Dr. Hazran is an associate fellow at the Truman Institute of Hebrew University and teaches at the Open University in Israel.
One of the difficulties a historian faces is addressing events as they unfold and before they have crystallized. Only the passage of time provides the distance that allows for the discovery of what is hidden in sources, the gathering of documents and the comparison of narratives. While I regard the historian's principal task to be investigating the past rather than making prognoses for the future, I shall offer a preliminary reading of the Arab upheavals that emerged in Tunisia and spread to Egypt, Libya and Syria.
The primary aim of this paper is to outline the central dynamics of the protest movement that has engulfed the Arab world since late 2010, with particular focus on the Syrian uprising. These watershed events promise to reshape the political, social, and cultural scene. They surprised all analysts, observers and specialists, without exception, raising new doubts concerning the feasibility of constructing theoretical models that attempt to extrapolate human social behaviors. By launching popular revolutions for wholesale change, the Arab people have overturned the claim of the "helpless Arab" and the logic of the inevitability of defeat. The creativity of these revolutions — in their content, slogans, and dynamism — has led to their influence even on the social protest movement recently witnessed in Israel. Perhaps the best affirmation of their authenticity lies in the fact that they were not born of political parties and ideologies but embody the popular will to reformulate the relationship between the people and the state on the basis of a new contract based on citizenship and civil rights. In the words of the former leftist and current liberal Lebanese intellectual Hazem Saghiyyah, the common denominator is the genuine demand for freedom.1
With regard to academic discourse, however, the most important dimension of the Arab revolutions is that they have overturned the classic Orientalist argument long promoted by the prominent historian Bernard Lewis: that revolution has never been an endurable behavioral pattern within Islamic political culture. In 1972, Lewis published an article entitled "Islamic Concepts of Revolution," in which he argued that the "Western doctrine of the right to resist bad government is alien to Islamic thought. Instead, there is an Islamic doctrine of the duty to resist impious government, which in early times was of crucial historical significance," directly contributing to its defeatist and submissive political stance.2 The recent revolutions have also overthrown, however, the longstanding idea held by establishment scholars — and intrinsically linked to Sunni power since the Seljuk era (1055-1258) — that believers are religiously bound to obey the sultan absolutely: "Better an unjust king than to overthrow him and be left with anarchy."3
THE ARAB "SPRING"
The most salient feature of the Arab Spring would appear to be the fact that the protest movement is still limited to Arab countries characterized by a republican political structure exposed to the revolutionary ideologies of Pan-Arab nationalism and socialism. Those Arab countries with monarchical traditions and absolutism — most prominently, Jordan and Morocco — have succeeded either in averting or controlling the protests. This division calls into question not only the viability of the nation-building projects in each of the countries affected by the Arab Spring (with the exceptions of Egypt and Tunisia), but also our understanding of the intersection between modernity and tradition in the Middle Eastern context. As of now, it is the most traditionalist and conservative monarchical regimes that promote modernization projects and manipulate modernity to subjugate their societies.
Second, the rise of the Islamists is a pivotal sign of the current phase, setting a new challenge before society and the state. The Turkish experience, however, suggests that the involvement of Islamists in the democratic process can integrate these forces within the basic rules of the democratic game, thereby neutralizing the political ramifications of their metaphysical thought patterns.4 Although the West continues to be worried by the rise of Islamists, its fears are not inevitable, permanent or ideological. Just as its closest allies are the tribal kingdoms of the Gulf Cooperation Council and those controlling society in the name of religion and Arab cultural authenticity, it is not inconceivable that the West can craft a formula for coexistence in the next stage. The United States, in fact, employed the doctrine of jihad in its struggle with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan between the years 1979-88.5 However, rather than dividing Arab political society during the revolutions into two camps — Islamists vs. secularists/liberals — it might be more beneficial to adopt the insight of Fawaz Gerges that there are political forces that combine Islam and modernity. The problem is that they were not organized into political movements. In Tunisia, 84 parties were registered in July 2011, including those similar to the parties established by Islamists in past years.6
Third, most conspicuous by their lack of participation in the Arab revolutions were the intellectuals, whom the Syrian intellectual George Tarabishi characterizes as being "on strike from thinking." Did intellectuals play any role at all in sparking the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain or Syria?
