Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Is there a role for intellectuals in the Arab Spring?

by Salman Hameed

Despite some post-election violence, it is fantastic to see elections go relatively smoothly in Tunisia. This was crucial, as much of the impetus for the Arab Spring came from this particular country. In particular, it will be awesome if Egyptian elections also follow a similar suit.

While thinking about this, I ran into this interesting article about the lack of intellectual voices in the Arab Spring. It is interesting because it raises a larger question: Do we need intellectuals at all in this age of fast communication and electronic organization?

First of all, I don't know how accurate is the assertion that Arab intellectuals have more or less been silent. This is something that our readers in the Arab world can tell us more about it. But there is one interesting speculation in this regard in the article:
To some extent, the intellectual silence of the current uprising is a deliberate response to the hollow revolutionary rhetoric of previous generations. The Arab nationalist movement began in the 1930s and ’40s with idealistic young men who hoped to lead the region out of its colonial past, backwardness and tribalism. The Syrian political philosopher Michel Aflaq and other young writers and activists found inspiration in 19th-century German theories of nationalism, and envisioned their Baath Party as an instrument for modernization and economic justice. 
But the party and its misty ideas were soon hijacked and distilled into slogans by military officers in Syria and Iraq, whose “revolutionary” leadership was really just the old tribalism and autocracy in a different guise. In Egypt too, Arab socialism soon became little more than a pretext for dictatorship and reckless policies at home and abroad. Arab nationalism reached its zenith — or its nadir — in Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, who saw himself as a godlike intellectual, publishing his own fiction and imposing his delusional Third Universal Theory on Libya’s hapless people. Everything in Colonel Qaddafi’s Libya was styled “revolutionary.” When the rebels overthrew his government this year, they found it difficult to separate the names of their own revolutionary councils from the ones they were overthrowing. 
The protesters who led the Arab Spring had grown tired of the stale internationalist rhetoric of their forebears, which had achieved little for the Palestinians and had deepened the divisions among Arab states rather than unifying them. They wanted to focus instead on the failures of their own societies. “Previously, everything was reduced to the exterior: are you pro- or anti-American, what is the role of Israel, and so on,” says Hazem Saghieh, the political editor of the London-based Arab newspaper Al Hayat. “This revolution is entirely different.”
The article does mention some exceptions. For example, it talks about Egyptian novelist Alaa al-Aswany, who was amongst the first writers amongst the protestors in Tahrir Square last January. However, he did not offer any of his own ideas for the direction of this change. But may be that is the point:
The lack of such leaders may also be the hallmark of a largely post-ideological era in which far less need is felt for unifying doctrines or the grandiose figures who provide them. The role of the intellectual may be shrinking into that of the micro-blogger or street organizer. To some, that is just fine. “I don’t think there is a need for intellectuals to spearhead any revolution,” says Sinan Antoon, an Iraqi-born poet and novelist who has written extensively on the Arab Spring and now teaches at New York University. “It is no longer a movement to be led by heroes.”
 It may be that the connecting role these figures played is less needed today. It may also be that the ideological platforms of earlier revolutions are obsolete, given the speed of communications and the churn of new perspectives. “It is too fluid, too fast-moving, too complex,” says Peter Harling, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group. “It is too difficult to come up with a paradigm. People are looking for short pieces that illuminate some aspect of what they’re going through, not grand theories.”
Still, Mr. Harling added, among Syrian intellectuals, “none of them has articulated any kind of forward-looking political platform,” and that failure has contributed to anxieties about the protest movement’s direction.
This lack of need of grand theories is an interesting theory in itself. Is this really a "post-ideological era"? On the one hand, I can't believe that after watching news programs. On the other hand, I can see some validity to the argument after watching the largely leaderless Occupy movement spreading across the US and in other parts of the world. So this is indeed an interesting observation.

Interestingly, the article correctly dismantles the argument that democracies in Tunisia or Egypt can simply import the Turkish model:
To the extent that any ideas have arisen from the Arab Spring, they relate to the “Turkish model” — the often-heard hope that Turkey’s blend of mildly Islamist ideology and democratic governance can inspire similar success in Arab lands. But this analogy is a facile one, and may well yield disappointment in the months and years to come.
Turkey’s experience is hard to replicate, in part because the country has had the kind of thoroughgoing revolution against tradition that Arab intellectuals of the 20th century only talked about. Starting in the early 1920s, Turkey’s great autocrat, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, overhauled the country’s education system, bringing over the American reformer John Dewey to advise him. He abolished the caliphate and gutted the country’s legal system, instituting a strict separation of church and state. The first elections took place in 1946, and only after decades of struggle (and several coups d’état) did Turkey start earning applause for its democratic ways. 
Without that punishing preparation, the Arab world’s new revolutionaries may end up repeating history, even if they do study it. Last week, amid the euphoria over Colonel Qaddafi’s death, a few skeptical voices could be heard in the din of triumphant Internet messages in Arabic.
One may not agree with the entire article, but I think it raises some interesting points. Read the full article here.      


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