The Arabs' 1848

April 20, 2014 Topic: Economic Development Region: Middle East

The Arabs' 1848

Europe's century of upheaval—and the revolutions in the middle of them—offer insights into the post–Arab Spring world.

Contrary to the academic cliché, nations are far from being easily 'manipulated' into existence from supposedly disparate communities in a process of nation building. Nor, contrary to American parlance, are the people in Iraq, the people of Iraq, and the “Iraqi people” interchangeable concepts. The same applies to Syria. Ethnonational differences arouse very deep human emotions and are politically highly potent and potentially explosive. The nineteenth-and twentieth-century disintegrations of the Habsburg monarchy, the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia are an ominous reminder of the very bumpy road ahead in much of the Arab Middle East. Federalism, democracy, liberalism and pluralism—all in short supply in the region—are the customary measures advocated in such cases. Sectarian violence, ethnic cleansing and secessionist pressures are as much to be expected as uneasy coexistence.

Constructive optimism is what people tend to expect, but there is no guarantee of a good way forward or a happy ending. Up until the present, the first rule to learn about the Middle East is that good solutions have been few and far between and the realistic options generally ranged from bad to worse, with the primary question being which is least bad. Might this change in the foreseeable future?


In the matter of stability, nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe stands as another ominous precedent. Socioeconomic development, even when it finally took off, did not lead to democracy and liberalism everywhere. In many countries, including a highly developed and powerful Germany, the strongest counterculture emerged in reaction against and resistance to Western liberalism. This mood found expression in a variety of authoritarian and semiauthoritarian movements and regimes, in some ways resurrected, with much of the same cultural baggage, in today's Russia and China. Fascism was the most extreme expression of that mood. In the Arab world, cultural hostility towards and resistance to Western liberal values is very deep and widespread, and has been so since the beginning of Arab nationalism in the late nineteenth century. These sentiments have always coexisted with a grudging admiration for and a humiliating sense of inferiority towards Western achievements, which have only aggravated the problem. The acutely felt gap between the manifest backwardness of the Arab world and the Arab/Muslim self-perception of noble superiority is insufferable. These sentiments, simmering resentment and sense of cultural defensiveness are particularly powerful among the middle classes that have played a central role in the Arab Revolutions. Contrary to their image in the Western media, Arab liberals are a tiny minority.

At variance with the progressive view of modernization as ultimately spurring democracy and liberalism, only American power and crushing military victories in the two World Wars shaped the world we know and take for granted. The twentieth century became the democratic century only because it was also the American century. Forced democratization actually did succeed in post–World War II Germany and Japan, but the prerequisites for this success need to be borne in mind: the two countries had first to be not merely defeated but pulverized in the war (and the Communist and Soviet threat at their doorstep also helped), something which will hopefully never be repeated; both countries possessed the infrastructure of modern industrial societies, while also being cohesive national communities, attributes which are very much missing in the Arab Middle East. The future development of the countries in the region will depend to a large but limited degree on American and Western influence, both direct and indirect. But it may equally be influenced by the future trajectories of Russia and, most importantly, China, and on whether each of them will eventually democratize and liberalize politically. This cardinal question of the twenty-first century might also determine the viability of a potentially alternative model and source of support for Arab societies.

A sense of realism and proportion in assessing the odds and prospects of success is thus needed in shaping American, and Western, policy towards the Arab Upheaval—present and future. While interventions, both military and nonmilitary, should not be ruled out, depending on the political, strategic and humanitarian circumstances, their inherent limitations must be recognized. Given that the potential for hugely adverse developments in the region is at least as great as that for improvements, there is much to be said for preserving stability, as well as for patience and quiet support for a gradual fruition of local processes. Thus what appeared as high-handed American interference, more declarative than practical, against the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt cannot really affect the process. It merely aggravates prevailing sentiments and deepens the cultural backlash against the US and the West. It accentuates the notion among the Egyptian urban middle classes and other opponents of the Brotherhood that naïve American moralizing and disregard for the realities of Arab society require them to surrender their freedom and way of life in the name of an abstract ideal of democracy. Saudi Arabia has a reactionary and in many ways objectionable social and political regime. But is a democratic and progressive alternative feasible at present or in the foreseeable future? Would a revolution that establishes a radical regime in a country that controls such a large share of the world's oil reserves be a better alternative? Has the regime of Khomeini and the ayatollahs in Iran been a better option than the shah, with all the flaws of his regime? Were the Bolsheviks and the untold horrors they inflicted a superior alternative to the reactionary and reprehensive Czarist regime, under which Russia was nonetheless beginning to experience accelerated industrialization and burgeoning parliamentarianism?

Needless to say, like nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe, the Arab world is not uniform or cut from the same cloth. As we have seen, different countries within the region have their particular characteristics and potentially different trajectories. Some give more cause for hope than others, and a discriminated understanding is called for. Still, like nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe, they share a great deal in terms of socioeconomic development, history, cultural traditions (plus language), religion and a sense of common identity. As the Arab Upheaval has demonstrated, they also deeply influence one another. The first obligation of doctors is to do no harm. Stability should not mean stagnation or be preserved at all costs. Democracy, even if imperfect, reasonably liberal values and norms, toleration, economic development and internal peace should be cultivated as much as possible, coupled with awareness that outside influence has an inherently limited role to play. This is well recognized with respect to China and Russia. It applies no less to the Arab Middle East.

Azar Gat is the Ezer Weizman Professor of National Security at Tel Aviv University. He is the author of, most recently, Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism (Cambridge, 2013).