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The Royal Society of Edinburgh

The Arab Spring: Tropes and Discourses

Professor Yasir Suleiman: His Majesty Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Professor of Modern Arabic Studies and Director of Alwaleed Centre of Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge

Thursday 1 December 2011

Report by Jeremy Watson

It may seem strange to invoke the name of the illustrious economist John Maynard Keynes at the beginning of a lecture on the Arab Spring but, as Professor Suleiman made clear, he was going to be less than complimentary about economic explanations of the ongoing phenomenon. Keynes, at least, was smart enough to recognise the limits of predictive modelling, and another economist, John Kay, has recently reinforced this point, noting that most predictive models deal with uncertainty by extrapolating from the past. As a result, they reveal nothing so much as the limits of the imagination of the person who constructs them. Perhaps this, Suleiman suggested, is why scholars, policy makers and intelligence analysts have failed to predict the Arab Spring.

But did the Spring emerge out of the void? No, it did not, Suleiman argued, contending that pre-Spring there were strikes in Tunisia and Egypt and small-scale protests against the Mubarak regime by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, demanding an end to dynastic rule and to state corruption in the areas of politics, the economy and the justice system. In Jordan, teachers had mounted campaigns to form a professional association.

Yet when it happened, no-one could have predicted the speed and intensity with which the first wave of Arab Spring uprisings unfolded and spread. And, Suleiman suggested, it was complacency that allowed western intelligence agencies to fail to see it coming. They believed Arab peoples lacked “agency” or the stamina to bring about fundamental change, that they were just “letting off steam” and would soon be put in their place by brutal regimes. The Arab youth, in particular, were considered a “lost generation”, more interested in internet communications and gadgets than in real politics. Above all, there was a feeling that a love of autocracy, rather than democracy, was an Arab character trait.

In spite of this, the Arab Spring has taken root and continues to act as a catalyst for real change. But, Suleiman asked, what are some of the most important features of the emerging political terrain in the Arab Middle East? Among them is what he calls “a fearless attack on fear.”

During recent months, he has attended many talks on the Arab Spring and he has been consistently struck by how the words “freedom, “dignity” and “justice” are never invoked. Yet trade and economy are not the first things mentioned by Egyptians, Tunisians and other Arabs when talking about the Arab Spring. Freedom, justice and dignity are the front-line concepts, which show that the Spring is an attack on fear, a call for freedom, political participation and free speech.

This even shows up in the names of political parties in Egypt, especially those of an Islamist orientation. The Muslim Brotherhood have established a new party called the Freedom and

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Justice Party, because they know the resonance the words have in Egyptian society. One of the centrist parties is Al Ghad (Tomorrow), which in Arabic means the hope of a bright new day. This refers to a rosy economic future, but this is unlikely to gain precedence over freedom, dignity and justice in terms of popular priority.

Although the names of these parties – whether of Islamist, pan-nationalist or liberal leanings – suggest that values are important marketing tools, they are not just slogans, Suleiman contended. They are effective political marketing tools because they resonate with the Egyptian public and the ways in which it seeks to imagine and define the wider public good. “Public good” has never been absent from Arab societies, even under authoritarian rule. A visitor from Scotland would never have had to wait long before hearing the claim “fi aman hon” (there is safety here). This roughly translates as “although we do not have what you have in the West, our streets are safe to walk in at night.”

Interestingly, Suleiman said, this was the first claim thrown back in the faces of the new regime in Egypt by a lone man carrying a double-sided placard in Tal’At Harb Square, close to Tahrir Square in central Cairo in November. Addressed to the Chief of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, it read “Where is the security and safety of Egyptian streets, Minister of Interior?” It went on to mention other value-laden words such as “freedom” and “justice” and referred to Egyptians as people of the Nile “whose blood is not cheap.”

It is this type of sentiment that was at the heart of publicity materials for the Egyptian parliamentary elections that began in November. Income levels, standard of living, unemployment and other economic factors were not in the front line of the lexicon in local narrations of the Arab Spring. The words used refer to human universal values, so materialist explanations that invoke economic factors do not do justice to what is actually happening.

The second side of the placard talked about freedom and its high price. Interestingly, Suleiman argued, this is not seen as a gift to be bestowed by external liberators but as something to be achieved internally through a process of self mastery. Freedom is a moral achievement, won by overcoming the forces that keep people bound. Only then can it be valued.

