Eugene Rogan: Arab Struggle for Democracy a Historical Norm

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About 300,000 Algerian women demonstrate in the streets of Algiers 02 January1992 as requested by the FFS (Front of the Socialist Forces) for democracy during the electoral campaign. (Photo: AFP - Senna / Durand)

By: Preethi Nallu

Published Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Clad in traditional attire, a young Muslim cleric, Rifaa Rafi al-Tahtawi walked around the streets of Paris, reflecting on the astuteness of the French Constitution in espousing democratic governance. This was the 1820s and the fervor of the French revolution had gripped Paris.

“Their [French] intellect has decided that justice and equity are the causes for the civilization of kingdoms, the well-being of subjects, and how rulers and their subjects were led by this, to the extent that their country has prospered, their knowledge increased, their wealth accumulated, and their hearts satisfied,” wrote Tahtawi in his memoir Imam in Paris, a lasting classic amongst scholars concerned with the “Orient.”

Tahtawi's bold assessments for his time, are a token of about two centuries of perseverance in the Arab world for constitutional and democratic governance.

Oxford-based historian and author of The Arabs: A History Eugene Rogan explains that “in the long run, the past six decades of autocratic rule might well be remembered as but a setback in two centuries of popular pressure for constitutional rule and democratic rights.”

During an in-depth interview for Al-Akhbar, Rogan draws parallels between the current wave of reform movements that collectively formed the “Arab Spring” and the fervor that shook the Levant, North Africa, and proceeded to the Gulf and beyond two centuries ago, ending with results favorable to representative governance.

The apathy of the ruling elite despite stagnant growth and the affluence of a small upper class that did not correlate to the majority of the population led to increased discontentment among the people in both cases. The masses lost faith in their leadership that ruled from behind its glossy facade. The deteriorating levels of human development whetted mass appetite for revolutionary change. The underlying motivations have been the same – in the 19th century and today.

Rogan says that 2011 was only the beginning and that this period of transition will be fraught with uncertainties and obstacles.

Preethi Nallu (PN): Your perspective on the 2011 revolutions, that are continuing, is important because of the historical context that you provide to your audience. Could you provide specific examples of how some of the current situations in the Arab world can be linked to historical events that took place centuries ago?

Eugene Rogan (ER): Some sociologists went so far as to say the autocracy of government was a reflection of patriarchal values that shaped Arab families. What they lost sight of was that, for more than one century before the military coups of the 1950s and 1960s, Arab (and Turkish and Iranian) activists sought to constrain absolutism through constitutional reforms. Authors like Tahtawi and Khayr al-Din al-Tunisi wrote on the need for constitutional government. The 1881-1882 Urabi Revolt in Egypt was driven in part by reformers seeking to reduce the power of the khedives in Egypt.

The 1906 Revolution in Persia was about constraining the arbitrary rule of the Qajars. The Young Turk Revolution in the Ottoman Empire (which included much of the Arab world) restored constitutional government in 1908 to constrain Sultan Abdulhamid II's absolutism. The struggle against imperial rule in the interwar years was carried out largely by constitutional reformers. In a sense, the Arab revolutions of 2011 are about a struggle against arbitrary or autocratic rule that dates back to the 1830s.

PN: Could you explain how understanding history beyond the specific protests and realizing their inter-connectedness fills in the gaps or provides an alternative view to current events?

ER: History does provide an essential perspective on current affairs and the 2011 Arab revolutions are a good case in point. The last time we saw such revolutionary enthusiasm in the region was in the 1950s and 1960s, when a group of military men overthrew conservative monarchies and republics and replaced them with technocratic governments that promised to deliver development, jobs. There was a unity of purpose that would raise the Arab world to the standard of the developed economies of the world through state-led development. In return, they claimed a total monopoly over politics and the running of government. Citizens who challenged the government found themselves arrested, imprisoned, tortured, even executed. Over the past five decades, these revolutionary governments grew increasingly autocratic. By 2010, it was widely assumed that Arab political culture was inherently autocratic.

PN: In comparison to the revolutions that took place in the 19th century, how are the current protests unique or different? Have they changed in terms of values, expectations, and methods?

ER: Nineteenth century reformers were in many cases too respectful of authority. They hoped to persuade autocratic rulers to apply constitutions and transfer some of their absolute powers to representatives chosen by the people. When the rulers refused to surrender their powers, reformers seldom dared confront them. Events such as the 1882 Urabi Revolt in Egypt or the 1908 Young Turk Revolution in Turkey were exceptional and destabilising. In 2011, however, protesters realized that there is no scope to compromise with autocratic rulers. They simply have to go. Hence the slogan of 2011, "The People Want the Fall of the Regime." What is remarkable is that people are willing to face violence and risk their lives to achieve this goal.

PN: Tahtawi was sent by one of the greatest autocrats of all time, Mehmet Ali, to France. What is the significance of that? You make a comparison between the movement of reform then and now. What about the different types of autocracies that exist now and then? And how much is it about state-building as opposed to democracy.

ER: Mehmet Ali hoped to benefit from European advances in technology by sending Egyptian students to gain specialist training and return to apply their knowledge in Egypt’s development. He probably never considered what impact living in France would have on the political or social views of the students in the mission. Had he doubts about the political orientations of members of the mission, I suspect Tahtawi, who was sent as an imam or religious authority, would have been his last concern. In that sense, the significance of Mehmet Ali sending Tahtawi to Egypt is that autocrats underestimate the capacity of even the most modest or reliable of their subjects to challenge their rule. Consider how Mohamed Bouazizi or Khaled Said contributed to the fall of Ben Ali and Mubarak.

