The Arab quest for empowerment

By Elizabeth Kassab
July 11, 2011

A Thought of One’s Own, A Government of One’s Own, An Art of One’s Own

One of the most salient aspects that has struck observers of the recent Arab uprisings has been the absence of slogans directed at outsiders: Israel, the US, the West, imperialism, capitalism, and so on.

The critical gaze turned inward

The fierce criticism, anger and revolt expressed by the huge number of Arab protestors who took to the streets across the region since last December have been directed against their own governments. Whether in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Jordan, Oman, Morocco or even Iraq in both its Arab and Kurdish parts, what they have been voicing is an unambiguous demand for democracy, good governance, freedom, human dignity, and security.

Decades of oppression, injustice, disenfranchisement, humiliation and impoverishment have caused an unspeakable pain that was bound to provoke a defensive reaction at some point. State terror had managed to suppress all forms of opposition, but it could not go on suppressing indefinitely such accumulated anger. A point seemed to have been reached where people could not tolerate it anymore, no matter what.

Knowing full-well the brutality of the foe they were facing, they went out to meet the Machiavellian state repression apparatus and in the process risking their lives for the sake of freedom and dignity. Protestors are being shot, arrested, tortured and kidnapped, even from hospitals; bloggers and writers are being persecuted, and modes of communication are being disrupted.

Yet, demonstrations are continuing pacifically by ordinary citizens and state authorities are being severely challenged (except in Libya where the protests have taken a military turn for reasons outside the remit of this piece). Yes, the barriers of fear have been broken, and people have been demonstrating with extraordinary courage, showing solidarity across towns and frontiers.

It is against their own governments and institutions that people are struggling. But this struggle is not new. It has been going on since the establishment of independent states and the consolidation of the grip of those states on the structures of power. Activists, intellectuals and artists have challenged the abuse of power by their rulers throughout the past decades and have in return borne the brunt of cruel repression.

Today they are joined by the large masses of ordinary men and women in denouncing and rejecting the misuse of power for the unlawful acquisition of wealth, for the manipulation of information, for the illegal use of force, and for the subjugation of people for their own benefits. The lethal conflation of power with business has left Arab societies in deep debt, deprivation and impoverishment on all levels - in their economy, education, or social rights.

The focus on one’s own government as the main source of harm to one’s individual and social well-being, and the struggle to put an end to the far-reaching devastation it has caused, have been described by some Arab commentators as the second Arab war of liberation following the first one that was directed against the colonial powers. While the previous struggle aimed for independence, the present one seeks democracy, i.e., liberation from abusive rulers.

This of course does not mean that various forms of neo-colonial interventions have not been challenging the region, or that Israel has ceased to be an enemy. Rather it means that prevailing rulers have tried to appease these outside challenges, drawing from abroad the legitimacy they lack at home; and / or using these outside threats to legitimize internal repression and the perpetuation of an abusive state of emergency.

The demise of ideologies and the quest for basic rights

This inward focus of Arab critics on their own regimes had already started to grow right after the wave of independence and with the successive establishment of “revolutionary” regimes. It got radicalized after the 1967 defeat against the state of Israel. The installation of strongly oppressive state and paramilitary apparatuses and the application of harsh repressive policies in the name of revolutionary and nationalistic goals had already pushed a number of activists and intellectuals to point the finger at these ominous developments. Their critical voices were severely silenced.

The two opposing camps to the regimes, the leftists on the one hand and the Islamists on the other were suppressed one after the other, with the latter surviving better than the former and becoming the sole possible alternative to the regime, whether as a promise or a threat, depending on one’s point of view. As is well known, many a regime in the Arab world used the threat of the Islamist rise to power to legitimize itself and justify the perpetuation of emergency laws that made all real political life impossible.

On the other hand, both leftist and Islamist ideologies got severely discredited by the repressive regimes that ruled in their name: for instance the Syrian and Iraqi Baath regimes as well as Egypt’s Abdel Nasser governed in the name of socialism and Arab unity, presenting themselves as secular, and the Saudi and the Sudanese regimes claimed to rule in the name of Islam. Their oppressive rule did not make those ideologies credible. Moreover, the decade long Algerian civil war did tarnish the image of Islamist movements. However, this does not mean that people did not maintain some form of more or less strong belief in the promises of a better political Islam, or even in a revitalized Left.

These beliefs remain part of their yearnings, and the coming years will show how they will fare in this changing Arab environment, but it seems that for now the deprivation from basic rights has pushed people toward a focus on the latter, namely on the freedom of speech and worship, on the rule of law and on good governance. This shift of emphasis from ideologies to the demands of rights and democracy is found both in the intellectual critique of the last decades and in the streets of Arab cities today.

A brilliant satirical representation of the bankruptcy of these state ideologies is made by the late Syrian filmmaker, Omar Amiralay, in one of his latest films, Toufan fi Balad al-Baath (Flood in the Land of the Baath). It documents a school in the Syrian inland where a dam was built as a part of a modernizing project, displacing thousands of people and drowning entire villages.