So why, Suleiman asked, do many academic explanations of the Arab Spring avoid value- laden concepts in favour of economic analysis? Is it that the standards of evaluation and validation applied in academic discourse militate against the use of “soft categories” of analysis – concepts of dignity, freedom and justice – in explaining social political phenomena of this type? But ignoring these native narratives is similar to the complacency shown by the CIA, MI6 and Mossad in ignoring the views of ordinary people prior to the Arab Spring. The approach to academic analysis must now be re-examined to take account of this.

Suleiman insisted that the Arab Spring was not just an assertion of universal moral values but also a courageous act in an authoritarian climate and an affirmation of individual and collective “agency” or moral authority. Agency here was nothing if not an attack on the political modality of fear. This attack has struck fear into the heart of a political elite which had thought that agency rested with them and them alone. Traditionally in Arab states, fear operated from the top down. Now a new situation is emerging in which fear is operating from the bottom up. If sustained, it could bring a transformation of individuals from “subjects” to “citizens” and the birth of a genuine emancipation movement.

That Arab blood has been shed suggests that the fight against tyranny is not driven by economics but by the basic desire for dignity, freedom and justice, Suleiman argued. The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have gone beyond removing the head of state, drilling down to deeper levels of political order, suggesting an awareness of the power of “agency” and the readiness to exercise it. The Arabs have a saying: “Don’t put your head above the parapet because it will be cut off.” That Arabs are now repeatedly ignoring this shows that the yearning to be a citizen is not a passing phase. What has now also become clear, Suleiman

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said, is that seemingly impregnable Arab regimes and rulers are in fact brittle and vulnerable to peaceful mass action, which has proved to be more effective than violence in challenging the brutality of the established orders.

But what do Arab citizens want in place of the regimes they are toppling? Do they still want “charismatic” leaders? Opinion polls in Egypt suggest that for the post of President the people still want a strong and experienced leader but one who has respect for the people, can take on vested interests, weed out corruption, stand up to the military, dismantle the coercive element of the security apparatus of the state, and also fight Egypt’s corner on the regional and international stage. Polls suggest that the urbane Amr Moussa, former general secretary of the Arab League and Mubarak’s Foreign Minister, is currently ahead of his main rival, who has Islamist credentials.

This chimes with the broad message of the Arab Spring in that it shows that neither charismatic leadership nor organised parties or trades unions are essential in this new vision of political leadership. This is a step change away from the post-colonial worlds in which Nasser-like “strongmen” were considered essential in nationalist struggles.

And as Arab states move away from charismatic leaderships, Suleiman insisted, issues- based politics will become more prominent. Previously, there has been a tendency to think of Middle East politics solely in terms of state-based ideologies, such as pan-Arab nationalism or pan-Islamism. Now issues such as political freedoms, constitutional reforms, social justice, equality before the law and public accountability have in the ascendancy. It is this character that has given the Arab Spring its appeal and resilience, Suleiman said.

But this is not to argue that Arabism – as a political idea – is dead. Rather, Suleiman said, the affirmations of dignity and justice have given it new life, creating a new form of cross- state Arab solidarity. The Arab League would not have acted in the manner it did towards Libya and Syria if it had not been for this solidarity.

So, Suleiman argued, Arabism is no longer just a shared history, language and culture, but also a shared aspiration for future democracy and justice. More evidence is available in the cadence of slogans reverberating currently through Arab cities, demanding the fall of regimes. In addition, from the Atlantic coast to the Arabian Gulf, Arabic-speaking audiences have been glued to their TV sets, watching and debating the same stories, attesting to the existence of a shared Arab public sphere and diaspora. This shows that it is important not to conceptualise the Arab Spring in Islamic terms but, first and foremost, as an Arab-inflected Spring.

It is not an Islamic Spring but a genuinely indigenous movement, Suleiman claimed. In spite of all kinds of regime-generated conspiracy theories, the Spring was home-grown and embedded in an Arab solidarity with the potential to modulate and challenge the trenchant narratives of Islamism. The trick now will be transform this Spring from a seemingly freak but welcome “weather condition” into an enduring aspect of the Middle East climate. In this respect, the biggest dangers are cynicism and impatience, leading to nostalgia for previous regimes, a view which Suleiman said, he had heard expressed as recently as November in Cairo.

Looking forward, the role of the West is also an important factor, Suleiman suggested. It is well known that that the Arab Middle East is strategically important to global powers because of its economic interests. As a result, Western powers have traditionally favoured stability over democracy. However, the successful functioning of economies is not just about economics but also about trust. By such political trading in the past, Western powers have – from the Arab side – run up a deficit of confidence that they now need to eliminate. To do this, they need to “unlearn” all the thinking that they have previously applied to foreign policy in relation the Arab world. From now on, actions have to speak louder than words, a reversal of the previous position.

