By H.A. Hellyer
19 May 2014
“The people who revolted in the Arab Spring were not necessarily liberal, but they did something liberal.”
The above was something said at a conference held in the Arab world recently. It took me back to discussions that I had in the weeks and months after the January 25 uprising in 2011 in Egypt, during which some of my colleagues spoke of confusion in London. During those 18 days, international English language media, as expected, tried to find those Egyptians that spoke English, to communicate to their audience. As a result, Britons and others saw a plethora of English-speaking Egyptians on their television screens. In the aftermath, I remember one colleague telling me, “you know, we knew we’d been in Egypt for a while but we never realized that we’d been that successful in getting Egyptians to learn English!”
Of course, it was only a small minority of Egyptians who had learnt English to that extent – but the confusion continues. It’s not unusual for people to try to find commonalities – indeed, it’s a lot better than when they try to find differences. Egypt, frankly, has had more than enough of that. At the same time, however, it is entirely helpful to simply see what one wants to see – and in that regard, the above quote is a refreshing change. Certainly, not everyone (perhaps, actually, very few) who revolted in 2011 could be considered to be “liberal” – but what they did could certainly be considered to be “liberal.” As long as, of course, we don’t think that means it was only “liberal” – it was many other things as well.
Contested Term in the Arab World
I continue to put the word “liberal” in quotation marks precisely because it has become an entirely contested term in the Arab world. There are, of course, good reasons for that – and it raises a corollary question: is the Arab world actually in need of liberalism?
The confusion admittedly comes from within and without the Arab world. Many self-proclaimed Arab political liberals have not learned what liberalism, a set of political theories that emanated from within the Western intellectual milieu, actually is from original sources of liberal political thought. That explains why, for example, so many self-proclaimed liberals are confused about the differences between the terms “liberal,” “libertarian,” “conservatism,” “progressivism,” “socialism” and so forth.
Undeniably, that is a problem that not only Arab “liberals” have – for within the West itself, one can easily find interpretations of liberalism that underpin rightwing parties, but also leftwing ones. If that is a reality within the heartlands of historical liberalism, what sort of confusion is going to arise within countries that do not have a history of liberal political thought? Indeed, when there are Western liberal parties that encourage ultra-capitalistic policies, one has to ask the question – maybe Arabs ought to be highly selective about what sort of liberalism they want?
Serious About Their Liberalism?
But that leads to another issue – and that is whether or not Arab “liberals” are really serious about their liberalism. Over the past few years, since the beginning of these revolutionary uprisings, that seriousness has been questionable. Often, it seems as though a substantial number of Arab “liberals” cannot be considered to be attached to liberalism at all – but rather, they’re simply opposed to other ideologies instead. Socialism, communism – and, more recently, Islamism. A political approach whose raison d’etre is to simply be different from another – or just opposed to it – is hardly going to be capable of the creativity and energy that is needed in order to face the serious problems in the Arab world today.
There are going to be exceptions to that type of “liberal,” who are probably best described as “identity liberals,” as opposed to genuine political liberals. You have, for example, the “Free Egypt” party of Amr Hamzawy and others – a party led by a political scientist who takes seriously the notions of liberalism, and how they ought to be applied in a country like Egypt.
Yet, Hamzawy’s own standing has taken a downturn in Egypt, for his dogged attachment to consistency and liberal principles. On the other hand, “identity liberals,” who seem more concerned about their own liberal lifestyles than political liberalism, have seen fit to defend numerous human rights abuses – as, of course, such abuses are not aimed at them or their supporters.
There is a serious question to be answered beyond whether or not there are true liberals in the Arab world. And that is – does the Arab world stand in need of liberalism? Or does it need something else?
Foreign Political Ideologies
Over the past few decades, the Arab world has seen, time and time again, political ideologies that are not really organic to their environment. There have been some changes here or some adjustments there – but an organic, political intellectual though, based on genuinely Arab history and traditions has been lacking. Even Islamism, which was touted as “home-grown” in the region, was deeply influenced by contemporary Western thought – and certainly not the best of it.
Is that the best the Arab world can produce? Is it beyond belief it might construct a truly organic intellectual legacy that can give rise to political ideologies that are deeply informed by the Arab world’s histories and heritages? Open to learning from others, as they ought to – but something authentically Arab? Something that goes beyond imitations, deeply flawed interpretations, or just identity politics posing as ideologies – and builds something real? Something that can address the needs of the various peoples of this region; their struggles, hopes and dreams? Something that can authentically respond to the interchange between tradition and modernity, rooted from within their own experiences as opposed to only drawing on others?
One is tempted to think that maybe it is beyond them. But then, one remembers how wrong so many were on days like January 24, 2011 and is reminded that, actually, the people of this region can do some pretty incredible things. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow. But if recent history has taught us anything, it’s that we ought not to underestimate how unpredictable – and inspiring – some events can actually be.
Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University.