Fourth, in the absence of intellectuals the pivotal role of the military establishment in the revolutions became even clearer. The neutral position of the army in Egypt and Tunisia ultimately decided matters in favor of the downfall of the regime, while the army's position in Syria continues to be a primary factor in the regime's persistence. In Yemen and Libya, the fracturing of the army gave birth to civil strife. We continue to see the aftereffects of these decisions, except in Bahrain. This historical fact has raised real questions about the extent of the political maturity of Gulf societies while reaffirming the importance of economic, social and quality-of-life factors in generating the Arab revolutions. The oil boom experienced by the Gulf States provides them with an effective tool to shape and manage popular will and to check any attempt to alter the status quo.
Finally, we must note the motivating dynamics of the Arab revolutions and rebellions. The demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia did not emerge from the mosques but broke out in public squares among the youth and urban middle class, exhausted by poverty, unemployment, marginalization and authoritarianism. In this sense, the upheavals essentially constituted a response to internal dynamics, reflecting the depth of the social and political predicament in which the Arab countries found themselves. With the exception of the states of the Gulf, they also embodied the failure of the ruling elite in countries governed by revolutionary and socialist regimes. This group failed not only to provide its citizens with a dignified life, despite the state's resources, but also to forge a true national identity. Pre-state loyalties — clannism, tribalism and, most dangerous of all, sectarianism — rose to the surface, especially in countries characterized by ethnic and religious diversity.7
Since the 2003 overthrow of the Baath regime in Iraq, the Arab intelligentsia has been occupied with what it calls the decline of territorial national identity and the rise of new patterns of localism — i.e., sectarianism.8 Although Clifford Geertz does not classify sectarianism as a primordial tie, the practice of politicized religiosity or sectarianism may nonetheless be defined as such. These patterns of political organization and behavior are based religious identity, a type of primordial attachment.9 Already in the early 1960s, Geertz pointed to the difficulty of juggling primordial ties and the national-political institutions of the modern state. In fact, he considered this direct conflict to be the most serious and intractable problem faced by the new states.10 Second, this pattern of parochial identity is likely to "involve alternative definitions of what the nation is." Even more important, however, this identity pattern carries the potential to subordinate people's loyalty to the state (their "civil sentiments") to this primordial affiliation.
In pointing out the consequences of politicizing primordial attachment to enhance the state's integrity, Geertz distinguishes between primordial and civil sentiments. While primordial affiliations can threaten governments or forms of government, primordialism can endanger the very existence of a state and induce partition of its territories and irredentism — or, at the very least, reduce the state's boundaries of control. As Geertz phrases it, "Civil discontent finds its natural outlet in the seizing, legally or illegally, of the state apparatus. Primordial discontent strives more deeply and is satisfied less easily."11
Given the escalation of the Syrian crisis, it seems fitting to close by addressing the Iraqi and Lebanese cases. Both Lebanon and Iraq experienced a total collapse of their institutions and civil society. Moreover, the Shiite community, the largest in both countries, has become increasingly dominated by sectarian and religiously oriented forces. It is clear that the alignment of political and sectarian forces in Lebanon since 2005 and in Iraq since 2003 hampers any popular mobilization aimed at changing the structure of the political system. This is not to speak of the fact that neither Lebanon nor Iraq suffers from the absence of an active state role or — in the words of Waddah Shararah — a lack of consensus regarding anything but the prevention of state collapse and disintegration, rather than state dominance over the people.12 To this must be added the fear and uncertainty regarding the situation in Syria, together with the self-induced sectarian monolithism which hinders mobilization in Lebanon and Iraq.
The challenge of sectarianism obviously also applies to Syria, sufficient reason to assume that it will have a corrosive impact on the process of creating a democratic alternative and may even threaten Syria's existence as a polity.
