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A Bad Day for Four Leading Arab Cities



By Rami G. Khouri

August 17, 2013

Thursday of this week was a bad day in modern Arab history. The four leading Arab cities of recent eras – Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Cairo – were simultaneously engulfed in bombings or urban warfare, mostly carried out with brutal savagery and cruelty against civilians in urban settings. Even more problematic is that the carnage was predominantly the work of Arabs, not foreign invaders. Our four greatest modern Arab cities are now routinely depicted around the world with scenes of bomb craters, flames and rows of dead bodies. Other Arab lands, such as Libya, Yemen, Palestine, Tunisia, Bahrain, Algeria and Sudan, are only slightly less chaotic. This is a dramatic and telling moment, but a moment that tells us what, exactly? Have we collectively failed the test of statehood? Modernity? Civility? Democracy? Independence? Sovereignty? Secularism?

It is important at this moment of reckoning to avoid the temptation that engulfs so many analysts and writers around the world, which is to make definitive and cosmic historical judgments about the meaning of this moment, like The End of History, the End of Islamism, the End of Arab Liberalism, or the End of the Arab Spring.

So my humble suggestion is that when you run into a phrase or headline describing the current Arab situation that starts with “the end of ... ,” you should not bother to finish reading it, because it will probably tell you more about the psychology of the writer than about any significant trends within the Arab region. We have had few real endings in this region in the past 6,000 years of urban life, but only perpetual transformations and reconfigurations of how identity, power and governance mesh together and evolve slowly year after year.

For those who do like neat historical markers, though, Thursday could easily be seen as a symbolic moment that marked a serious pause, a slight shift and a momentary regression in the uprisings and transformations that began in December 2010 in Tunisia, but really had started a generation earlier. The old autocratic Arab order that had prevailed since the mid-20th century started to fray at the edges and atrophy in its center in the 1970s, as ruling elites turned into security regimes, and nationalist and developmental states turned into showcases of consumerism and corruption.

The overthrow or challenge of former regimes have not led to smooth transitions to democratic and pluralistic societies governed by the rule of law in any Arab country – yet. The moment of hope for a series of simultaneous Arab democratic transformations remains unfulfilled, due to different conditions in each country. This transitional phase will give way in due course to renewed efforts to build stable constitutional democracies that will reflect local values; but this will only happen after we get through this nation-building rite of passage.

The most important lesson we can learn from our messy transitions – this is the meaning of the suicide bombings or snipers’ bullets Thursday in Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Cairo – is that the six dominant regional phenomena that have defined the modern Arab world are totally inappropriate for creating modern pluralistic democracies. These six are religion (mainly Islamism), armed forces, resistance, sectarianism, Arabism and tribalism. These powerful shapers of personal identity and immensely effective instruments for mass mobilization and street activism are also utter failures as entry points into stable democratic states.

Egypt’s striking lesson today is that its two most powerful, organized and trusted groups – the Muslim Brotherhood and the armed forces – both proved to be incompetent in the business of governance. This is not because they do not have capable individuals and smart and rational supporters; they have plenty of those. It is rather because the ways of soldiers and spirituality are designed for worlds other than governance and equitably providing services and opportunities for millions of people from different religions, ideologies and ethnicities.

Our societies probably must pass through these moments of seeing military, religious, tribal and other groups try their hand at governing, and then also fight each other politically and militarily. They must do this and fail, as the military and the Muslim Brothers are doing in Egypt, in order to confirm over and over again that none of them are qualified to govern, or, more importantly, mandated by a majority of their citizens to rule on their own. The lack of other organized and credible indigenous groups of citizens that can engage in the political process and shape new constitutional systems is largely a consequence of how military officers, members of tribes, and religious zealots have dominated Arab public life for decades.

So it is no surprise that Egypt and other Arab lands have moved very quickly from revolutionary moments to civil wars. From these events, new and more rational political actors ultimately will emerge who can shape more stable governing orders – after entire societies are frightened, embarrassed and then humbled by the experience of their home grown killing sprees and political immaturity.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR