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Arab popular uprisings or the arab incoming to political modernity

Burhan Ghalioun:
20 février 2011
Through more than a century and a half, the Arabs have been undoubtedly able to achieve an intellectual and cultural renaissance. They have led staunch national liberation wars, and they are still leading others in Palestine and elsewhere. They have built states or rather the structures of modern states still standing on their socles despite the interior and exterior violent tremors they have faced. They have started agricultural, industrial and scientific transformations not much different from what did other nations. Yet, they failed on the level of the entire Arab world as well as on the level of each country separately, in building a modern nation, in the sense of a united interactive and cohesive political group whose members are linked by the bond of citizenship, a common desire to live together and the affirmation of human dignity that cannot uphold today without true equality and intellectual and political freedom endorsement, which is the basis of participation in the national community, with its sense of responsibility, the exercise of citizenship rights, and the ambition to a proactive participation in the current civilization and its humanitarian values.

The first reason for this failure is the confiscation by tyrannical powers of the buds of political modernity that does not mean but people’s liberation from Foreign influences, whether religious or political or cultural, and the achievement of sovereignty de facto, meaning the right of every member of the national community to think for himself and participate on an equal basis and without coercion of any kind in the decision concerning private and public affairs and in working to achieve what the individual believes essential to the public interest. The rise of the people as the major actor and as the center of political life and public decisions is the essence of political modernity. It is the basis for transforming popular sovereignty into the source of political power and a permanent reference to it, as well as the place where social conflicts are solved. People’s sovereignty means independence for each individual and assertion of their right to sovereignty and equality with peers in sovereignty, far from being marginalized or humiliated and excluded from collective decisions, and impossibility to be punished but for their own offenses regarding the law of equal citizenship. Such is the foundation of national partnership and its very condition. Sovereignty also means the existence of the Free State, not dependent on any subordination to foreign powers, for only such a state can protect people’s sovereignty and guarantee its exercise away from foreign pressures and interventions.

The fact is that as soon as the Arab peoples were delivered from the cocoon of past sultanates and made their first steps on the path to political modernity, the Crows of authoritarian regimes assailed them pushing them back to the pre-modern times and forcing them into submission to their will that soon turned to be alien. And there they became again transformed into a mass of minors impelled, by force or trick and deception, to comply with the will of the master ruling them, be it a person, an elite, or a party, deciding for them what their interest is and replacing their will by his own, absolute, universal and definitive will.

The success in hijacking people’s sovereignty and freedoms was possible thanks to the charismatic leaders and the political, social and national elite that used them for general purposes such as the elimination of backward traditional worn-out systems and the acceleration of the transition to modern economic, social, technical and scientific modernity, or on behalf of nationalism and the defense of the nation’s interests against foreign powers. And so it is virtually possible to say that the people have abandoned sovereignty and freedoms almost voluntarily.

Since the seventies of the last century the movements of protest started opposing the authoritarian regimes that had lost their legitimacy when they lost the combat for development, social justice and national sovereignty while facing the Israeli military and strategic pressure. The slogans of reform and change and democracy spread out everywhere in the hope of renewing and replacing the governance of the ruling elites. However, vital international interests, notably the fear of industrial countries that the main sources of oil energy get out of their direct control and fall in the hands of some anti-Western forces, beside the need to ensure maximum protection and security to the Jewish state, provided the ruling Arab authoritarian elite with a historic opportunity to circumvent the will of the people and find a justification strategy with the necessary global support for staying in power while combating firmly their people. Since the eighties, these regimes never tired of enhancing the means of their repressive rule thanks to an alliance understanding with the most influential Western nations in the Middle East region, so that the states became monstrous machines of oppression and the countries became wide prisons for their population, since they have to comply with the will of the ruling elite serving an international - particularly US agenda, and dispossessing them systematically from their freedom and practically from all their political and sometimes civilian rights.

The systematic repression of the protests and the uprisings and all forms of political dissent or critical thinking ended up breaking effectively the will of the people, forcing them to abandon and grabbing their surrender. It succeeded in consecrating the tutelage of the ruling elite and their conversion, in their own eyes with the support of foreign powers , into an aristocratic elite seeing the people but as under-classed groups, with no self-awareness, no will and subsequently no rights. Their life is reduced to insuring a living and serving their masters who are supposedly the lone to know how to protect them from foreign powers and provide them with national values and meaning.

In the context of regressing to the medieval framework for people relationship with the rulers, the Arab societies have almost lost all the progress they had achieved in other fields of the national, economic, social, cultural and mental modernity. The fear of the self-designated superior elite snubbing the people and their quest to monopolize and perpetuate power in their hands pushed them to forge an alliance with foreign powers at the expense of sovereignty and independence. It produced methods of governance and practices and individual and collective behaviors based on violence, coercion, cronyism and sidekicks. It generated corruption almost beyond what was known in medieval decayed regimes. It resulted in the execution of the free self and the uprooting of each individual will. The practice of the burnt land policy aiming at emptying culture and identity from their human values resulted in the lack of a sense of collective patriotism. The economy supposed to generate work opportunities and good products without which no social life is possible has become a speculative economy whose main engine consists in accelerating the accumulation of wealth and funds in the hands of the power elites and their allies from the business community. The elimination of all forms of political communication and national solidarity led to the revival of the tribal, confessional and sectarian bonds and within such a context to the revival of the traditional values centered on the anti-individual, anti-rational culture, anti- intellectual freedoms and anti-law spirit of clan. Arab societies grew more and more frustrated, scary and inwardly closed, as a result of their aggravated alienation from the modern world and the increasing attempts to isolate, marginalize and subordinate them by force in a context dominated by global powers.

As people’s sovereignty and emancipation from the tutelage of foreign powers, and the possibility for each individual to fairly participate in the decision concerning the destiny of the political community and contribute to defining its future, is the first condition for opening up the modernity to all economic, social and cultural fields and levels, depriving States and individuals from Independence and freedom creates the suitable soil for sabotaging and corrupting any project of modern economy and eliminates any possibility for the emergence of national social relations on the basis of the free bond between individuals - i.e., the possibility of the birth of a social contract. It also eliminates any hope for the development of a modern culture or any civil ethics raising the individual to a level above the culture of simulation, imitation, instinct-gratification and identification with primitive or spontaneous clanism.

Thus, the assertion of people’s sovereignty, which has sometimes called to the physical presence of the masses on the streets and to bloody revolutions, is the essence of the political modernity. This is also the origin of the democratic revolution whose diffusion is still the axis of modern social thought throughout the world. This is indeed the greatest achievement of the popular revolution that broke out firstly in Tunisia and secondly in Egypt that is on the way to re-introduce the Arabs into the universal history, from which several foreign and Arab powers have endeavored for many decades to get them out.

Regardless of the direction that they will take in the upcoming weeks and days, popular uprisings in the Arab countries record for the beginning of this decade of the twenty-first century the most important chapter in the new history of the Arabs, the history of political modernity which they did not know before, despite the passage of more than a century and a half since their incoming to modern history.