Overcoming the Arab Malaise

The author would like to thank Yoni Molad, Rob Pascoe and Virginie Rey for their constructive criticisms of this essay.

… we can still force destiny’s hand by starting with what is most urgent, what is indispensable to recovery: that we Arabs abandon our fantasy of a matchless past and finally see our real history, so that we can then be true to it.

Samir Kassir, Being Arab, 2004

We are all truly blessed to be present at the historic moment of a massive epistemic shift, not merely in the geopolitics of the region, or the planetary configurations of power, but even more crucially, in the moral and political imagination that we must muster to come to terms with it.

Hamid Dabashi, ‘The False Anxiety of Influence’, 2011


The recent outbreak of civil unrest in the Arab world has once more put that region in the spotlight of the international media. The spirit of revolt at the heart of the uprisings has taken the world by surprise. So too has the speed at which the inclination to revolt has spread, inflaming country after country like spattering wildfire. Since the flames were first lit (metaphorically and literally) in Tunisia, smouldering fires of protest have ignited all over the region, fuelled by an apparently unrelenting momentum. The popular movements for political change have provided fodder for endless hours of reportage and analysis. They seem to demand commentary. Both traditional, ‘static’ forms of media (newspapers, television bulletins) and newer, apparently more ‘dynamic’ forms of communication (internet blogs, social networking sites, mobile phone networks) have been powerful tools in the dissemination of information, within and without the Arab world.

As ever in the construction of meaning about the Arab world, the quality of reporting has been highly varied in quality. All too often it is obscured by ideological blind spots or phenomenological misunderstandings. For instance, the scope of vocabulary used by most Western journalists to describe the unfolding events is remarkably limited, striking the critical listener as hollow, crude or subtly misleading. Something is lost in translation. In descriptions of political actors and currents, one hears all sorts of dubious terminology marshalled in the service of explanation, almost always without the appropriate shades of definition. Reporters speak of ‘secularists’, ‘liberals’, ‘Islamists’, ‘moderates’, ‘fundamentalists’ or ‘leftists’. Hearing this, you think you know what is approximated by the terms, but doubt and scepticism remain about the accuracy of the designation.

In a more surprising trend, historical analogy is suddenly the fashion of the day in political analysis. As the spark of ‘people power’ jumped from Tunisia to Egypt and the world’s attention shifted in tow, many voices were quick to compare the Egyptian uprising to the Iranian Revolution of 1979. To these commentators the conditions seemed identical: firstly, there was a pro-Western leader, increasingly detested by ‘the masses’; secondly, popular resistance to repression at the hands of the internal security organs of the state; and thirdly, there was an Islamist opposition allegedly waiting in the wings for its moment to capitalise on discontent. On the first two points of purported commonality, the comparison has some resonance. However, on the third point, Slavoj Žižek astutely questioned whether the apparent danger posed by the forces of Egyptian fundamentalism was in actuality a figment of certain liberal commentators’ imaginations. In his Guardian article of 1 February 2011, Žižek maintained that the likelihood of an Islamist appropriation (presumably by the Muslim Brotherhood) was not supported by the facts on the ground. In a similar vein, in a perceptive piece published in Al Jazeera, Hamid Dabashi dismissed comparisons with 1979, or for that matter the collapse of the Berlin Wall, or Tiananmen Square, but couldn’t resist flirting with another historical comparison: 1789. Just as the French Revolution was incomprehensible to contemporaneous observers because it changed the very nature of political discourse, the emerging Arab Revolution, according to Dabashi, holds an equivalent potential for paradigmatic political transformation.

Less immediately predictable historical parallels are also being drawn. Tariq Ali sees in current events striking resemblances with the revolutions in Europe in 1848. ‘Like Europeans in 1848’, says Ali, Arabs in 2011 are ‘fighting against foreign domination’, ‘violations of their democratic rights’, and ‘against an elite blinded by its own economic wealth’. (This is fair enough, but hardly unique to 1848: virtually all popular uprisings in human history have contained combinations of these classic grievances.) Yet another comparison has been made, to the movements for democratic change in Eastern Europe during the collapse of the Soviet Union. Former Middle East correspondent David Hirst has claimed that the uprisings that swept through the former Eastern bloc in 1989 are the ‘obvious precedent’ for the present Arab convulsions. Perry Anderson, for his part, has also invoked the Hispanic American Wars of Liberation of 1810–25.

