It is right for us to commemorate this week the day five years ago when Mohamad Bouazizi’s self-immolation in southwestern Tunisia sparked the Arab uprisings. But that is a limited window into the deeper, more important, story of both those (continuing) uprisings and the greater sagas of modern Arab history.
Political simpletons and sinister people around the world mostly bemoan the post-uprisings violence across the Arab world, wondering why the popular revolts did not lead to democratic transitions beyond Tunisia. A more useful and politically relevant frame through which to view the turbulent Arab world must go well beyond the past five years, and encompass instead the past century, from 1915 until today, for two critical reasons.
First, the modern Arab World in the past half-century or so had experienced many telltale signs of mass discontent and attempts to blunt the nasty edges of autocratic regimes; but these always failed, due to the unbreachable power of the autocrats (and their serious support from foreign powers in Moscow, Washington, London, Paris, Riyadh, and Tehran). Second, the structural and persistent strain in modern Arab history has not been the battle for democracy, but rather the quest for stable and legitimate statehood, including since the 1800s in places like Egypt, Morocco, Yemen, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and others.
The core problem that has plagued all Arab societies, without exception, continues to be the elusive quest for negotiated relationships between citizens and governing power elites that can define the following important dynamics which are critical for any stable society or state: identity, community, citizenship, statehood, sovereignty, nationalism, socio-economic dignity, governance and, ultimately, legitimacy. This is a huge menu, but it is also the normal menu of human-political-social relationships that every society in the world navigates on its road to stable statehood and a decent life for its citizens.
The Arab World experiences such erratic conditions and frequent violence these days because it has never seriously attempted to address these issues under sovereign conditions, so we remain without any consensus on how they all relate to one another. Not surprisingly, we continue to fragment into tribes, clans, neighborhoods, militias, ethno-nationalists, sectarian thugs and mobs, resistance movements, terrorists, ideological fringes, free market zealots, neo-colonial satraps and subjects, NGOized sub-cultures, corrupted and bloated state bureaucracies, massive militarized one-party governments, and other smaller units that we cling to for the rights, protections, services, voice, and opportunities that we expect but do not get from our sovereign states.
This is a distinctly Arab, rather than a wider Middle Eastern or Islamic, problem, because some other non-Arab Middle Eastern or Muslim-majority countries have successfully navigated this path. Historians will clarify in time why Arab modern states remain chronically and collectively erratic but broadly dysfunctional in their governance, defined by worsening disparities in their socio-economic conditions, and now increasingly rattled by national fragmentation, sectarian terror, and widespread violence in their political configurations.
For now, we would do well simply to acknowledge that fixing the troubles and dangers in our region requires that we honestly analyze how we got here since our encounters with modern statehood a century ago. The Hussein-McMahon correspondence of 2015-16 started the reconfiguration of Ottoman Empire Arab-majority lands towards some kind of Arab statehood. Ever since then we have been on a roller coaster ride of state development and de-development that includes impressive eras of growth and embarrassing moments of civil strife and foreign military assaults. Some states split into two and sometimes reunited, others were occupied and colonized, some disappeared and came back into history, many tried to unite with neighbors, and almost all Arab states have actively engaged in warfare against their neighbors or their own people.
The bumpy ride during 1915-2015 has seen Arab societies and states achieve many impressive things, in realms like education, industrialization, cultural expression, and others, alongside chronic criminal behavior by both some state powers and many non-state actors. Always, though, at the heart of this past complex century has been the elusive quest for citizen-state relations that are at once stable, satisfying, and legitimate. Oil, ideology, materialism, religion, ethnicity, tribal pride, historical memories and grievances, and, most recently, active warfare have all be used to stoke national solidarity—with partial successes in most cases, and lasting success in none.
The eruption of the Arab uprisings in Tunisia five years ago this week was an important milestone on this long and unfinished journey. It was the most dramatic and widespread simultaneous expression of Arab citizens’ mass discontent and their shared aspirations. We should honor all those millions who have participated in this latest noble quest for dignity and democracy, and enhance their ability to succeed by better understanding why success has been so rare in the past century of stubborn Arab paternalism.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright ©2015 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global