Dear Arab Liberals: The Enemies of your Enemies aren’t Necessarily your Friends

(By Karim Emile Bitar)

One of the principal reasons the revolutionary impulse unleashed in 2010 proved so inspiring was that it finally gave full voice to liberals, democrats and progressives of the Arab world, who rejected the idea that their only governmental options lay in sinister alternatives of authoritarian military cliques that had ruled for decades, or their radical Islamist opponents.

Those were the forerunners of the peaceful democratic uprisings, but the movements were eventually confiscated, hijacked, or beaten back by the counter-revolutionary forces that have undermined so many rebellions throughout history. ‘’Revolution, like Saturn, devours its own children, ‘’ warns Georg Büchner in Danton’s Death—a powerful drama he wrote at just 22 years of age. May ‘68 leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit echoed that caution in less poetic fashion by noting ’’those who launch revolutions are always the cuckolds of history.’’

Still, in initially rejecting the military and Islamists alike, these revolutions showed the rest of the world that a third path for the Arabs does exist – narrow though it may be. They also constituted a genuine epistemological rupture by demonstrating how fallacious traditional Western perceptions of the Arab world were. For too long, the region had been regarded panoptically, and represented only by the triptych ‘’Oriental despot/oil reserves/Islam.’’ Flesh-and-blood Arab human beings, meanwhile, were mere abstractions; individuals and their aspirations of dignity overlooked and replaced by generic images of teeming masses alternatively viewed as hopelessly lethargic, or electrified by religious fanaticism. Superbly ignored were the region’s social and economic problems, with focus instead honed on questions of security, containing immigration to Europe, and pursuing ‘’the global war on terror.’’ Arab women were reduced to traditional stereotypes of the lewd belly dancer, or oppressed female locked within the niqab.

“Those who launch revolutions are always the cuckolds of history.”All these old Orientalist clichés and dogmas were shattered in 2011 by a liberal and democratic alternative that was not an optical illusion. The revolutions nurtured a return to the Nahda: the 19th century Arab Renaissance and its modernist intellectual tradition whose richness Oxford Historian Albert Hourani demonstrated in his famous work, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age 1798-1939.

Nevertheless, progressive and liberal ideals in the Arab world have suffered severe setbacks in recent months, as ‘’securitocracy’’ has again gained the upper hand. The “Deep States”—intelligence services and business interests with ties to former regimes— have surged back with a vengeance. Egypt, the beating heart of the Arab world, is today in the grips of a frightful nationalist and chauvinist hysteria, and descending into an unprecedented McCarthyist hunt for purported enemies that even foreign journalists are not spared from.

Several reasons explain the inability of Arab liberals to capitalize on their window of democratic opportunity. Those include a lack of leadership, organizational structures, and the significant financing their adversaries obtained from regional powers trying to stifle the winds of change. They have also faced rising levels of violence that always favor the most illiberal actors in a struggle. Meanwhile, the slow process of secularization in the Arab world and the persistent influence of reactionary religious currents leave little space for classic humanist discourse. As Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig wrote, ‘’always, the men who claim to fight for God are the most unsociable on earth, because they believe to hear divine messages, their ears remain deaf to all words of humanity.’’

But it should be noted that political liberalism is in crisis on the wider international scale as well. Signs of what some observers have called a ‘’conservative revolution’’ are present in Russia, in South East Asia, and in virtually every region of the globe—including the rising challenge of far-right movements in Europe, and out-sized influence of the Tea Party in American politics. Nations that have seen that process advance farthest have witnessed a return of authoritarian nationalism, and unabashed racism.

Yet Arab liberals must also shoulder some blame. They too often tend to live in a bubble, remain disconnected from gritty reality, and display condescendence towards conservatives that is often counter-productive and generates a backlash. Cultural battles are fundamental, but liberals too often accord them absolute priority and forget about economic and social justice issues. Democracy can only triumph if it’s founded on the middle classes, which have been crushed by the unproductive rent-based economies still predominant in the Arab world.

Liberals must above all avoid betraying their ideals by striking unnatural alliances of convenience or misguided “pragmatism.” One example is the compromised Egyptian liberals who backed the July 2013 military coup and today have succumbed to Sisimania. “That awkward moment when you realize some Arab leftists and liberals are politically to the right of Genghis Khan,’’ ironically quipped British-Lebanese architect and humorist Karl Sharro on Twitter.

Another case in point was the small group of Iraqi exiles who naively believed salvation of their country resided in the machtpolitik of the Bush-Cheney administration. Some of those Iraqis have since bolted to the pro-Iranian camp—doubtless a new illustration of the propensity of certain “liberal” intellectuals to always play the best odds, and position themselves behind the strongest force in a clash. A similar example is found in some Syrian intellectuals who’ve become so obsessed with the threat of Islamist radicalism that they’ve become the useful idiots of Bashar El Assad and his murderous “secular’’ regime.

Arab liberals must, at long last realize that the enemies of their enemies aren’t necessarily their friends

In a London Review of Books article about “The Strange Death of Liberal America,” the late, lamented Tony Judt argued that liberals count because “they are, as it might be, the canaries in the sulphurous mineshaft of modern democracy.” Arab liberals must, at long last realize that the enemies of their enemies aren’t necessarily their friends —that the road to democracy can only be paved with ideals, principle, and consistency. That’s a difficult and very long battle they must wage on many fronts at once, but it’s also the only way to attain their objectives without losing their souls along the way.

Karim Emile Bitar (@karimbitar) is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations, Editor of ‘L’ENA hors les murs’ monthly magazine and Co-editor and co-author of Regards sur la France (Seuil).

