On power in the Arab World

Adham Khorshed/Demotix. All rights reserved.

the current state of Arab political order—ravaged by years of civil war, revolution, and
political unrest—the ability of the current elites to remain
in power seems to be counterintuitive.

use of overwhelming physical force, along with the rhetoric of the “war on
terror” and the rise of Islamist extremist groups, seem to be the main tactics
used by Arab autocrats to regain their grip on power. The rise of these groups has
provided them with the ideological justification for repression as well as a
solid support base, particularly among urban middle classes and minority

partially explains the anatomy of power in the Arab World, but ignores its
nature. Civil society, orientalism and identity politics have been playing a
significant role in the foundations of Arab autocracy long before these
revolutions kicked off.

Civil society

society here is defined in the broadest sense of the word, and includes
schools, trade unions, even the family as an extension of the state. In other
words, there is no distinction between civil and political society; there is no
space for ideologically driven oppositional movements to appear and develop
within the confines of civil society.

in all its forms, is severely repressed by one or more of these civil society groups,
without the need for intervention by the state. As such, repression is
decentralized. This was a major factor contributing to the fragmentation of Arab
revolutionary movements and their inability to form cohesive fronts against the
autocrats. The state’s suffocation of civil society has effectively inhibited
the development of sophisticated oppositional movements capable of challenging
the regime.

The development
of a social class’ self-consciousness, as a distinct group that has class
interests that are opposed to the interests of the ruling elites, has been
inhibited. This is why there was no ideological clarity when the revolts kicked
off. This made revolutionary movements rejectionist in nature, and allowed the
elites to easily outmaneuver them.

this lack of ideological clarity reduced the ability of revolutionary movements
to attract followers from the masses, and from those who were politically
apathetic prior to the revolt. In this new era of mass politics, lack of an
ideological message proved to be the Achilles heel of revolutionary movements.

The suffocation
of civil society combined with the weakness of civil resistance movements, can
partially explain the rise of armed extremist groups across the Arab world.

the state seals off the realm of civil society, there is no alternative but for
the opposition to take up arms. The starkest example is that of Libya, where
civil society groups were completely swallowed up by the state. In Tunisia, on
the other hand, trade unions remained independent and outside state control. This
is why they are now playing an effective role in Tunisia’s transition to


inferiority Arabs feel creates a sense of alienation from
one’s self, culture and identity. The Arab does not only feel inferior, he/she
also feels trapped in an inferior world that cannot be escaped, which also
contributes to the antidemocratic tendency among the urban middle classes and
their support for autocracy.

Ragnar Weilandt/Flickr. All rights reserved.

The post-colonial
Arab elites seem to have adopted the same ideological justification for the
repression of the masses as their previous colonial masters: the supposed inferiority of the “oriental”, and the need to educate and
reform them. This racism is not only confined to the upper strata of society,
it cuts across classes and ideologies. It can even be seen among Islamist
groups, to devastating effect.

In the context of colonial history, the center of life for the Europeans was the colonial capital, and there is astonishing continuity in the post-colonial epoch in terms of the views held by the rural poor towards the urban center, which is culturally associated with the urban middle classes.

There is a genuine widespread belief in the
superiority of elites, especially the urban middle class. These views seep into
everyday language. In Egypt, for example, the rural poor call Cairo “Masr”,
which means Egypt. This shows the inherent belief in the superiority of the
urban center by the rural periphery, and the association of the center with
civilization and the periphery with backwardness and barbarism.

essence, the rural poor view themselves as inferior to the urban center,
justifying and reinforcing the view held by the urban elites. It was only a few
days ago that an Egyptian justice minister claimed that the son of a garbage
man could never be a judge, because of his social class.     

orientalism not only acts as justification for repression by the elites, but also acts as a hindrance to the intellectual development of Arab political
movements. The inferiority that Arab intellectuals feel results in the stunting of the development of ideologies, which
could potentially offer indigenous solutions to the current problems of the
Arab world. This sense of inferiority has intensified with the failure of the
Arab revolt.

Identity politics

politics of identity have steadily been shifting away from inclusive towards
more exclusive identities, allowing Arab elites to play  different social
groups against each other in order to consolidate their grip on power.

process can be traced back to the gradual decay of Arab identity, which allowed
the different regimes to compete with each other for leadership of the Arab
world. This
process of fragmentation mirrors the decay of the political order, caused by the declining support base of Arab elites.

As this
base decreased, so did the ability and desire of these elites to project their power
beyond their borders, focusing instead on domestic consolidation. This
led to the emergence of subnational identities, allowing the regime to
consolidate its position by representing one of these groups.

politics include not only sectarian identities, but also class identities,
which cross the urban/rural divide. This play on identity politics interacts
with the prevalent orientalism in Arab societies, where an unjustified sense of
superiority is abound amongst the elites, especially the urban middle classes, giving
the autocrats the opportunity to play on the division between the urban rich
and poor to remain in power; soliciting the support of one social group against
the other.

revolutionary movements have failed to grasp the role of identity politics in these
struggles. Unlike the Iranian revolutionary movement, which claimed to
represent the “mostazafin” or the downtrodden, and were committed to including
the traditional merchant class and the urban poor, the Arab revolutionary
movements made no such claim.

Since these groups did not develop a “revolutionary consciousness”, they
failed to represent any specific social group, talking to everyone
and no one. The aim of these movements should have been to create a solid base
of support among specific social groups. Instead they tried to appeal to

one could argue that Arab autocrats’ power does not solely depend on the rise
of Islamist extremism or on physical coercion. It has deeper roots in the
nature of political order: the role of civil society, orientalism, and identity

future of the Arab revolt depends on the intellectual development of revolutionary
movements. Their ability to critically examine their societies, offer indigenous solutions, and take the struggle against the regime to the realm
of civil society, armed with a strong political message in an ideologically
attractive package.

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