Last Tuesday was the third anniversary of the uprising in Tunisia that led to the departure of President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. The event also triggered upheavals in other Middle Eastern nations, notably Libya, Egypt and Syria. Looking for a shorthand description of what was happening, some pundits came up with the term “Arab Spring,” recalling the “Prague Spring” of the 1960s when Communism appeared to be heading for the exit. The expression also recalled an earlier “spring”—that of 1848 in Europe when several nations, among them France and Prussia, experienced revolutionary upheavals. Other pundits, however, preferred the term “Islamic Awakening,” partly because it echoed the 19th-century myth of “an-nahda.”
One problem with both labels was that they pretended to describe widely different events with a single analytical tool. More importantly, they tried to stick an identity on events that had not yet completed their course. The European Renaissance was not thus baptized on the day it supposedly started in Florence. The term was first used two centuries later. The French Revolution did not start, let alone end, on July 14, 1789—its official calendar mark.
In any case, what is interesting as far as recent events in the Middle East are concerned is that they had little to do with either Arabism or Islam. The Tunisians who defied their police state were not demanding more religion; they were already Muslims. Nor did they seek to make themselves more Arab; they were already as Arab as they wished to be. Subsequent elections held in several countries, including some that, like Jordan, Iraq and Morocco, had not been directly affected by the events, showed that neither Arabism nor Islamism could secure a clear majority. On average, the Islamists persuaded around a fifth of the electorate to vote for them. Arab nationalists did even worse.
So, is there a different way of looking at the events of the past three years? I think there is. But before we get to that, let’s clear away some conceptual underbrush that could cause confusion.
The fact that Arabic is the main language in the countries concerned does not mean that they all have identical political structures and cultures.
Just ask yourself which is the world’s second-largest English-speaking nation, after the United States, in terms of numbers? No, it is not Great Britain. It is the Philippines. Yet, few people would try to understand the archipelago’s politics solely through the prism of language. Even Canada, Australia and the US, their common linguistic bond notwithstanding, have different political cultures and structures. You cannot understand their politics solely by referring to the fact that they use versions of the English language. A common linguistic bond does not guarantee political unity, as we now witness with Scotland’s quest for independence from the United Kingdom. Reference to religion is equally insufficient for understanding a nation’s politics. For example, both Norway and Zimbabwe are Christian-majority nations.
The European Union has officially recognized 22 stateless nations. These are people who often share the same religion and language with a bigger community inside the same country but continue to claim an identity of their own. Examples include Catalans and Basques in Spain, Corsicans in France and Frisians in Denmark.
When we come to Islam, the picture is no different. Anyone who would try to understand the politics of Bangladesh and Iraq, to cite just two examples, with reference to Islam alone would not go very far. Nations in general and nation-states in particular are created by numerous geographic, geopolitical, historic, mythological and cultural factors. Like every language, every nation has a political grammar without which it cannot be understood.
Besides language and religion, historically, Tunisia and Egypt have other factors in common, including their incorporation into the Fatimid and Ottoman Empires and their experience under European colonial rule. However, while that history has created some similarities, those affinities do not make them identical. Tunisia is Tunisia and Egypt is Egypt.
Coincidentally, that point was highlighted by the two draft constitutions Tunisians and Egyptians were invited to approve this week.
The Egyptian exercise was prompted by a desire to avoid taking risks with what the men who drafted the proposed constitution regard as “ the security of the state.” The proposed constitution is a clear attempt at restoring what Amr Moussa has called “the positive aspects” of the republic founded by Gamal Abdel Nasser and maintained under Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. The revolution is over, now is the time for restoration.
The Egyptian referendum had other, undeclared aims: to provide Gen. Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi’s administration with a measure of popular legitimacy and, hopefully, to give the death decree issued against the Muslim Brotherhood a stamp of public approval. Finally, the draft is designed to reaffirm the special status the armed forces’ leaders wish to retain at the heart of Egyptian politics.
The Tunisian draft, however, is prompted by a degree of risk-taking unexpected from a deeply conservative society. This is especially true in the case of ultra-feminist measures designed to give Tunisian women a share of power that women do not have even in Western democracies. Unlike the Egyptian draft that would strengthen the executive branch, the new Tunisian constitution is designed to increase the powers of the legislature and the judiciary, a novelty in Middle Eastern political culture.
The Egyptian draft aims at restoring the authority of the state apparatus in a new disciplinary context. In contrast, the Tunisian text is designed to strengthen civil society against the machinery of the state. The future will show whether the two constitutions are actually implemented in real life, but if they are they are sure to produce different types of society. This week showed that similar events could produce widely different results.
Well, would it be far-fetched to suggest that there was no “Arab Spring” and no “Islamic Awakening”? If not, what happened? The answer is that we had a series of political models that, for different reasons, were past their “sell-by” date and were thus doomed. Their demise came in different ways and, in some cases, such as Syria, is still pending.