Amiralay films the principal of the school as well as the young pupils parroting state ideologies of progress and patriotism. He did not live to witness the flood of demonstrations that is sweeping his country. He passed away a few weeks before their start.

Amiralay began to document the social realities in Syria in the seventies, cooperating on one or two occasions with the Syrian playwright, Saadallah Wannous. Most of these documentaries were banned in Syria. One of his films, was a long interview with Wannous himself, when the latter was on his deathbed in hospital, reminiscing the hopes and disappointments he experienced as an Arab and as an intellectual, in the seventies and eighties, saying how he contemplated suicide at some point, witnessing the betrayal by Arab regimes of the just national causes, including that of Palestine, and the oppression of their own people.

Wannous’s writings and plays were among the most lucid and critical voices in the aftermath of the 1967 defeat. In 1968, he wrote a play that came soon to be banned in Syria, called Haflat Samar min Ajl Khamseh Huzairan (An Entertainment Evening for June 5 – date of the 6 day war against Israel). His play was part of a growing literature on the causes of and remedies to the Arab debacle. For him, the cause was clear: the disenfranchisement of the people by the rulers. All his life, he denounced the disabling of people’s critical faculties, both in culture and politics.

Cultural and political critique

Many Arab thinkers believed that the 1967 defeat was not only military or diplomatic, but also cultural and intellectual, caused by deep-seated modes of thinking that needed to be altered radically and urgently. A whole corpus of critical writing was produced in the following decades, focused on the inner malaise of Arab societies and individuals, and aimed at offering diagnoses and remedies to it. This endeavour entailed a critical assessment of past attempts at critique, reform, and emancipation.

Obviously the previous struggles for liberation, starting with the colonial time, had not brought about the desired freedom and prosperity. Courses of action as well as modes of thinking needed to be revised. Central concepts, such as nationalism, authenticity, particularism, universalism, tradition, modernity, religion, secularism, and democracy were revisited and reexamined.

In the '70s and '80s, the prevailing approach was rather culturalist. Ills as well as remedies were both found in the Arab-Islamic heritage, which supposedly carried in it cultural elements that shaped the current crisis and / or promised to lift it. But in the early 90s, a more political reading of the malaise started to be articulated, in which the ills of Arab societies were traced back to their beginnings of post-colonial and independent states, to its problems of legitimacy, governance, institutional functions, exercise of power, application of law, manipulation of social tensions and management of wealth. Arbitrary oligarchic rule came to be identified as the fundamental problem of Arab countries.

Interestingly, the critique of despotism had been one of the central themes of the Arab Renaissance in the second half of the 19th century, for instance in the works of Tahtawi, Kawakibi, Abduh, and Abdel Raziq. In fact, what has come to be known as the Arab Renaissance, or Nahda, spans almost a century of intellectual, social and political debates, centered at first in Egypt, between the mid-19th century and the mid-20th century. Much of it came as a reaction to the colonial encounter with Europe, with the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt, followed by the British occupation, and then the subjugation of the Arab lands after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of the First World War to the French and British mandates.

The encounter gave rise to a whole range of questions articulating the civilizational anxiety it provoked given the weak position Egyptians in particular and Arabs in general found themselves in, compared to the military, economic and scientific superiority of the invading other. For many Arab thinkers, the cause of this gap was the despotism that oppressed their countries. They saw in political justice the key to progress, and called for it as the necessary premise for the renewal and rise of their societies.

This political reading of the civilizational malaise receded at the time of the struggles for Arab statehood during the first half of the 20th century, re-appeared after the establishment of the independent states, and gradually gained centrality again towards the end of the century with the painful and growing experience of life in those states. A whole literature, both fictional and non-fictional (including prison literature) articulated this experience, and identified the workings of these repressive regimes.

Unfortunately, this literature and the corpus of critical thinking of the last few decades did not gain due recognition. Attention was rather exclusively devoted to the more “exotic” and “sensational” rise of Islamism – a rise that certainly deserved serious attention, but that did not represent all that was happening on the Arab intellectual and political scene. This literature remained marginal also because it could not be disseminated. The venues of dissemination were simply closed to it by the repressive systems: the media, the educational institutions as well as the political sphere where it would normally have to be publicized, transmitted and practised, were forbidden to those outside the ruling circles - hence the deep despair and helplessness of critical thinkers, activists and people at large across the Arab world.

Indeed, despair and incapacitation summarized the dominating mood of the years preceding the recent revolts. People felt that all avenues of change were blocked in their face, that there was nothing they could do to change anything in their lives, whether politically, economically, or culturally. It is this accumulated despair that eventually led to the explosion of anger, which came to be known as the Arab spring, and which is still unfolding presently. The mass demonstrations were the only form of expression and the only way for people to claim their role in practising politics again, after they were prevented to do so by decades of brutal repression.

