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Was it the Arab Spring? - Analysis by Ori Z. Soltes PDF Print E-mail
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Written by ORI Z. SOLTES   
Monday, 19 December 2011 23:59
[Analysis by Ori Z. Soltes*] For more than half a year much of the world has watched and cheered what has been labelled the Arab Spring.

The drama that spread from Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen to Syria and Libya has been compelling and the outcome still in many fundamental ways is in question. Should we describe these events as a “spring”? Does that imply a summer to follow? Dry or wet? How hot or cool? What of the possible autumn to follow? And does that suggest a subsequent return to winter? As a number of writers have observed, including this one, it is too soon to tell.

“Spring” is less appropriate, anyway, than the term “awakening”. What we have witnessed might more appropriately be labelled “The Third Arab Awakening”. The first arrived at the very beginning of the 19th century in the personage of an “outsider” named Mehmed Ali. An Albanian who claimed to be of Arab descent (and he may have been, but never spoke a word of Arabic), Mehmed Ali served successfully in Egypt as an army officer for the Ottomans during the Napoleonic period. He realized, once French forces had withdrawn, that he was far enough away from the weakened Sultan Selim III that he could establish an independent regime.

Mehmed Ali might be called the father of modern Arab nationalism. Aside from important  military, economic and cultural reforms -- including founding the first indigenous Arab press and nurturing the beginning of a renaissance in Arab literature -- three defining features of his work are particularly noteworthy. Firstly, he removed potential competition from the indigenous Mamluk nobility in 1811 by inviting them to a dinner party and slaughtering them. Second, to validate his political position, he turned, as so often happens, to religion to establish an alliance with the fairly new Wahhabi movement. When his position was sufficiently secure by 1817, he turned on and slaughtered their leaders as well. Thirdly, he could not in the long run generate sufficient enthusiasm for a pan-Arab identity as opposed to the more localized, tribal and familial one. His polity lasted as long as he, his charisma and his skill lasted, until the mid-1840s.

By that time, the seeds of a second Arab Awakening were being inadvertently sown, in part through the activities of French Catholic and American Protestant missionaries. Hoping to transform Muslim Arabs into Christians, they established schools throughout the middle of the century in which such a transformation might be effected. The consequence was not only the growth of a Christian population out of those schools, but an intensified consciousness of the glorious history of Arabic language, literature and culture.

Christian Arab leadership, personified by Butrus al-Bustani, Nassif al-Yazigi and others, began with championing Arab cultural awareness within Ottoman-ruled lands, writing Arab encyclopaedias, forming literary and scientific societies from Beirut to İstanbul and standing up for the right to teach their children their heritage. In the next generation, this movement morphed in a more focused political direction toward Arab independence from Ottoman control. The Arabic term “intifada”, meaning “throwing off”, was coined in this context near the end of the century.

Sultan Abdul Hamid II was indeed cast off his throne in 1908, but by Turkish officers (the “Young Turks”) and not Arabs. The officers' corps that overthrew him had been created for the sultan by the Prussians, who within six years of his overthrow engaged with the Ottomans and the Austro-Hungarians against the British and the French (and eventually, the Americans) in the Great War. The Great War was mainly fought over control of the Middle East and its quickly developing resource, petroleum. The aftermath of the war saw a reconfiguration of the entire region in favour of the British, the French and their colonial and economic needs. New Arab states were shaped and led over the next 90 years or so by a succession of Arab leaders with rarely more than a lip-service concern for the Arab populations they ruled.

The Third Arab Awakening has been directed toward these leaders. It is the first Arab awakening both from within and against those who rose to rule from within. The question is where it will lead. How, as a Muslim Arab awakening, will it operate toward non-Muslim minorities such as the Jews in Tunisia and the Christians in Egypt, for example? How will it affect the most obvious non-Muslim state in the region, Israel, in its relations with Egypt, Jordan, Syria and the Palestinians? How will it affect intra-Muslim issues, such as relationships between the Sunnis and Shi'is? How might it spill out of the Arab world to elsewhere in the region, such as toward the diverse Kurdish populations, say, or toward Iran, whose spring met with a brutal blizzard in the 2009 “elections”?

This Arab Awakening is the first to be entirely internally devised and directed. One can only hope that it is actually a spring awakening, leading to a long and glorious summer and not a brief, parched one.

[*Ori Z. Soltes teaches at Georgetown University. He is the author of “Untangling the Web: A Thinking Person's Guide to Why the Middle East is a Mess and Always Has Been” (Bartleby Press).]


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