THE SYRIAN UPRISING
"Syria is the fault line in the Middle East . . . generally very diverse in ethnicities, in sects, in religions, but Syria is the most diverse . . . When you play with it, you will have [an] earthquake that is going to effect the whole region."13 For the reason President Assad adduces here, and no doubt others, Syria most likely represents an exceptional case, although not in terms of the causes of the revolution and the factors that set it in motion. A pillar of the regime, Member of Parliament Muhammad Habash, acknowledged that 85 percent of the factors behind the revolution are internal. This statement can be verified; the Syrian people's rising up not only against poverty and unemployment (20 percent, 81 percent of university graduates being forced to wait four years before finding a job), but also against the most notorious intelligence service in the Middle East.14
The exceptional nature of the Syrian case derives from projections concerning the possible consequences of the collapse of the regime, complicated by the absence of a real alternative to the current system and the historical complexities of Syria's ethnic and sectarian composition. Despite the fact that the presidency and security posts have been reserved for the Alawite community, the Baath regime has never been a minority in control of a majority. Since the early 1980s, the regime has invested an immense effort into integrating the Sunni majority into the public sphere via the party, the governmental administration, and openness in economic policy making. Communal minorities nonetheless constitute a quarter or more of the Syrian population (Alawites, 12 percent; Druze, 3 percent; Christians, 14 percent; and Ismailis, 1.5 percent).15
This fundamental factor is of great significance with respect to the rise of the Islamic alternative. Unlike Hizballah, which understood that the Islamic model of government does not apply to the pluralistic Lebanese fabric, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is still committed to a model that ignores the possible future consequences for the social and political fabric of Syrian society.16 It is no exaggeration to say that Islamic rule in Syria could lead either to the exclusion of minorities or to Syria's territorial disintegration. After almost a year, the opposition has still not succeeded in uniting its ranks and reaching consensus on a unified and clearly defined political program for post-Baath Syria. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood recently published their vision of a future Syria. The first articles of what they called "a pledge and charter" emphasize the need to establish a "modern civil state" — a democratic regime and equality in the eyes of the law. What the SMB means by "democracy" appears to be aggressive majoritarianism, however, with the Sunnis constituting more than 60 percent of the Syrian population.17
A further indication of the uniqueness of the Syrian case is the position of the Gulf monarchies. How to explain the rallying of the media, led by the two royal-family-owned satellite channels of the Gulf — al-Arabiya and al-Jazeera — in favor of democratic revolution and freedom in Syria, while some of these same monarchies continue to prohibit women from driving? It is clear that Saudi Arabia and those in its orbit are attempting to use the erosion of the regime's legitimacy to weaken Syria, the most important link in the regional forces allied with Iran.18 In light of this, President Assad has frequently declared that the Baath regime will fight tooth and nail for its survival, convinced that it faces a regional and Western conspiracy not unlike that generated in the past due to its defiant nationalism.19
The political, cultural, historical, social and religious elements characterizing the Syrian scene further complicate the attempt to turn the regime's overthrow into a first step toward pluralistic democracy or other desired civil state. This is due to the nature of the regime and the complexities of the country's social and religious composition. Both of these factors create a situation in which the overthrow of the regime or the collapse of its authority in some regions or cities could lead Syria into civil war or total chaos. The repercussions would certainly not be confined to its own borders, but could presage a repeat of the chaotic scenario experienced by Iraq in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Baath regime there in 2003. Ba‘thism is a totalitarian ideology that regulates the life of the individual and society in every area and is characterized by endless interventions of the party into the state, from the political and constitutional system through the school system and the administrative apparatus, not to speak of the security and military institutions.20 This overlap means that the removal of the party from power will lead to the disintegration of state institutions, particularly because pre-state loyalties are still present and powerful in Syria.21
The demonstrations in Syria, 11 months after they began, continue to be confined to a single segment of the Syrian people — the Sunni majority — and exhibit a clear sectarian dimension, even if nonsectarian slogans are emphasized. This reading is reinforced by the fact that the principal ethnic Syrian minorities — Christians, Alawites and Druze — have yet to collectively take part in the protest against the regime. This stance does not represent their support of tyranny but their fear of anarchy on the one hand and the Islamic alternative on the other. This fear is shared by the Sunni urban middle class. What else can explain the apathetic reaction of Aleppo and Damascus to the protest movement?22 Confirmation of this fear is found in the words of the famous Syrian poet Adonis: "I cannot participate in a political demonstration launched from the mosques."23 The regime's durability can also be explained by the international and regional support provided by Russia and Iran. Moscow regards Syria as the last stronghold of its influence in the Arab Middle East; Iran views the country as the key component in its strategic alliances and is thus boosting military and economic aid to Damascus.24
While the regime bases its official legitimacy on a secular Arab nationalism that embraces all sects and communities, it does not hesitate to exploit the minority complex of the Alawite community — from which the top echelons of the regime are drawn — and stir up fear among other minority groups. The opposition harnesses religious sentiments to gain legitimacy as well as to wrest legitimacy from the regime. The regime, in turn, employs religion to counter its compromised legitimacy. Indeed, former president and father of Bashar, Hafez al-Assad, a secular Baathist, requested a fatwa from Imam Musa al-Sadr, leader of the Shiites in Lebanon, to confirm the Islamic identity of the Alawites. The overthrow of the Syrian regime is portrayed as an existential threat to the Alawite sect as a whole, not merely to its loss of control over the security establishment. In the event of the regime's collapse, according to this logic, an unprecedented degree of sectarian militarization will occur in Syria, the sects withdrawing to their geographical strongholds and holding fast to their weapons outside the authority of the state.25
More dangerous still is the possibility that the fall of the Baath regime will lead to a state of civil-sectarian militarization extending into neighboring areas, especially Lebanon, where the marginalized Shiites have long relied upon Syria to compensate for their institutional marginalization. It is not unimaginable that the marginalized Shiites of Lebanon will remain allied to the nucleus of the Syrian regime even after its fall. This is especially true in light of the fact that they feel threatened by a conspiracy under the guise of the international tribunal investigating the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri — the source of which is the same constellation of forces targeting the other "defiant regime" in the Arab world.26 As the Syrian Baath regime's alliances will continue to cast a shadow over the post-Baath period if the Assad regime falls, a civil war could ignite the region. Increasing the probability of catastrophic repercussions from the overthrow of the regime is the lack of any real alternative, opening the door to many possibilities.
