A New Arab Nahda?


An extract from the first chapter….


Throughout history, across continents, in discourse and in practice human beings have been searching for the ideal.[1] The ideal situation in which we can live to our full potential within the constricts of our tragic reality. An ideal that is unlikely to ever truly be achieved, however, it would seem that this ideal should always be something to strive towards. The West overwhelmingly appears to suppose that they have reached the ideal – democracy – they are the free world, they are the developed world. They are in essence Kant’s strongest nations, they can tell their people that they are free to say what they like but they must… Obey! We can express our discontents, but how often are any of these discontents ever appeased? On the contrary, you have certain nations, Syria for example, that unlike Kant promotes the use of private reason, for you can do anything you like, but do not express your discontents for you have no role in the state! Public reason in this case is not an option. Neither situation is satisfactory or acceptable. Yet it seems that the need for change is always focused on the Middle East, Asia, Latin America etc. The West has ceased to be self-reflective, it has ceased to have what Foucault calls an ‘attitude of modernity’. US/EU foreign policies more often than not do not hold up the ideals they claim to have achieved, they routinely overlook universal human rights in the name of economic benefits and advantages, a sentiment that is held by many Arab thinkers.[2] The centuries of searching for the ideal are meaningless if we are to stop here and naively think that we have reached the end of history, that we are the peak of existence. If we are to really contemplate and reflect upon history, it is clear that our current state of being is extremely young and arrogant – instead we must have a relationship with our history that instils in us a faith in humanity, for “the greatest moments in the struggle of single individuals make up a chain, in which a range of mountains of humanity are joined over thousands of years.”[3] We must be able to distinguish, however, between the history that is carried as a burden, ib, and the history that can act as a source of motivation, hafiz.[4] In light of this, we must as Nietzsche would say, critically explore our own history in such a way that it serves life and shatters our immature, preconceived ideas about ourselves and possibilities.  It will be only in this way that we will be able to truly live in the present, unhistorically, in the creative moment that allows us to realise the possibilities of our own present and of our most beautiful privilege, about [our] power to cultivate in [ourselves] with complete conviction a great idea and to allow an even greater idea to grow forth out of it”[5].

It is precisely from within the unhistorical moment that the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings[6] were born – “no artist would achieve his picture, no field marshal his victory, and no people its freedom, without previously having desired and striven for them in that sort of unhistorical condition.”[7] The people of Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, Yemen, Morocco, Libya and Bahrain who took to the streets were in essence fighting for the conditions of possibility for an alternative state of being, one that is no longer based on an abuse of history to instil fear and submission, but instead is based in our intrinsic desire for freedom, dignity and self determination. Could this be the emergence of a new Arab nahda? A new Arab Renaissance that would more adequately be able to deal with our current historical realities than the original movement of the late nineteenth or early twentieth century.[8] As Barack Obama invoked in his statement after the resignation of Husni Mubarak “there is something in the soul that cries out for freedom”[9], referring to Martin Luther King’s speech on the celebration of the founding of the new independent state of Ghana in 1957. In the face of exploitation, domination and a theft of one’s freedom people will eventually get tired of it – breaking out from it upon the realisation that freedom is something basic and essential to our lives and it is only with persistence and sacrifice that these uprisings will even get close to their aims. What has become clear here is that freedom cannot be given to an oppressed people, by a foreign power. Freedom must be fought for by the oppressed and taken back from the oppressors. If we are to contrast the situations in Afghanistan and Iraq with the almost continuously peaceful indigenous movements across the Arab world[10] it seems obvious which is more desirable. Almost daily suicide bombs threaten the lives of both Iraqis and Afghanis who have still not achieved any type of political representation or freedom, many years after the wars began. Stability is far from near in either of these nations and hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost both from within and from without and billions of dollars spent, seemingly without purpose. Innocent lives have certainly been lost in the uprisings across the Arab world however these have been far fewer in comparison, and have been a result of the actions of the aggressive regimes that do not want to let go of their illegitimate power. These deaths, which are increasingly seen as an unavoidable part of this struggle, also act as an impetus to carry on with the fight for freedom, “We have lost a lot of people and we lost them for a cause….  We owe it to them to stick it to the end”.[11] And there appears, moreover, to be no clear end in sight, with these movements being ignited and continuing in Bahrain, Jordan, Yemen, Libya and Algeria, where clashes have occurred between the protestors, police forces and government loyalists with numerous deaths and casualties. Although many of these protests began with demands for constitutional change and more representation the lack of adequate responses from their governments and the blatant unprovoked acts of violence against their own people, have led most to extend their demands to the overthrow of their untrustworthy governments who see little hope in their demands being met without radical change. Tunisia and Egypt have served as a model for the entire region, however in both, the results of these uprising are still very unclear and extremely fragile. Apart from this being a result of the lack of trust in those who currently hold power and who will determine to a large extent where things are able to go from here, it is the very fact that most of these nations do not have strong civil societies that are recognised or acknowledged in the public realm and therefore do not have the experience or representation to properly be able to deal with and respond to these increasingly volatile situations.


