasonable accommodation; the splintering of leaderships on both sides; and the rise of radical fringes, including what may be the beginning of urban terrorism and sabotage by radical opposition forces, and the concurrent rise of Sunni vigilantes of a previously unknown Salafist variety, attacking Shiite villages. Revolutionary situations don’t necessarily generate genuine or stable revolutions, but rather yield open-ended conflict, which presently appears to be the direction in which Bahrain, very much in the grip of Saudi hegemony, is headed.

Syria seems not only to have a fully-fledged revolutionary situation but to be inexorably headed towards full-blown civil war, probably of a sectarian nature. The government is manifestly uninterested in and patently incapable of reform. 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 is unable to articulate a coherent vision for Syria’s future 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 summary of why the Arab uprisings don’t qualify as revolutionary begs the question of what would.

A genuinely revolutionary transition fundamentally changes the relationship between the individual, society and state. Regime change, coups, civil wars, and similar political ruptures that maintain the pre-existing relationship between the individual and the state cannot be considered revolutionary. This is the missing element in the Arab uprisings: none can be said to have fundamentally changed the citizen-state nexus.

Revolutions need not constitute an improvement in that relationship: the Communist “new man” became a vassal of a vanguardist socialist clique; fascist revolutions aimed to produce mindless nationalist automatons; some revolutions, like the Khmer Rouge’s in Cambodia, recast individuals as enemies of the new society, marked for death. So revolutionary change is not necessarily positive, but it must be comprehensive.

While none of the Arab uprisings have transformed the relationship between the individual and the state. Libya has changed more dramatically – at least superficially – than anywhere else. But the country is too chaotic, deeply in flux, and reverting to tribal, clan and regional affiliations that predate the Qaddafi era to identify a more healthy, relationship between the individual, state and society. Indeed, across most of the Arab world, the uprisings are driving people back into more atavistic identities: sectarianism, both local and regional; tribal affiliations; clan loyalties; and subnational regional agendas have all enjoyed a terrible resurgence.

If the Arab world is ready for a new political and social consciousness that fundamentally reshapes political and social relations, it will be shaped at the level of citizenship. The concept of citizenship, with its complex, mutually reinforcing and interdependent relationships of rights and responsibilities, has been largely absent from modern Arab political discourse. Citizenship is a new idea and the struggle to define it is at the core of the most promising of these uprisings, particularly in the one transition I have not yet addressed: 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 affirm that consent. The basic outlines of this idea are now accepted by almost all current strands of Arab political thought, with the notable exception of existing ruling elites and their courtiers (whether in republics or monarchies); and extreme Salafist groups, particularly Salafist-Jihadists, who reject the idea as “unIslamic.” Even illiberal organizations such as Muslim Brotherhood parties and other Islamist groups understand the centrality of this concept, at least in theory.

What is not nearly as widely understood or accepted, even in theory, is the other side of the coin of democracy: limitations on the powers of government; separation of powers between different branches (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 revolves around efforts by Islamists, probably at the peak of their influence, to assert as much as possible maximal authority for majority rule.

But throughout the Middle East, and above all in Tunisia, which is by far the furthest along in developing a constitutional post-dictatorship system, Islamists are disturbingly taking the lead in promoting and defining the concept of citizenship. This has deeply ominous implications.

Consider 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, including against genuine secularists as well as Islamists and other opposition groups. 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 political discourse.

If the Arab uprisings are to become genuine revolutions, they will have to transform ordinary Arab individuals from mere subjects of the state — to be managed and controlled — into citizens empowered to participate freely in all aspects of society with no unreasonable limitations. The essence of citizenship is that the individual has inviolable rights, such as freedom of conscience, religion, speech, property, equal treatment under the law, and equal status, and reciprocal responsibilities, such as paying taxes, public service, abiding by the rule of law, and consent to legitimate authority. 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 will, like secularism, become a term that is poisoned in Arab political discourse and is rendered virtually useless for at least a generation.

Tunisia is central because its Islamists 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. 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, isexceptionally 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, at least in theory, the right to be Sunni, Shiite, Christian, Jewish, or hold any other religious conviction. So a certain respect for this kind of freedom of religion is accepted by Islamists, insofar as they understand that there are different kinds of Muslims and others who belong to a different religion. But as recent blasphemy prosecutions in Tunisia and similar intolerant incidents elsewhere demonstrate, the idea that there might be skeptical citizens who are atheists or agnostics, and that these citizens 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 is still totally outside their frame of reference.

Similarly, Islamist definitions of citizenship confront a major problem regarding gender. If they claim to be in favor of equal citizenship, but insist that this equality must be grounded in Islamic traditions, Islamists 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 familial and social matters. They also give Muslim men more rights than non-Muslim men. 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 latter being entirely outside their frame of reference) should be allowed to serve as president. In neither case is this a likely scenario given that both Egypt and Tunisia have over 85 percent Sunni Muslim majorities. So the question boils down to one of formalizing discrimination rather than worrying about the rise to power of a Jewish Tunisian or a Coptic Egyptian president (neither of which are conceivable given those countries’ present circumstances and political cultures).

In short, the struggle for good governance, equal rights, pluralism, tolerance, and actual democracy boils down to the question how citizenship is defined and incorporated into post-dictatorship Arab societies. If Islamists are allowed to monopolize the discourse regarding citizenship, convert it into a vehicle for simply legitimizing majority rule that that oppress the rights of women, minorities and individuals, and hijack the concept of citizenship the way former dictatorships appropriated and distorted the concept of secularism, there will be no Arab revolutions. If Islamist parties consistently win electoral majorities under such conditions, there will simply be the transfer of one form of authoritarian rule to another (albeit electorally legitimized and bolstered, but with limited separation of powers and few protections for minority and individual rights). There is reason to be deeply concerned that Islamists are dominating the conversation about citizenship at this moment in Arab political discourse. If one had any confidence that they were 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 a genuinely revolutionary, liberating and progressive Arab post-dictatorship future is to engage in the struggle over the definition of citizenship, and ensure that Islamists are not able to hijack this ideal to defend oppressive majority rule, but rather to inculcate a sense of citizenship that defines and defends 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.

What most Arabs, above all the Islamists but also many liberals who unwisely and indefensibly prefer the old authoritarianism over potentially Islamist, or Islamist-influenced, but limited and constitutionalist governments, should understand is that the only freedom that really counts is the freedom for others to be radically wrong in one’s own eyes. Pluralism means accepting the right of somebody else to choose to be completely wrong in your opinion, and yet defending that right in the context of freedom of conscience. This is the idea that must make headway in the Arab world if genuine citizenship, democracy, pluralism, tolerance and women’s, minority and individual rights are to be protected in post-dictatorship democracies.

That would irreversibly transform the nature of the relationship between the Arab individual and her or his state and society.

That would be a real revolution.