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The Second Arab Awakening
And the Battle for Pluralism
By Marwan Muasher
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS Copyright © 2014 Marwan Muasher
All rights reserved.
The First Arab Awakening
A Battle for Independence
In 1939, an Egyptian Christian of Lebanese origin named George Antonius wrote a book called The Arab Awakening. Cambridge-educated, settled in Jerusalem, and personifying so much of the Arab world's religious, cultural, and ethnic diversity, Antonius documented the first liberal era in the modern Arab world. This slowly unfolding phenomenon evolved over the course of a century from an elite intellectual renaissance into grassroots political—and eventually armed—resistance to Ottoman and then Western colonial rule. But the progression dead-ended in the mid-twentieth century. Its initial liberal promise was aborted when foreign despots were replaced by homegrown ones, who went on to rule the region for more than fifty years.
This first Arab Awakening laid the groundwork for the wave of uprisings that first broke out over the region in 2011. Many of the same issues are at stake. Many of the same dangers loom. While the ultimate failure of the First made the second Arab Awakening almost inevitable, that failure also conveys a warning: toppling despotic rulers alone is no guarantee of a healthy political development. A constructive vision for future polities must be hammered out and must be founded on an unshakable commitment to pluralism—leading to systems of protections and inclusiveness that enable what may be the Arab world's greatest asset: its ethnic, cultural, religious, and intellectual diversity.
In the early nineteenth century, the predawn of the first Arab Awakening, what is today considered the Arab world—a region spanning the Middle East from Iraq through the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula, and North Africa—shared a linguistic, cultural, and religious heritage. Local particularities, such as remarkably different idioms and even pronunciations, styles of architecture or traditional clothing, favored economic activities or schools of jurisprudence, distinguished different zones. But today's mosaic of nation-states did not exist, nor was the region a separate political entity, for it had been conquered in the sixteenth century by the Istanbul-based Ottoman Empire, which shared the religion of Islam with its Arab territories, but not the Arabic language.
From its height of power and development in the mid-sixteenth century, the Ottoman Empire commenced a slow decline. The Napoleonic invasion of Egypt, from 1798 to 1801, opened the first crack in the southern flank of this far-flung, variegated, and largely self-sufficient entity. Those three years were enough to introduce new, postrevolutionary European ideas about political organization, science and education, and administrative reform.
Defeat at the hands of the British forced Napoleon to withdraw from Egypt, leaving a power vacuum on which an Albanian commander of the Ottoman troops in Egypt capitalized, taking up the title of wali, or governor, of Egypt. Many consider Muhammad Ali to be the founder of the modern nation. He sent officials to Paris to absorb European ways of thinking and administrative procedures, and he launched numerous reform initiatives.
Thus, this first Arab Awakening can be seen as a movement that began at the top levels of society—among both Arab and non-Arab subjects of the Ottoman Empire—as members of the elite were drawn into a dynamically changing world order, and as they began experimenting with the application of new modes of thought to current problems and traditional learning, and with political and administrative reform within an imperial structure they were not yet challenging. Initially, this awakening was predominantly one of the mind.
A glance at the roster of its most illustrious thinkers demonstrates that many of the countries undergoing transition today were in the vanguard of the first Arab Awakening too. Much of the theoretical work of those men, even the changes they advocated in the physical infrastructure of their provinces, laid the groundwork for a more modern order in their respective countries, and have informed the expectations, aspirations, and demands of today's revolutionaries. Egypt, for example, that intensely vital intellectual and cultural hub, helped lead the way then as now. One of the officials Muhammad Ali sent to Paris was the writer and translator Sheikh Rifa'a Tahtawi (1801–1873). A graduate of one of the most famous institutions of learning in the Islamic world, al-Azhar University, he first studied the French language, and then immersed himself in the thought of the French Enlightenment, poring over the acerbically critical work of Voltaire, Rousseau's theorizing, and Montesquieu's structured compendium on law.
Upon his return to Cairo—passionately proud of its specific history and past glories—Tahtawi began applying European concepts of nationhood within the context of Ottoman Islamic liberalism, seeking justifications for national identity within Islamic thought. More broadly and momentously, he took the first steps toward reopening the door to reasoned interpretation of the sources of Islamic law, the Qur'an and Hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), which had been considered fixed authorities for centuries. Such interpretation, called ijtihad, was seen as near blasphemy at the time. But for Tahtawi, Islamic law could be understood and applied in light of the changing needs of a modern world.
