When political clods collide

2013-08-27 10:00

Last Thursday was a bad day in modern Arab history. The four leading Arab cities of recent eras – Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Cairo – were all simultaneously engulfed in bombings and urban warfare, mostly carried out with brutal savagery and cruelty against civilians in urban settings.

Even more problematic is that the carnage was predominantly the work of locals, not foreign ­invaders or predators.

The four greatest modern Arab cities are now routinely depicted across the world in scenes of bomb craters, flames and rows of dead bodies.

Other Arab lands are only slightly less chaotic, like Libya, Yemen, Palestine, Tunisia, Bahrain, ­Algeria and ­Sudan.

This is a dramatic and telling moment, but a moment that tells us what, exactly?

Have we collectively failed the test of statehood, modernity, civility, democracy, independence, sovereignty and secularism?

It is important at this moment of reckoning to avoid the temptation that engulfs so many analysts and writers across the world, which is to make definitive and cosmic historical judgments about the meaning of this moment, like “the end of history”, “the end of Islamism”, “the end of ­Arab liberalism”, or “the end of the ­Arab Spring”.

So my humble suggestion is that when you run into a phrase or headline describing the current Arab situation that starts with “the end of ...”, you should not bother to finish reading it, because it will probably tell you more about the psychological ego of the writer than about any significant trends in the Arab region.

For those who do like neat historical markers, though, last Thursday could have easily be seen as a symbolic moment that marks a serious pause, a slight shift and a momentary regression in the uprisings and transformations that started in December 2010 in Tunisia, but really started a generation ­earlier.

The old autocratic Arab order that prevailed since the mid-20th century started to fray at the edges and atrophy in its centre in the 1970s, as ruling elites turned into security regimes, and nationalist and developmental states turned into showcases of consumerism and corruption.

The overthrow or challenge of former regimes have not led to smooth transitions to democratic and pluralistic societies governed by the rule of law in any Arab country – yet.

The moment of hope for a series of simultaneous Arab democratic transformations remains unfulfilled owing to different reasons and conditions in each country.

This transitional phase will give way in due course to renewed efforts to build stable constitutional democracies that will reflect local values. But this will only happen after we get through this nation-building rite of passage.

The most important lesson we can learn from our messy transitions is that the six dominant regional phenomena that have defined the modern Arab world are totally inappropriate vehicles for creating modern pluralistic democracies.

These six are: religion (mainly Islamism), armed forces, resistance, sectarianism, Arabism and tribalism.

Egypt’s striking lesson today is that its two most powerful, organised and trusted groups both proved to be incompetent clods in the business of governance.

» Khouri is editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon

» Follow Khouri on Twitter @ramikhouri

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