Although the majority in Egypt had little participation or experience within an almost underground civil society that existed prior to the revolution, those in Tahrir Square experienced it first hand, which itself became a symbol of an empowered civil society. Tahrir Square became a city within a city, where anyone had the right to speak openly and freely, an opportunity most never experienced before. These people fought and some lost their lives in the battle for this space, ultimately desiring this space, this freedom, to extend to the entire country. They held their ground using almost medieval battle techniques, leaders emerging spontaneously in the organisation and protection of this space. The physical organisation of Tahrir Square itself is fascinating, with information centres, medical stations and speaker corners being set up and accessible to all. The narrative developed by the government to distort the events on the ground, with the propaganda aired via state television, blaming foreign intervention and media clearly failed, with more and more people joining the protestors in Tahrir Square every day, wanting to see for themselves what their government’s media would not allow them to see. Not only has this taste of freedom, experienced by many for the first time in their lives, brought Egypt to a point of no return but it has also given the people a glimpse into what needs to be developed in order to work towards an empowered civil society and a fully functioning democracy. However, as Ghannouchi said of Tunisia, the same applies to the people of Egypt; “The people must protect their revolution if they value the important achievement of toppling the dictator. The blood of the martyrs is trusted in their hands, and not all their goals have been achieved. The street must remain mobilised, the genuine opposition and civil society institutions must coordinate to build a common vision, on which a national unity government will be formed to rebuild a political, democratic life in this country.”[12]

The timeframe of three to six months suggested by the Egyptian army for the occurrence of ‘free and fair’ elections, according to El Baradei is not long enough for the ‘silent majority’ to organise and establish parties that can participate in these proposed elections. If things are rushed, then the only ones that will benefit from it are the already organised groups, which would include “the old ruling party reincarnated and the Muslim Brotherhood and with all due respect, you need to give an opportunity to the eighty per cent of the Egyptians who have never been involved in politics to be heard and to participate in a truly representative democracy…. that is rooted in a moderate Egypt, a moderate Islam, subscription to human rights, the basic values of freedom of speech and freedom of religion”[13]. In this way, what needs to occur within this transitional period is economic and social planning which is able to establish a society that is “socially cohesive,[14] economically vibrant and politically democratic”[15] and constitutional reform is critical to this process, mere cosmetic changes to the existing constitution will not be sufficient. The new constitution will need to ensure greater official accountability,[16] checks and balances against minority rule and political representation and participation. Most importantly however is the acknowledgement that any political and material progress will not be possible without the involvement of the incipient civil society and the establishment and recognition of its institutions, for it is now that the real political struggle begins. What makes the success of this process all the more important, is the significance it will have on other Arab countries, in their struggle for freedom, justice and dignity. “This is the first time, when something like that happened in the Arab world, we never had a revolution here for a thousand years possibly and as you can see the major impact in the whole of the Arab world… and we want to make it right, because if we make it right here in Egypt, it will be made right in every part of the Arab world and Egypt would then be the locomotive that will bring the Arab world, the Muslim world if you like, to stability, modernity and moderation, so it’s a unique chance and we should make sure it would not be derailed in any way.”[17] In this way, what is necessary, in conjunction with the action on the ground and really emerging from out of the movements that we have witnessed, is a critical engagement between government, oppositional parties and the people on the street in the search for a desirable, democratic, viable alternative. This must be done, as Sadiki illustrates, through the development of moderate positions which are able and open enough to engage in real politics – to work with and within current powers to bring about a coalition of existing governments and oppositions, on paths of consensus and collusion rather than collision. Neither party will be able to continue to exist in their current state of being. Governments must take seriously the necessity to consult the plurality of civil society and oppositions, “who have not yet learned how to infiltrate governments and build strong political identities and power bases”[18] must realise their obligation to develop coherent and practical strategies that will enable them to adequately and constructively participate in an Arab realpolitik.

[1] Although we must always have a critical approach to the ‘ideal’.

[2] Abdulwahab Hamid Rashid, Khair Eddin Haseeb, to name just a few.

[3] Nietzsche, F. (1874).  On the Uses and Abuses of History for Life.

[4] Distinguished by Constantine Zurayk.

[5] Nietzsche, F. (1874).  On the Uses and Abuses of History for Life.

[6] This can also be extended to the uprisings in Libya, Algeria, Yemen, Bahrain, etc.

[7] Nietzsche, F. (1874).  On the Uses and Abuses of History for Life.

[8] We will explore the previous Al Nahda movement and contrast it with the current awakenings in greater detail in the coming chapters.

[9] Birth of a New Nation: Martin Luther King on Ghana. (19 September, 2009). Modern Ghana, Online.

[10] Apart from the outrageous and tragic events that are taking place in Libya, of which a resolution has still not been reached. However, even with this tremendous loss of life so far, one is inclined to ask, if even this is not a price to pay – it would appear that the many who have already fought, and those who continue to fight, believe it is.

[11] Interview with Mona Seif by Al Jazeera. (3 February, 2011). Monthly Review Zine, Online.

[12] Ghannouchi, R. Interview with Al Jazeera. (3 February, 2011). Al Jazeera English, Online.

[13] El Baradei, M. Interview with Al Jazeera.  (February, 2011) Al Jazeera Live, Online.

[14] The need for social cohesion as echoed by Ferguson and Hume.

[15] El Baradei, M. Interview with Al Jazeera.  (February, 2011) Al Jazeera Live, Online.

[16] As per Kant and many others – this accountability would be kept in check by an empowered civil society.

[17] El Baradei, M. Interview with Al Jazeera.  (February, 2011) Al Jazeera Live, Online.

[18] Sadiki, L. (2009). Rethinking Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy. Oxford University Press, UK.

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