The wide range of revolutionary precedents invoked by various writers is striking. Even more striking, however, is the near total lack of reference to the histories of the countries in question (although Anderson’s contribution is an important exception). Rather than being interpreted as phenomena occurring within the course of the internal history of each country, or the history of the Arab world at large, the upheavals are subjected to the dead weight of foreign exemplars. These imported historical archetypes, clumsily selected and grafted upon the present developments, are rarely enlightening. Why then are they resorted to? Dabashi suggests they derive from intellectual laziness:

The Tahrir Square of 2011 is not the Tiananmen Square of 1989. Such lazy clichés, phony metaphors, and easy allegories send people after a useless goose chase preventing them from properly seeing the events in Tunisia and Egypt.

Notwithstanding Dabashi’s critique, one might argue that this tendency to compare current events to past revolutions from elsewhere in the world is benign. It could be seen as an understandable, instinctive retreat to a familiar history; as springing from a desire to connect what is unfolding to our own, or our known, revolutions; to a history we comprehend. If you were being generous, you might say that it simply belies an ignorance of the course of Arab history and assumes an equivalent ignorance in its audience. In any case, the cumulative effect of this sort of misreading and its attendant silence on Arab history is the reinforcement of longstanding prejudices about the nature of Arab society. It is an interpretative colonialism

built on the worst of the old Orientalist tropes, still buried deep in the collective unconscious of the West (and reproduced unconsciously by writers who should know better).

One of the most pernicious of these tropes is the notion that the Islamic world is static and ‘outside history’, in contrast to the dynamism and unrelenting capacity for innovation in the post-Enlightenment West. Recent revivals of this notion of historical stasis expound an accompanying myth: that modernity has passed the Arab world by. Most of the examples of ‘analysis by comparison’ presented above contain precisely this implicit message, presented in a condescendingly congratulatory manner: by holding up an historical archetype of positive progress, against which the current Arab Revolution is measured, it is as though the Arabs are being applauded for making a belated entry into history and finally arriving at some decisive moment in modernity. David Hirst gives us a condensed version of this:

In rallying at last to this now universal but essentially Western value called democracy, they [the Arabs] are in effect rejoining the world, catching up with history that has left them behind.

Not only is the language here used by Hirst mildly offensive, but it is effectively oblivious to past protests, revolts and social movements within the Arab world. His―and others’―resorting to historical red herrings obscures any sense of there being a tradition of popular protest in Egypt, or Tunisia, or Jordan, or Algeria, or Syria, or Yemen. Instead of Europe in 1848, why not the struggle led by Abd al-Qadir a decade earlier against the French in Algeria? Why not the Syrian Revolt of 1925? Or protests against the excesses of Ottoman rule in Lebanon during WWI? Or perhaps the more pertinent question is: why has this history been obscured from popular consciousness? This is no simple question; however, one of the chief reasons for the maintenance of essentialist, ahistorical constructions of the Arab world is the persistently marginal position of endogenous Arab intellectuals. The original and insightful contributions of local thinkers are all too often overlooked in the scramble for authoritative, ‘expert’ interpretations of events.

In a visionary work penned in 2004, at a nadir of pessimism about the capacity for internally engineered political change in the Arab world, Lebanese-Palestinian author Samir Kassir offered a powerful counter-vision of renewal. Translated into English under the title Being Arab (incidentally, the same title as a recent edition of Arena Journal), Kassir’s intent is better captured in the original French title, Considérations sur le Malheur Arabe, or Thoughts on Arab Unhappiness. Kassir’s short treatise begins with a gloomy appraisal of the political situation throughout the Arab world in the early 21st century, and his view that the deep malaise present in virtually all contemporary Arab societies is a product of the failure of the state to genuinely realise the aspirations of the people.

