A spring in Arab history
By M.J. Akbar
Ibn Khaldun, the classical Arab historian, ascribed the great revival of the Arab spirit to “asabiya”, a term that can loosely equated to “group solidarity”, a consciousness that rose above traditional loyalties like tribal identity and released the inspirational energy that made oasis dwellers and nomads into world conquerors. Nothing can compare with that seminal 7th century resurrection, but there is a touch of “asabiya” in the transnational Arab Spring that has turned a dormant Arab street into a revolutionary force that is clearing the septic cobwebs which have turned a great people into victims of local despotism and tyranny.
The pace and trajectory of a revolution can never be predicted, nor can its re-formation into a stable order be guaranteed. But the Gaddafis and the Assads are clinging desperately to a world that is dead, along with their bankrupt ideas and alibis, all of which have been a thin cover for devastating regimes which turned national wealth [including oil] into personal property and castrated the people’s right to freedom and democracy. These army-police states tried to garner international respectability through a thin middle class which shared some prosperity as reward for loyalty to the new hereditary, civilian sultanates. Could there be a worse instance of medieval despotism than the Gaddafi family, whose anarchic flamboyance was tolerated for so long by the rest of the world?
Western powers were indifferent to values they professed at home as long as despots honored their regional security concerns: an Egyptian somehow did not need democracy as much as an American if Hosni Mubarak was obedient. Now that Tahrir Square has decided otherwise, traditional relationships are in disarray. America and Europe have not been able to save clients in Tunisia or Egypt, even while they mobilize on the side of street anger to destabilize regimes in Tripoli and Damascus. With the Soviet Union long buried, and Russia and China hesitant to offer more than verbal reassurance, the establishments in Libya and Syria are fighting their last battles with incremental brutality against their own people. They have a lot to lose: their loot. They will fight hard to preserve their obnoxious oppression, and the process will be neither easy nor predictable.
Paradoxically, if the pro-West monarchies have shown a greater flexibility in the management of dissent, it is because they have been closer to their societies than republican despots. But that, in the long, or even medium run, is insufficient. There are many layers of meaning in the campaign for driving licences by Saudi women. They are asking a loaded question: if Aisha, one of the wives of the Prophet Muhammad, could drive a camel at the head of her army, if women could go to mosques and take part in consultations, then why cannot women drive cars in a country ruled by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques? The question juxtaposes current reality with a pre-monarchial republican ideal in which there was far great gender equality than in most modern Arab nations. The debate is opening minds. Open minds demand open societies. If Arab monarchs do not turn their abodes into a Buckingham Palace, and substitute total authority with a ceremonial role, the spirit of “asabiya” will rattle their gates.
Hafez Assad had a slogan on every city gate and public building: “Our Leader forever is President Hafez Assad”. His son Bashar shares this pompous conviction. Time, and the tide of “asabiya”, wait for no man.