Tunisia, too, whose 2011 uprising inspired a dozen others across the Arab world, supplied its thinkers to the first Arab Awakening. Khayr ad-Din (1822–1890), an Ottoman official of Tunisian origin who rose through the ranks of Ottoman administration to become minister of the navy and eventually the Empire's prime minister, also studied in Paris. In 1860 he helped draft a constitution for Tunisia that, while not yet contesting the fact of Ottoman rule, promoted reform within it, designing some institutional checks on the Turkish ruler's powers over the province of Tunisia.
It is to this mid-nineteenth century period that George Antonius dates what he dubbed the Arab Awakening. He points to the birth of a small literary society, in 1847 in Beirut, whose mission was to promote knowledge and education. From his largely Levantine perspective, Antonius chronicled the activities of several local "enlightened" Arabs whom he saw planting the roots of the movements of national liberation that sought to rid the region of first Ottoman and then Western colonial overlordship in Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. For him, this more narrow nationalistic agenda defined the first Arab Awakening.
Indeed, during the second half of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth, Arabs' willingness to continue living under Ottoman domination began to fray. A combination of the decline of the Empire, and Istanbul's efforts to forestall that decline by redoubling "Turkification" (emphasizing the Turkish element at the expense of other ethnic groups) policies and efforts at centralization, together with the theoretical exploration of nationalist ideas among Arab elites, led to an ideological shift. No longer were these elites calling for reform within the Empire. Increasingly, they demanded a complete break with Istanbul.
In countries with a relatively homogeneous history as separate states—such as Egypt and Tunisia, which boasted their own imperial legacies or admired dynasties—desires for independence from Ottoman rule took on particularist nationalistic overtones. But other thinkers were simultaneously exploring a broader identification, a kind of pan-Arabism, that saw the whole Arab world as sharing a common race, language, and culture. These notions were particularly (though not exclusively) advocated by Christian Arab secularists, especially in the Levant. Their focus was on reframing the modern state around these cultural and historical commonalities, as opposed to around religion. Islam, in their approach, would be incorporated into the overall framework but would not be the defining factor.
Among the secularist intellectuals who developed this line of thought was Butrus al-Bustani (1819–1883), who founded a school in present-day Lebanon that was based on Arab nationalist, rather than religious, principles, and the Lebanese thinker Ibrahim Yazegi (1847–1906), whose ode served as the epigraph of Antonius's book: "Arise, ye Arabs," the first line exhorted, "and awake!"
With the same fervency as that of their Christian neighbors, Muslim Arabs too were among those who promoted these nationalist ideals of political entities that would be independent of Ottoman rule, but whose defining principle would be ethnic—meaning Arabism—rather than religious. Their thinking, too, has nourished that of many present-day revolutionaries.
In their frustration and eventual need for military might to throw off Ottoman rule, some of the early Arab nationalists in the Levant even looked to European powers for help. After all, their forerunners' exposure to European thought, including the importance of the consent of the governed to a healthy and just political system, had inspired their movement in the first place. Little did they realize at the time the trap they were entering.
As the Ottoman Empire was expiring, and even before the First World War hammered the final nail into its coffin, Western powers were jockeying to lay hands on vulnerable parts of it. As early as 1881, the British occupied Egypt. The French looked closer to home, snatching up Tunisia that same year and, by 1912, neighboring Morocco. For its part, Italy had gained control over Libya by 1914. At the end of World War I—and often in violation of promises made to their Arab nationalist proxy forces—Britain and France divided the remaining spoils of the Ottoman Empire. The British Empire gained a mandate over provinces whose boundaries it cut up into modern-day Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine, while France claimed Syria and Lebanon.
As a result of this international grab of land and power, a movement that began as an elite debate over notions of reform within an existing imperial order spread downward and outward to become a grassroots struggle for independence, first aimed at the Ottoman Empire, but rapidly shifting focus to Istanbul's Western successors. The Hashemite dynasty, for example, which ruled the part of today's Saudi Arabia called the Hijaz, launched a popular revolt against Ottoman rule in 1916, fortified by a duplicitous British promise to support an independent Arab kingdom in return for the Arab fighters' efforts against Ottoman forces. Libyans, under the charismatic leadership of Omar Mukhtar, rose up against their Italian overlords almost immediately after Italy took control of their country. And Egyptians, led by such figures as Ahmad Urabi and Sa'ad Zaghloul, fought against the British, gradually gaining independence when the last British soldier left Egyptian soil in 1956—four years after the Egyptian revolution toppled the monarchy in 1952.