The NATO intervention in Libya have been, in Suleiman’s opinion, beneficial in addressing this confidence benefit. Normally, such actions would have been greeted by mass

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demonstrations and popular condemnation in the Arab world. That this did not happen suggests that, on this occasion, the West has done the right thing. On the other hand, Russia and China have lost credibility with their pro-Gaddhafi stance and their support for Bashar Al Assad in Syria. A further expression of the West’s readiness to tackle the deficit further would be in dealing with the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.

Another way would be to support the democratic order in the Middle East when and if it emerges and a key issue will be how to engage with democratically-elected Islamists. As Suleiman suggested, the Islamists are treated as the West’s biggest “bugbears” when it comes to framing new policies towards the emerging political order. But, wherever they surface, Suleiman said, democratically-elected Islamists must be considered an expression of free political will. Any other stance would be counter-productive, as coercively excluding Islamists would only give them more legitimacy and the opportunity to recruit disaffected segments of the population. That is a luxury they should not be given, Suleiman warned. In essence, however, the West does not know as yet how much support Islamist parties of different types could command or what types of Islamism might prevail.

What the world has to deal with at present is uncertainty, excitement, volatility and hope, Suleiman concluded. Scholars need to take the Spring seriously as a locus of human aspirations and Western governments have to work hard to address the continuing confidence deficit. In addition, the West needs to think differently about how it thinks about the Middle East and to recognise that when it acts in accordance with its declared values of freedom and democracy, as it did in Libya, it gains respect.

Having said that, at this historic moment, the Arab Middle East also has a responsibility to protect and nurture its hard-won freedoms. Not because it matters to the West but because, as the man with the placard said, the price of freedom is known only to those who know the value of their own blood.

Q&A

Q) Islamist as a term is a very broad and blunt catch-all. But what other language could be

used?

A) The language that will emerge will defy any attempt to lump everyone together. ‘Islamist’

is just a label and what we will see in places like Egypt is the development of programmes that will show the differences between different Islamist parties. In the same way that we don’t have phrases like Christianists or Judaists, we probably won’t have Islamists either, eventually. I am not sure what terminology will eventually emerge, but I hope that what emerges is not blind to the amazing variety within Islamism.

Q) While the West attributes everything to economics, the underlying issue appears to be

dignity. It was the same in some historical examples, such as in France where the phrase

was ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’. But is there agreement among Arabs about what dignity actually means? And isn’t economics actually more important?

A) Economics is important, but it is not the frontline concept. Does dignity have one

meaning? I doubt it. For me personally, dignity is equal access to opportunity. This comes home to me at borders, as it can be taken away easily by a soldier or policeman. In Syria, I was in the “Arabs” queue and was taken into a room where an official examined a big pile of files and eventually said “it’s not him. But let’s interrogate him anyway.” I was interrogated for eight hours! My integrity was trampled on.

Q) What will happen if we attack Iran? If that happens there will be no more Arab Spring.

A) Iran is a very different place. There was the “Green Revolution” in Iran in 2009, but there

were no supportive moves by Arab states because of deep antipathies. The Shia/Sunni

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divide emerged in a major way in the Middle East. So if the West attacks Iran, I am not sure what will happen.

Q) Were the Israelis as guilty of misreading the situation as everyone else?

A) The Arab Spring has brought great unpredictability and most Israelis do not like this.

There is a lot of support in Israel for Assad in Syria because the regime at least brought 40 years of stability. Israel does not want democracy in the Arab-speaking world because Israel has made a lot of political capital out of being the only democracy in the region. Emerging democracies threaten that moral claim. Israelis are their own worst enemies in that they miss every opportunity.

Q) It was understood that the ruling authorities in Arab states would quell any revolutions.

What brought people to the stage where they thought they could rebel?

A) In Russia, Putin is coming back as President, another example of an almost dynastic set-

up. But the fact that we live in a globalised world of ideas now has brought a general realisation that there are many regimes that have become dynastic set-ups. In Egypt there was going to be another Mubarak, in Syria there is already another Assad. People are saying enough is enough.

VOTE OF THANKS

The vote of thanks was given by Professor Carole Hillenbrand, who said Professor Suleiman had given an excellent talk on important world events and answered difficult questions with real inside knowledge. All present would go away with clear memories of the central themes. The message was of the bottom-up rather than the top-down nature of the uprisings and that the West had to rethink its attitude to the Arab World.

Opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the RSE, nor of its Fellows The Royal Society of Edinburgh, Scotland’s National Academy, is Scottish Charity No. SC000470