The world has yet to settle on an agreed term for the great events unfolding across the Middle East. I was in the depths of the French countryside — out of touch, and with a BBC World Service that could only fade in and out of hearing late at night and early morning — during their latest, awe-inspiring Egypt phase. However, I was soon persuaded that the designation that Gilles Kepel, the expert on Islamic fundamentalism, assigned them would prove as accurately encapsulating as any. He dubbed them the “Arab democratic revolution.”
It is definitely, all-encompassingly Arab. The moment one Arab country, Tunisia, lit the spark, it ignited a fire, a contagion, which all Arabs instantly hoped would spread to the whole “Arab nation.” They all recognized themselves in the aspirations of the Tunisian people, and most appeared to be seized with the belief that if one Arab people could achieve what all had long craved, so could the others.
It is self-evidently democratic. To be sure, other factors, above all the socio-economic, fueled it, but the virtual absence of other factional or ideological slogans has been striking. Indeed, so striking that, some now say, this emergence of democracy as an ideal and politically mobilizing force amounts to nothing less than a “third way” in modern Arab history.
The first was nationalism, nourished by the experience of European colonial rule and all its works, from the great carve-up of the “Arab nation” to the creation of Israel, and the West’s subsequent, continued will to dominate and shape the region. The second, which only achieved real power in non-Arab Iran, was “political Islam,” nourished by the failure of nationalism.
And it is doubly revolutionary. First, in the very conduct of the revolution itself, and the sheer novelty and creativity of the educated and widely apolitical youth who kindled it. Second, and more conventionally, in the depth, scale and suddenness of the transformation in a vast existing order that it seems manifestly bound to wreak.
Arab, yes — but not in the sense of the Arabs going their own away again. Quite the reverse. No other such geopolitical ensemble has so long boasted such a collection of dinosaurs, such inveterate survivors from an earlier, totalitarian era; no other has so completely missed out on the waves of “people’s power” that swept away the Soviet empire and despotisms in Latin America, Asia and Africa.
In rallying at last to this now universal, but essentially Western value called democracy, they are in effect rejoining the world, catching up with the history that has left them behind.
If it was in Tunis that the celebrated “Arab street” first moved, the country in which — apart from their own — Arabs everywhere immediately hoped that it would move next was Egypt. For Egypt was always a model, sometimes a great agent of change, for the whole region. It was during the nationalist era, after former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s overthrow of the monarchy in 1952, that it most spectacularly played that role.
However, in a quieter, longer-term fashion, it was also the chief progenitor, through the creation of the Muslim Brotherhood, of the “political Islam” we know today, including the global jihad and al-Qaeda that were to become its deviant descendants.
However, third, and most topically, it was also the earliest and most influential exemplar of the thing that, nearly 60 years on, the Arab democratic revolution is all about. Nasser did seek the “genuine democracy” that he held to be best fitted for the goals of his revolution. However, for all its democratic trappings, it was really a military-led, though populist, autocracy from the outset; down the years it underwent vast changes of ideology, policy and reputation, but, forever retaining its basic structures, it degenerated into that deeply oppressive and immensely corrupt version of its original self over which former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak presided. With local variations, the system replicated itself in most Arab autocracies, especially the one-time revolutionary ones like his, but in the older, traditional monarchies too.