For residents of Palestine, the struggle contained an added layer of complexity. In 1917, the British government, through the Balfour Declaration, held out the prospect for Jews anywhere in the world for a "national home" that would be located within the British protectorate of Palestine. Thereafter, Jewish immigration dramatically affected the demographic composition of that province. As a result, Palestinians found themselves fighting against both the British mandate and the establishment under its aegis of a Jewish homeland on their ancestral territory.
During this last phase of the first Arab Awakening, which lasted for most of the first half of the twentieth century, the various independence struggles took on a distinctly nationalist flavor. Almost all their leaders adopted values that in English would be known as secular. (In Arabic the word is often mistakenly translated to mean "atheist.") Especially after World War I, the dominant European nation-state principle took hold in the region.
Thus, the broader intellectual exploration of the early part of the first Arab Awakening gave way as the movement popularized to a narrower focus on the sole objective of national liberation. As Albert Hourani points out, there were "few precise ideas about social reform and economic development. ... Most of the leaders and spokesmen of the nationalist movements either belonged to families of standing and wealth, or had raised themselves into that class by their own efforts," and so were less preoccupied by social justice or sustainable economic development. This dearth of attention to the more material challenges facing emerging Arab countries was to prove disastrous for their future evolution—and created the conditions that led to the acute crisis at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century.
Arab Nationalism After Independence: Dashed Aspirations
The 1940s and 1950s witnessed the emancipation of most Arab countries from colonial rule. The old order was replaced by a variety of postindependence regimes of differing political orientations and outlooks. After replacing republican or monarchist systems, separate factions of the Ba'ath party eventually came to rule Syria and Iraq for the better part of the second half of the twentieth century. The Gulf countries, as well as Jordan and Morocco, opted for the monarchies that still exist today. And Egypt experimented with monarchy before ushering in a republican regime.
Concurrent with the independence movements, however, the other branch of thought—that which emphasized a supranational, pan-Arab identity—was also taking hold. Parties such as the Ba'ath, which originated in Syria in the 1940s and soon spread across the region, promoted the idea of a single Arab nation, despite its fracture into separate local branches. Tied to this pan-Arab concept, the secularism that it had always implied continued to draw considerable support among the educated Arab elite.
This movement—which coexisted uneasily with the particularist nationalism of the various countries—reached its zenith when a young army officer, Gamal Abdel Nasser, took power in Egypt in the wake of a 1952 military coup that overthrew the monarchy that had replaced British rule in Egypt. Admired as independent of the West, as forcefully standing up to the new Jewish state of Israel, and as embodying the aspirations of the average Arab citizen for dignity, Nasser was claimed as the leader not just of Egypt, but of the whole Arab world. His charisma excited popular adulation across the region. Algerians, for example, though fiercely proud of their particular Algerian identity, adoringly mobbed him when he visited their country shortly after its independence from France in 1962.
Apart from their shared Arab identity, another principle united the citizens of these diverse, newly independent nations: their implacable opposition to the establishment of the state of Israel in their midst in 1948, and their empathy with Palestinians, who, alone among Arab peoples, had had their dreams of independence shattered and had suffered appalling miseries during their expulsion from the land that became Israel. Nasser's famous slogan, "No voice can ring louder than the battle [for the liberation of Palestine]," crystallized this objective as the predominant one for Arab peoples—effectively subordinating all other concerns, including local political reform, until Palestine was liberated.
Herein lay the fatal flaw of the postindependence Arab governments. All the regimes, whether monarchist or "republican," rich or poor, shared one characteristic: none of them paid much attention to developing pluralistic systems of government, building systems of checks and balances on executive power, or promoting the rich diversity of their populations. Instead, the legitimacy gained during independence struggles hardened into diverse forms of autocratic rule. And it was the cry of freedom for Palestinians that allowed these regimes to postpone political reform, as Arab regimes, both friends and foes of Nasser, enthusiastically adopted his slogan in practice if not in name.
The 1967 war with Israel sounded the death knell of the still young pan-Arab nationalist ideal. With the defeat of three Arab states by lone Israel, Nasser's slogans suddenly sounded less like a stirring call for patriotism and more like hollow blandishments that merely served to postpone indefinitely domestic economic development and political reform. With the Arabs' 1967 defeat, it became clear that the Arab world had succeeded with such difficulty in ousting colonial autocracies only to replace them with homegrown ones.
Excerpted from The Second Arab Awakening by Marwan Muasher. Copyright © 2014 Marwan Muasher. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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