The Arab Spring: A Revolution or Just an Outburst?

Article Summary
The author offers an analytical view of the reasons behind the failure of Arab societies to modernize. The author also asks whether the Arab Spring is a true reform movement that will usher a modern Arab renaissance or it is just a political outburst, that will only change the ruling class.

It is not easy to study Arab social structures from a sociological perspective, even though several Arab researchers have analyzed and critiqued Arab societies. Syrian writer Halim Barakat has written a study on the nature of patriarchal patterns and hybrid social structures that mix traditional and modern [ways of life]. Additionally, the study of entrenched Bedouin [traditions/mentalities] in [Arab] culture - politically, socially, culturally, and in terms of religion - has been the subject of several new sociology dissertations.

The reader may wonder what Bedouinology is. It is a new term we have borrowed from sociologist Khalil Ahmad Khalil, who researched its dimensions in a newly-published study in bedioun-democracy from [publishing house] Dar Taliaa, [entitled] Why are the Arabs Afraid of Modernity?. “Bedouinology” refers to the Bedouin ideology as a general culture which encompasses Arabs living in cities as well as the countryside, explaining behaviors rooted in their past and their cultural beliefs. This concept has also been defined as the belief web that creates a dual social fabric, both tribal and urban, enabling the single rule of the multitude.

Therefore, it is important to understand on which components the Bedouin ideology in the Arab world is based, as it has not been reconciled with modernity, science or urbanization (it may be beneficial to refer to Khalil’s dissertation to learn more about these issues, such as the problems with the Arabic calendar).

Arab societies are built on two opposing systems: The first system is tribal, and the second is attempting economic modernization. In other words, there is a schizophrenic tribal/urban combination, with a clear predominance of the tribal culture over the urban. This mix can be observed in the tribal overtones prevalent throughout open Arab cities. These overtones lead to several observations: The adherence of Arab families to their traditional culture; the marginalization of women; and the prevalence of the imagined. Although the family structure is no longer extended [as it was under the tribal structure], that does not mean that it no longer represents entrenched traditions. These families - though having acquired certain external modern characteristics - still follow old traditions regarding the strong role of father figures as opposed to [strong female figures], and raising children to be submissive.

Political tribal culture becomes clearer if it is studied from the viewpoint of the governance system common to Arab societies. The Arab regimes established after the period of independence failed to build modern states. We could even speak of a pattern of political Bedouin culture, or “stateless societies.” There are three principal types of political systems in the Arab world: Political sectarianism, tribal rule / monarchies, and one party rule, most commonly exemplified by military regimes. It follows that we must ask why Arabs have failed to build modern states.

The causes of this failure are interdependent. One of the most important [causes] is the inability of progressive political ideologies - which supported statebuilding in republican systems in particular - to continue their drive towards modernization. These [progressive] currents became focused on clinging to power, using the threat of foreign conspiracies as a cover to convince the people. Most of the coup d’états across the Arab world were characterized as revolutions; we therefore may need to redefine this [term] in our political dictionaries and literature. This redefinition would lead us to another question: Do the current events in the Arab world qualify as a revolution, or an outburst?

A true revolution would focus first on political and social modernization as well as religious reform. Up to this moment, it seems that the outbursts spreading alongside [the Arab Spring] have not reached the required threshold to be considered revolutions. If we were to conduct a preliminary analysis on the results of popular movements in several Arab states, we would find that the political rhetoric of the new parties has not included any modern terms. These forces are talking about a civil and plural state, without daring to adopt secularism as a comprehensive system. This does not mean that Islam is resisting secularism. Rather, like Nassif Nassar said, “[many are preaching a] radical interpretation of Islam and politics in order to reconcile secularism and Islam… [However,] faith is [only] possible with independent thinking and the separation of the state from religion.”

Bedouin political culture is strengthened by a political tribalism that rules in the name of tribal affiliations, political sectarianism that rules in the name of religion and single party rule that governs in the name of ideology and foreign conspiracies. Within these three patterns, the Arab public has fallen victim to mass alienation and political illiteracy. Additionally, public opinion is no longer used to criticize [the government] or hold it to account. On the contrary, the public has been tamed with an interaction of political and religious ideologies. Meanwhile, systems headed by a single ruler or “father figure” have been prominent within Arab political literature, crowding out the notion of a statesman. It is important to note that the political father figure, in Arab Culture, is similar to the divine father, almighty, all-powerful and vengeful.

Bedouin culture is centered on reviving and reproducing the past. The Arabs prefer their past to their present, and refuse to look towards their future. The Muslim clergy responds to any critical analysis of the religious heritage with fierce resistance and with the support of a large group of followers. Should the Arabs break with their past to achieve modernity? What are the sources of these nostalgic, emotional responses to traditions, regardless of their real radiant points? How can critical minds be built, while dismantling belief systems? Is the battle with the cultural heritage much more dangerous than the battle with political, social, and religious [heritages]?

In their spring, the Arabs need to critically study their past, forgo their culture of lamentations, and complete their renaissance. They should therefore focus on scientific output, political modernization and individual freedoms, without retreating back into their heritage because they are afraid of trespassing sacred boundaries.  A critical study of the religious heritage [of the Arabs] does not mean a rupture with it - even if, at times, such a rupture may be necessary.

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