The Arab malaise manifests most clearly in the sense of ‘permanent powerlessness’ felt by Arab societies vis-à-vis the rest of the world and in relation to their own internal political structures. This pervasive feeling is the result of decades of slowly-dying faith in the post-colonial state; the gradual emptying-out of its legitimacy and credibility. The crisis of the state, for Kassir, is a crisis of legitimacy containing several dimensions: a process of state institutions ‘progressively losing substance’ since independence; governments relinquishing economic sovereignty, wittingly or otherwise; rulers declaring permanent states of emergency on the pretext of threats to internal security, but with the primary intent to silence dissent and neutralise internal opposition. The most perverse feature of the Arab malaise has been the stripping members of Arab societies of any meaningful political agency: ‘One cannot’, argues Kassir, ‘speak of “citizens” in countries where the ruling powers, republicans though they

may be, see only subjects’. These features are common to all Arab states, regardless of their formal structure and declared ideological orientation. In 2004, Kassir could rightly see them in republican dictatorships with quasi-monarchic, hereditary modes of succession (Egypt, Libya, Syria) as well as in the monarchies proper (most of the Gulf states) and even in ‘pseudo-democracies’ such as Jordan.

Kassir’s diagnosis of the sources of discontent among the Arab peoples is remarkably prescient, prophetic even. One has the sense, reading Being Arab in 2011, that Kassir was anticipating the terms upon which the present struggle might be waged. However, his political project was conceived with wider goals than the overthrowing of ruling regimes and restoration of democratic rights. More fundamental to genuine social and cultural revival in the Arab world, he insists in Being Arab, is the intellectual task of reclaiming critical engagement with modern Arab history, in order to properly understand the causes of Arab unhappiness. In other words, it requires casting a fresh eye on modern Arab history. Kassir then proceeds to sketch his own reading of this history (as well as being a journalist and cultural critic, he was trained as an historian). In his analysis, he turns the traditional historical orthodoxy on its head: ‘the Arab malaise’, he argues, ‘is not the result of modernity but of modernity’s collapse’.

Kassir’s call to resurrect the forgotten history of Arab modernity is at odds with a certain reactionary tradition of historiography on the Middle East, born in the age of classical Orientalism and continuing in some strands of historical scholarship today. One particularly insidious version of Arabic-Islamic history holds that following the mythologised ‘golden age’ of Islam, thereafter the region slipped into an inexorable, irreversible decline. This reading is the intellectual brainchild of nineteenth-century European historiography, obsessed with the ‘rise’ and ‘fall’ of civilisations (most famously represented by Gibbon’s The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire). The crude teleological contour of this historical vision was most convenient for European opinion-makers advocating intervention in the affairs of the Ottoman Empire, the putative ‘sick man of Europe’. It gave an intellectual basis to thinly veiled imperialist ambitions of the European powers. If the Islamic world was destined for decline, then Europe had a moral imperative to intervene.

The first generation of Arab nationalist historians adopted this historical schema with an important alteration: the long decline, or ‘age of decadence’ (asr al-Intihat) eventually gave way to the nahda, or ‘Renaissance’, just as the European Renaissance brought Christendom out of the mediaeval ‘Dark Ages’ in traditional accounts of Europe’s history. As Kassir argues, the neat symmetry of this tripartite structure (rise, fall, rise) is dubious in the extreme. ‘Worse still’, he continues,

due to the endemic lack of historical memory that is the curse of contemporary Arab culture, people are forgetting that this failed renaissance had even taken place. All that’s left of Arab history is decadence without end and a golden age that can never be recovered.

This collective amnesia with respect to the history of Arab modernity is not only politically paralysing, it has also produced a formidable intellectual cul-de-sac that Kassir insists we must strive to overcome. The Arab malaise may well have set in by the latter decades of the twentieth century, but this was not the only scenario imaginable. The remarkable transformations of the nineteenth century―the processes of political and constitutional reform, of social adaptation to technological change, of development of novel conceptions of patriotism and of cultural renaissance―all held out the promise of a particular Arab

modernity that might stand on its own two feet, in creative contradistinction to Europe. One especially pertinent question to ask, from the vantage point of the current so-called Arab Spring, is whether we can find in this forgotten history any precedents for the current revolutionary spirit. Is Dabashi correct in his assertion that understanding the shift in ‘the planetary configurations of power’ requires a new ‘moral and political imagination’? Is Jeremy Salt likewise accurate in his pronunciation that ‘There is nothing in the entire history of the Middle East that stands as a precedent for this phenomenal eruption of the human spirit’?

To what historic examples of revolution in the Arab world can we legitimately and usefully compare the current uprisings?

