[inset_left]The Second Arab Awakening and the Battle for Pluralismby Marwan MuasherYale University Press, 232 pagesNew Haven, CT, 2014[/inset_left]
London, Asharq Al-Awsat—For a couple of decades, the societies of the Middle East and North Africa seemed relatively stable, if not necessarily open and democratic. Authoritarian regimes maintained the status quo, handling periodic unrest with oppression or pseudo-reforms. Nobody expected so many countries in the region to implode quite as spectacularly as they did in 2011, and neither did anyone anticipate the wide-ranging changes that followed: ousted regimes, wars, refugee and humanitarian crises, and so on.
Instead of dictators, the Arab Spring countries are now characterized by instability and in many cases violence. Syria is witnessing some of the worst acts of violence committed by a head of state against his own people in living memory. Libya is largely lawless, with tribal structures replacing state institutions. Egypt has been in a transitional phase marked by unrest and street violence for over three years. Even the relative success stories, Tunisia and Yemen, are still struggling to address deep-seated social problems and stagnant economies.
The optimism many people expressed at the start of the uprisings has now largely been replaced by caution, and even outright despair. But Marwan Muasher, former deputy prime minister of Jordan and now vice-president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has retained his optimistic vision of the region’s future. In his latest book, The Second Arab Awakening and the Battle for Pluralism, Muasher argues that the 2011 uprisings were staged, in part, by the region’s youth in the hope of building democratic, plural societies.
With a fierce commitment to liberalism and pluralist values, The Second Arab Awakening can read as almost naively optimistic. It is an accessible text which hardly strays from making the point that, if the new generation of Arabs chooses inclusion over elitism and commits to civil rights instead of despotism, they can build the societies they aspire to. Critics, however, will say that Muasher’s account is overly optimistic, perhaps even utopian in its unlikelihood. Other scholars have repeatedly pointed out that the entrenched political culture and economic problems could (and, in their view, likely will) lead to further chaos and instability. Some, such as Mohammed Ayoob, even go so far as to largely discount the agency Arabs have to effect change in their societies.
The Second Arab Awakening also sets itself apart from other Arab Spring literature in its forward-looking approach, examining possible future scenarios instead of focusing on the role of historical factors in the current instability that grips the region. Indeed, Muasher could have given more attention to the impact of events and processes like the Sykes–Picot Agreement of 1916 and the challenges the states it created face in building pluralistic societies. Instead, he chooses to emphasize pluralism as “necessary to lay the foundations for democratic institutions.”
One of the most marked features of the period immediately following the acute unrest of 2011 was the election of Islamist governments in several Arab countries. This was remarkable not only because there were largely free elections for the first time in the histories of these countries, but because these Islamist governments illustrated the nature of the existing political systems. Muasher adopts what is arguably the most commonly-held account of the Islamist groups’ success, writing that, pre-revolution, the political culture of these countries had allowed Islamist groups to gather momentum by filling the gaps in the former regimes’ sporadic social services. Arab publics had responded to these efforts, contrasting them with the unaccountable and corrupt governance of the ruling elites.
In The Second Arab Awakening, Muasher writes that this example shows that “if the system is not opened up, only the Islamists can garner mass support.” But in many Arab countries, the Islamist parties moving from the opposition to positions of power after 2011 did not result in an embrace of pluralism, inclusive policies, and respect of individual rights, and nor did it secure the peaceful rotation of power. The commitment of both Islamists and secular forces in the Arab world to democratic norms is only “skin-deep,” he writes, taking Egypt as an example. Although the book had gone into production by the time Egypt’s July 3 revolution was unfolding, in the foreward Muasher argues that this second revolution demonstrates the importance of embracing pluralism at all levels of society: In Egypt, both the Islamists and the secular opposition were behaving in a majoritarian, winner-takes-all manner. While the Islamists under Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Mursi used their time in power to push through a constitution that did not enjoy widespread support, now that some secularists are in power they are suppressing the Islamists’ rights as political actors.
While his optimism about some other countries in the region—including Jordan and Morocco, which both witnessed small-scale protests in 2011 followed by a series of peaceable reforms—is understandable, the degree of optimism he expresses for the future of countries such as Egypt cannot go unnoticed. Despite all the challenges to pluralism and inclusive socio-political systems exemplified by Egypt’s two transitions, the author argues that this “Second Arab Awakening” is a historical turning point—hence his positive outlook. True, some events have been historic: multi-party elections, the establishment of independent electoral commissions to monitor those elections, and the growing acceptance of political parties, which he writes were “formerly regarded as an irritant at best.” But alone even these substantial political reforms cannot transform these countries’ political cultures.
While perhaps not as critical as most, Muasher does devote a good portion of his book to exploring the changes needed to entrench pluralist values in these post-Arab Spring societies. Having devoted an entire chapter to educational reform, he tells Asharq Al-Awsat that “the Arab world today needs an education system that develops a strong value system, encourages critical and constructive thinking, and teaches the importance of tolerating and accepting various points of view.” As an extension of this, he also describes how many of the intellectual trends that emerged from the events of 2011 have not yet developed the means to promulgate and entrench their ideals.
But it is in Muasher’s skepticism about foreign—and especially Western—involvement in (and interference with) the region since 2011 that his voice becomes more critical, and more in sync with mainstream thinking and attitudes to the Arab world’s turmoil. Many observers jumped to use the term “Arab Spring” to describe the first stages of the uprisings, and many have been equally quick to adopt the phrase “Arab Winter” to describe the subsequent stagnation. But “democratic processes do not unfold in three years,” he tells Asharq Al-Awsat. “It took centuries for the West to develop democratic institutions. It would be nonsensical to expect Arab countries to become democratic overnight, in a region that has not known democracy.”