That said, I would not wish to say that there are not significant differences between autocratic rulers in the nineteenth century and at the start of the 21st century. For one, autocracy was much more of a norm in the 1830s than it is today. The Pasha in Egypt, like the Sultan in Istanbul, compared himself to autocratic rulers in Russia or Austria, and saw revolutionary countries like France as the exception and the danger. By the end of the 20th century, more countries in Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America had made the shift to democratic systems of government, and the Arab autocracies stood out as exceptions to that trend. This shift can be assisted by certain forms of state-building, though it was in fact the entrenchment of strong states that helped reinforce autocracy in the Arab world. It took citizen action against the agents of the strong state to set change in motion in which government would derive legitimacy from the sovereign will of the people. That is the heart of democracy – the elections are only a means towards that end.

PN: How would you explain the manner in which protests have taken root and evolved into full fledged movements in certain countries, while others have not responded to the “ripple effect” from Tunis and Cairo? Why have some uprisings been met with what can be called success, where as others such as in the case of Syria and Bahrain continue to be suppressed, despite daily demonstrations?

ER: The governments have fallen in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. In Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced to relinquish control to his vice president in an agreement signed in November 2011, and confirmed in a nation-wide poll in February 2012. While Bashar Assad withstands popular pressure for his overthrow, state repression has yet to bring a halt to popular resistance in Syria and the regime's position grows weaker by the day. These five revolutions really define the Arab Awakening and have redrawn the political map of the Arab world.

Yet not all Arab republics have witnessed revolutionary pressures in 2011. Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan, and even the Palestinian Authority (though not formally a state) have witnessed demonstrations but not the sort of mass protests calling for the overthrow of the regime. Though very different countries, these republics share some common features. Each has witnessed civil violence claiming thousands of lives in recent years that might make their citizens more cautious in challenging the political status quo. And, with the exception of Bachir, who has ruled Sudan since 1989, none has a life-long ruler seeking to create a dynasty as was the case in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria. Yet all of these countries have witnessed demonstrations calling for reforms and it is hard to imagine that they will prove immune to the pressures for change that are sweeping the region.

PN: How are the monarchies different from Secular Republics in term of popular demands for reform and their reaction to such calls? How have the different kingdoms reacted and what are the factors that influence their outward behavior?

ER: The monarchies fall into two groups. The GCC states enjoy greater or lesser access to oil wealth to secure the consent of their citizens. Those with small populations and great wealth, like Qatar and the UAE, have watched from the sidelines. Oman responded to labor protests in Sohar and Salaleh by increasing wages, expanding social benefits, and job creation. The Saudi government responded to internal dissent by announcing nearly US$11 billion in spending on jobs and benefits for young and unemployed citizens. But Bahrain proved to be a different situation entirely. The demands for reforms by the island's Shiite majority set off alarm bells in Saudi Arabia over Iranian influence and revolution in the Gulf State, and they led an intervention that repressed the Bahraini reform movement without addressing any of its demands. Such stability can only prove short term unless the GCC states set meaningful reforms in motion, for it is hard to imagine the highly educated citizens of the Gulf long accepting lower standards of political freedom than fellow Arabs enjoy elsewhere in the region.

Morocco and Jordan are the poor monarchies and lacked the funds to buy their way out of trouble in 2011, have responded to public pressure with meaningful constitutional reforms. But reforms in Morocco and Jordan seem to have raised concerns in the oil-rich monarchies of the Gulf as too much, too fast. This might explain the GCC's extraordinary invitation, again led by Saudi Arabia, for Morocco and Jordan to join the Gulf alliance.

PN: How much has the presence of Israel as a colonial settler state contributed to the longevity of these authoritarian regimes and how has the geopolitics of the Arab Israeli struggle swayed and influenced the current uprisings?

ER: The only link I can see between Israel and Arab authoritarianism is the role that the creation of Israel played in fostering a wave of revolutions in the late 1940s and in the 1950s that brought military men to power. The loss of Palestine and defeat to Israel discredited the old political elite, who tended to be democrats, organized in parties, and brought to office by election. The masses saw their politicians as a squabbling bunch and held them responsible for Arab defeat and humiliation. They threw their support behind the military revolutionaries, seeing them as decisive men of action and technocrats who could bring development, modernity, and defeat Israel. Yet the only people the military rulers seem able to suppress by force were their own citizens. The role of the military in politics is linked to Israel, but only tangentially. That these military dictators used the Palestine issue to legitimate their autocratic rule was but another abuse of their powers.

PN: What do you make of the way Western powers are reacting to these uprisings given they had supported these authoritarian regimes for so long? Do you think the relationship with Western powers will change fundamentally or will they keep seeking client states the same way they did in the past?

ER: The United States and the European Union have been caught unprepared for the scope of change in the region, and have spent the past year trying to re-evaluate their policies in light of their interests and the changing political landscape. Changes are inevitable, in the sense that new governments are taking the place of old regimes that had decades of established relations and policies with the Western powers. Yet in the EU’s endorsement of change in North Africa, and in America’s engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, we are witnessing pragmatism on both sides. There was a time when a meeting between the Muslim Brotherhood and the US would have been compromising for both sides. Today it is seen as inevitable.


this is a joke right. It was the FIS that won the election in 1992 by 85%.

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