Insofar as the present revolts are broadly representative, popular uprisings―comprising members of the working classes and middle classes, rural folk and urbanites―they recall the large scale anti-colonial resistance movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The paradigmatic modern example of Arab insurrection en masse against foreign imperialism is that of Algerian resistance to French invasion and occupation. This struggle developed around the charismatic figure of Abd Al-Qadir, who declared a jihad in 1832, two years after the fall of Algiers, in order to reclaim complete sovereignty over all of the country’s territory. Despite the ultimate failure of this long struggle (Abd Al-Qadir finally surrendered to the French in 1847), it was to have a lasting resonance, becoming both a model and a source of inspiration for other resistance movements throughout the Arab world. The other noteworthy mass uprising against foreign domination was the Great Syrian Revolt of 1925, the popular movement seeking to expel, once again, a French colonial regime. That revolt was brutally repressed on the orders of the high commissioner, General Sarrail, who subjected the ancient core of the city of Damascus to heavy aerial bombardment. (These are but two historical specimens of popular anti-colonial revolt; other noteworthy examples include the Iraqi uprising against British in 1920–2; the Palestinian riots against British and Zionist collusion in 1929 and again in 1936; not to mention the eventual success of the Algerian fight for independence in the 1950s-1960s).

There are obvious problems with such comparisons, however. The critical differences between the instances cited above and current events include that the former were against foreign invaders, not indigenous leaders; that most of the anti-colonial revolts crystallised around resistance leaders, whereas the present uprisings are notable for their absence of clear leadership and lack of top-down organisation; and, finally, that most of the anti-colonial movements did not have an explicit message of socio-political reform (with the important exception of certain strands of Palestinian nationalism). The anti-colonial movements spoke a language of emancipation, but they were emancipatory only in the limited sense of regaining sovereignty and independence from foreign domination, rather than emancipatory in the sense of containing a progressive program for political and social change. In other words, they sought primarily to restore national self-determination and territorial integrity, rather than to liberate the individual through the granting of civil rights. The contemporary uprisings hold out the emancipatory promise of greater rights for political subjects: whether this promise is fulfilled is another matter, but there can be little doubt that this is what people are fighting for. Those protesting today want revolution, not restoration.

To the extent that the current upheavals have a distinctive focus on economic justice, we could usefully cite popular uprisings in support of improved conditions of living. The 1977 Bread Riots in Egypt, for instance, combined revolt born of poverty with public cynicism towards the propaganda of governments. Following Egypt’s reclaiming of the Sinai Peninsula

from Israel at the conclusion of the October 1973 war, Sadat’s political capital was in high stocks and he felt bolstered to introduce a series of economic reforms aimed at liberalising the economy and encouraging private foreign investment. This program, known as Al-Infitah (‘the opening’), involved the repeal of many of the socialist policies introduced by Nasser. The most controversial of these changes was the sudden removal of subsidies to basic food items such as bread, sugar, rice and tea, which had previously kept these staples affordable for the majority of impoverished Egyptians. Infuriated, crowds took to the streets of Cairo, attacking symbols of state control (such as police stations and government buildings) in scenes not dissimilar to the civil disobedience in recent months. Their incensement at the failed promises of the regime was encapsulated in a simple rhyming chant: Ya batl al-‘ubour, wayn al-futour? (‘O hero of the crossing, where is our breakfast?’ ―the reference being to the mythologised crossing of the Suez Canal by Egyptian troops in the October war.)

Sadat called in the army to quell the disturbances, leading to at least 150 deaths. Simultaneously, he restored the subsidies in an attempt to appease the protestors and restore order to the streets of the capital. (There were near identical protests in Tunisia when subsidies on foodstuffs were removed there in 1984, as Jeremy Salt reminds us.) A surface of calm returned to Cairo, although the underlying anger never really subsided. Indeed, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the present popular uprising, thirty-four years later, is in many respects the reawakened expression of this same rage. However, while both protest movements share a common disillusionment born of powerlessness and poverty, the present uprising has much wider terms of reference and a more ambitious―if not universally agreed upon―program for political change.