Mirrored from Your Middle East


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8 Responses

  1. “Democracy can only triumph if it’s founded on the middle classes”

    You know, that could be interpreted as having some rather questionable implications if taken out of context…

  2. Decent people, ordinary people, folks who practice the Golden Rule in its most charitable form, don’t, as a general rule, either know how to or actually “organize” in the way that what are called “conservatives” do. That kind of predetermines how things go in the world.

    Such touching noises the liberal thinking and feeling people make about “democracy,” that vague notion that shows such a gulf between the dictionary or textbook rendering and the reality of what people seem to mean by it. Since as I parse it, it’s largely about being left alone, but just enough alone, by a benign government made up of people that are trained and motivated to treat everybody more or less the same, respecting “rights” that only exist if there’s a mechanism to enforce them and a bias by the rulers toward respecting them, with only a tolerable level of corruption. Which, of course, patently and demonstrably in the case of the modern corporatized nation-state system and post-national power groupings, seems an unattainable and hence inherently frustrating and enervating ideal.

    As the author notes, the sense of demand, the rising and frustrated expectations for perceived decency and fairness, the agitation and eventual revolt for “freedom,” pretty much inexorably ends up captured and perverted into repressive authoritarian rule. Decent people do not organize well — they don’t have a central driver and principle, like autocrats and kleptocrats do, and “doing nice” is not a sustainable or even strongly articulable political platform. And of course there are hundreds, thousands, of intellectuals who vie to be the One True Voice that lays down the Truth of how humanity gets to Democracy. Lots of would-be chiefs, with the potential to morph into Pol Pots, link to, or Abimael Guzmans, link to Lots of humans out there who just want to get up, go to work that pays enough to feed their families, belong to some group that supports and reinforces their identities. Lots of humans who also can so quickly learn the arts of war, and find exhilaration in killing and destruction and oppression of their former neighbors…

    And of course the tools and incentives of deception, diversion of our too-tribal inherent impulses, and the mechanical devices increasingly available to the kleptocrats and thugs, are freely, or at least cheaply and widely, distributed. And there are lots of people who “see their opportunities,” or get off on Doing Badness to their slightly different neighbors, people who are happy to go along and facilitate the thuggery, as long as it can sort of be turned to their individual benefit. Some of us wake up to realize that what our inner heart ends up desiring, that being left alone and protected against predations by our neighbors, and having some voice in who rules us. Very few of us have the charisma and oratorical skills and training to grab the leads hanging down from halters of the bovine jaws of the most of us and direct our motions.

    Liberals seem less like canaries in a coal mine than a sad set of aspirational egos, who would like a kinder and gentler world (where their cleverness and insightfulness would be more respected and appreciated) but don’t have either a clue to how to go about organizing to make it happen, or the fire to inspire others to go along.

    For those who look more frankly at the reality of what actually rules in the human world, it’s pretty obvious that except for a very few little enclaves, that ain’t how the masses end up working.

  3. The idea that democracy, liberty, or human rights can be defend once one accepts the possibility of liquidating enemies/rivals through police power, or the prospect of curtailing freedom to supposedly advance an ideological project (even though the opposite happens), need to be rejected completely and utterly by these liberals.

    Once a political movement accepts the idea that suspending support for liberty or even humanity itself is an acceptable course of action, it cease to be a useful vehicle for advancing political or socio-economic development. The door becomes open to it supporting all sorts of abuses and dictatorial tactics.

    Many of the region’s dictators understand that their sunset may soon be approaching and thus are trying to institute new mind games to entice revolutionaries or potential revolutionaries into buying in to some kind of deadening struggle which can be used to delay change.

    In Egypt’s case, Sisi increasingly stands exposed as a lying, murderous con artist with an insatiable lust for the presidency, not a hero. Hamdeen Sabahi’s recent statements against the Field Marshal were fully warranted; indeed, overdue. It appears very likely that the election is going to be rigged.

    Saudi liberals, gradually becoming more prominent, are being subject to extremely harsh crackdowns, even as splits, divisions, and jealousies inundate the GCC ruling elites.

    These despots fear that Tunisia reflects the region’s future. No war in Tunisia, no fanatical political hysteria, no claims that to protest is to commit the worst possible crime in existence, and actually a constitution with a reasonable amount of consensus sustaining it. Also, they high probability that the upcoming elections will actually be free and fair.

  4. “Liberals” is too weasely a term. We would need better distinctions. An Arab middle class person may be a Westernizer (preferring a Western lifestyle), but that doesn’t mean he/she is a libertarian (promoting a system in which people can choose between a traditional and a Western lifestyle).

  5. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” is universally false….not just in the context of Arab liberalism. Two examples:
    1. Ronald Reagan sent Donald Rumsfeld to Baghdad with gifts for Saddam Hussein because the US administration believed that the enemy of Iraq was a US friend. This attitude seems to have changed early in the 2000’s.
    2. Throughout the Russian occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980’s, the USA supported the Mujahideen, and in particular supported ‎Osama bin Laden, because the administration believed that the enemy of Russia was a US friend. This attitude also seems to have changed in the 2000’s.

  6. Arab Liberalism is mostly confined to convenient sloganeering, and the reason it is a perennial failure is because it neither roots itself in rational grounds nor does it develop a thoroughgoing program for inclusive change. Arab liberals mimic what they think actual secular liberals would say, but at the core they adhere to and adore brute power politics as we see in Egypt.

  7. Also, I know very few Syrians or Syria observers who are uncritically pro-regime. Those of us who support the regime do so mainly because we know that every other option means the dissolution of Syria and many more years of unbridled misery, not out of some committment to Baathism. Or do you think the vaunted Arab Liberals will sweep in and scare away Al-Qaeda and ISIS with their tired slogans and face paint?

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