Interestingly, by voicing the deep political discontent that had gathered throughout the years and by expressing clear political demands, Arab protesters brought out in the open the grievances and claims that were formulated by critical thinkers. They were moved not by their writings, but by the suffering in their lives, in an unexpected moment of overwhelmed exasperation. The trigger was certainly not cerebral, but rooted in the pain of their lived realities. However, the grievances were well-known to lucid writers who understood the situation, but could not on their own bring about the popular uprising that the change necessitated.

This led some to wonder about the role of the intellectuals in these dramatic junctures: had they proven to be useless, incapable to initiate revolts and unable to predict their coming? I think that for many years now, numerous intellectuals had given up on that “avant-garde” role that was supposed to be theirs, and had adopted a more humble view of their work, namely one of attention to the realities they shared with their fellows and of articulation in analytical and / or creative terms. Intellectual work, like art and politics, was forbidden in the reign of despotism, and if it survived, it was thanks to enormous courage, sobriety and lucidity as well as a thorough labor of self-reflection. The fact remains that both critical thinkers during the last decades and people on the streets today articulate in different ways the same profound discontent about their realities under conditions of oppression.

The search for a sense of self: decolonization, popular uprisings and authenticity

The challenging work of a critique that has been directed inwards has been the core of a maturing process of decolonization – decolonization as a search for an empowered sense of self, for a thought of one’s own, an art of one’s own and a political rule of one’s own. If struggles for independence proved to be arduous and costly, struggles for democracy and human rights proved to be no less onerous and painful. And if political decolonization was difficult and taxing, intellectual and cultural decolonization were no less exigent and tricky. In all cases, it has been a grueling journey and a learning process that required at some point turning the gaze inward and the examination of past modes of action and thought.

This can be witnessed not only in the Arab world, but also in other parts of the post-colonial world, such as in Africa, Latin America and India, where the notion of authenticity, standing for that sense of self, was subjected to critical re-examination, especially in light of the abuses that it lent itself to in the form of jingoism and essentialism. I think of Senghor’s “négritude” that was to designate the specificity of “the” African “nature,” combining emotionality with sensuality, and distinguishing itself radically from “the” European “nature.” “Négritude” was supposed to express the authentic African self. Since then, this notion was subjected to heated debates among African thinkers, among them Paulin Hountondji, who offered a critical deconstruction of it.

Sartre summarized the whole post-colonial tension between self-affirmation and authenticity on the one hand and freedom and critique on the other in his famous preface to an anthology of black poetry entitled “Orphée noir.” Parallel discussions of authenticity are also found in the Latin American spheres, led by thinkers such as Leopold Zea and Octavio Paz from Mexico, Ofelia Schutte from Cuba, and Roberto Schwarz from Brazil. Similar voices can be heard from India, like those of Ashis Nandy, Chandra Mohanty and Uma Narayan.

The voluntaristic realization of the nationalistic project, often understood in authoritarian and homogenizing terms, revealed the difficulty of accomplishing independence and democracy. The anti-colonial struggle, the reaction against the definitions of the self imposed by the colonial other, often led to excesses of self-glorification and / or self-denigration that were not easy to overcome. Much evil was done in the name of authenticity by way of a fanatic and also narrow nativism and obscurantism. Recovering a balanced, healthy and empowering sense of self has not been an easy task.

In most post-colonial contexts, unsuccessful attempts at reaching such a sense have given way to an inward-looking self-reflection that has on the one hand problematized the indigenous as well as the authentic and the traditional instead of taking them for granted, and critically re-considered on the other hand the notions of modernity and universality.

This self-reflection has produced a complex and mature post-colonial thought, across regions, religions, races and ethnic background. Much of it has been played out in the arts, in which post-colonial artists, including Arab artists, have on the one hand expressed a deep-rootedness in their cultural backgrounds and the lived experiences and concerns of their life-worlds, and on the other hand a wide openness to, and critical appropriation of, arts and cultures around the world. Their works are no longer anxious to measure up to the Western “original,” or “reference,” nor are they aimed at “representing the native.” They speak for “themselves”, anchored in a local world among others. Of course, the lures of the market, especially the ones that developed in the recent years in the rich Gulf countries, challenge further the endeavor and survival of these artists. But then this is another story for another time.


© Elizabeth Suzanne Kassab studied philosophy at American University of Beirut, and continued her graduate studies in philosophy at Fribourg University in Switzerland. Her overall interest has been the philosophy of culture, both Western and non-Western, with a particular focus on post-colonial debates on cultural malaise, authenticity and critique. Her book Modern Arab Thought: Cultural Critique in Comparative Perspective was published in 2009 by Columbia University Press. She is currently working on her forthcoming new book on the theme of “Revolutions and Enlightenment in the Arab World”.

This article, “The Arab quest for empowerment: A thought of one’s own, a government of one’s own, and art of one’s own” first appeared in Newsletter 122 – Project 1975, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam Bureau, in June 2011, pp 5-10, and is reproduced on Ekklesia with grateful acknowledgment.

Also by Elizabeth Kassab on Ekklesia: 'Critical Arab thinking and cultural malaise' -

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