Although it may seem paradoxical and counter-intuitive, the most useful revolutions with which to compare the current protest movements may indeed be those that brought many of the ruling regimes now discredited to power in the first instance. Some of these―like Nasser’s revolution against the British-puppet King Farouk, or Qaddafi’s ‘bloodless coup’―drew upon the anti-imperialist tradition, but this was only one dimension. More fundamentally, the post-WWII revolutions across the Arab world―especially in Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Syria, and Iraq―were inspired by indigenously-articulated strands of modernising, revolutionary socialism. Each brought secular nationalist parties to power with great hope for improving the plight of the most disenfranchised and disadvantaged members of Arab society (then conceived in idealist terms as an indivisible whole). Let us not forget that the Ba’ath (or ‘Resurrection’) Party, before its division into rival Syrian and Iraqi branches and its perversion by authoritarian leaders in both countries, was conceived as the vehicle for progressive social revolution. Michel Aflaq, the party’s principal theorist, called not only for political unity across the Arab world based on common history and culture, but for a new, resurrected society that would be built upon an end to class-based economic exploitation and that would uphold universal democratic rights.

Nor should the achievements of mid-twentieth-century social reform be forgotten, even if the states responsible for their implementation also traded in violence, fear and intimidation. Improvements in rights for workers, the introduction of universal primary and secondary education, as well as vastly improved healthcare, are among the undeniable social advances of this period. Seen as the inheritors of these post-independence social revolutions, the contemporary uprisings are in effect calling their once revolutionary rulers to account. They could be seen―even if the protestors don’t necessarily see things this way―are reasserting many of the values of that older revolution that have been betrayed and made a mockery of.

Why is recovering the autonomy of Arabic history important in the context of present developments? First and foremost, excavating this neglected history reminds us that these protests have not ‘come from nowhere, out of the blue’. On the contrary, there is a long, venerable tradition of popular uprising in favour of emancipatory reform, even if at times limited in its political vision. Moreover, the apparent unco-ordination and mutual inspiration of the various protest movements should remind us, if ever we needed reminding, of the powerful cultural and historical unity that still defines the Arab world. For all that the failure of political pan-Arabism in the second half of the twentieth century left an ideological vacuum―anxiously filled by either universalist Islamism or regionalist particularism in the various corners of the Arab world―an underlying sense of exclusive commonality has prevailed. The crowds in the street are undoubtedly angry, first and foremost, at the temporal, incumbent rulers of the contemporary nation-states. They are rallying against localised grievances and the particular conditions of life within each polity, but the significance of their struggles is transnational. The protestors in each country are emboldened by the actions of their neighbours, once imagined as co-citizens in the greater Arab nation.


Samir Kassir is no longer here to witness the extraordinary events taking place in the Arab world. His life was cut brutally short by a bomb on a Beirut street on 2 June 2005. It was planted in his Alfa-Romeo and exploded as he turned the ignition. Forces of darkness in the region, whose identity has long been presumed but has remained concealed, conspired to snuff out this brave voice. They, his shadowy assailants, have never been brought to justice. However, there may yet be a post-mortem poetic justice, depending on the outcomes of the present revolt. Kassir would surely have been heartened by the knowledge that people throughout the Arab world are once more taking control of their own destiny. After all, it was he who wrote that, ‘if they are to overcome their malaise, the Arabs have no choice but to do it themselves’. Let us hope that as they do so, the wider world might come to better appreciate the autonomous Arab revolutionary tradition, and that in time, the Arab struggle for social justice might also take aim at historical amnesia.

By Stephen Pascoe

Stephen Pascoe is a historian with a special interest in the Middle East. He currently tutors in Arabic at Janet Clarke Hall, University of Melbourne.


T. Ali, ‘Western hegemony dented but not destroyed’, originally published in The Guardian, syndicated in The Age, 24 February 2011.

P. Anderson, ‘On the Concatenation in the Arab World’, New Left Review 68, 2011.

W.L. Cleveland and M. Bunton, A History of the Modern Middle East, 4th edition. Westfield Press, Boulder, 2009.

H. Dabashi, ‘The False Anxiety of Influence’, Al Jazeera, 12 February 2011.

D. Hirst, ‘Arabs Rejoin the World’, The Age, 22 February 2011.

S. Kassir, Being Arab, translated by Will Hodson, Verso, London, 2006.

J. Salt, ‘The Great Arab Revolution’, Arena Magazine, no.111, 2011.

S. Žižek, ‘Why Fear the Arab Revolutionary Spirit?’, The Guardian, 1 February 2011.

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