A coup from within, reform, and some kind of partnership with opponents are all more favorable choices for Syria than the total overthrow of the regime. Perhaps the best indication of the fear of the potential consequences of regime collapse are the vacillations in the Western position and Israeli uncertainty. Even Assad's bitterest enemies are afraid of toppling the regime, not out of benevolence or a desire to safeguard its regional role or fear for its future. Rather, all recognize that its fall could open the door to chaos, disintegration and the collapse of a country that has long been the linchpin of stability in the Fertile Crescent. The toppling of the regime in Syria also means the dismantling of the last component of Arabism, established in the era of independence following World War II. As Maronite Patriarch Bishara al-Rai, who called for the unity of minorities in the face of a rising Sunni fundamentalist tide, remarked, this forms irrefutable evidence of the political-psychological state currently facing the region.27
The Arab world has not yet reaped the fruit of the people's assault on the state in the spring revolutions. Infighting, instability, bloodshed and economic decline have rendered this a necessary stage of transition in the overthrow of the dictatorships and "eternal republics" in Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Tunisia and other Arab countries during the post-colonial era (as Lebanese thinker Radwan al-Sayyid referred to them).28 The Arab Spring has inaugurated a new era in the modern history of the Arab world, similar to vast political changes following the colonial and post-colonial periods. While the colonial era was dominated by Western powers allied with liberal monarchies and the post-colonial period by revolutionary/republican regimes, the Arab Spring will be dominated by Islamic forces brought to power by democratic elections. This development presents the region with two major challenges: First, political and social democratization versus imposed Islamization; and second, the empowerment of statehood versus disintegration of the state order into sectarianism, tribalism and localism. The direction the region takes will depend to a great extent on the course of events in Syria, the last bastion of the secular and pluralistic Arab sphere. It is not inconceivable that the next stage will witness an intellectual struggle over the reshaping of Arabo-Islamic civilization. Will it be joined with modernity and enlightenment or a dogmatic and inward-looking oppression?29 It will be combined either with modernity and enlightenment — as envisioned by Muhammad Abduh, Muhammad Arkoun, Hisham Sharabi and Shakib Arslan — or with dogmatic, introspective, essentially oppressive reasoning. Following the latter model of Ibn Taymiyya, Muhammad bin Yusuf al-Maliki (responsible for sentencing al-Husayn bin Mansur al-Hallaj to death in 922), Ibn Abd al-Wahhab and those who label others as infidels would foreclose the possibility of debate and lead Islam into segregation and isolation.
1 Interview conducted by Ahmad Ali al-Zayn, with Hazem Saghiyyah, Rawafid, al-Arabiya, May 19, 2011.
2 Bernard Lewis, "Islamic Concepts of Revolution," in Revolution in the Middle East (ed. P.S. Vatikiotis; George Allen, 1972), 33.
3 See the medieval great scholar, Muhammad al-Ghazali, al-Iqtisad fi al-I‘tiqad (Beirut: Dar al-kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1983), 150-51.
4 For the Syrian intellectual George Tarabishi, the incorporation of the political Islamic movement within the secular Turkish political system represents not just a democratization of the former but an Islamization of modernity: George Tarabishi, Hartaqat (2nd ed.; Beirut: Dar al-Saqi /Association of Arab Rationalists, 2011), Vol. I, 229-30.
5 See Thomas Hegghammer, Jihad in Saudi Arabia: Violence and Pan-Islam since 1979 (Cambridge University Press, 2010).
6 Interview conducted by Turki al-Dakhil with Fawaz Gerges, on al-Arabiya Idaat, July 21, 2011.
7 Hazem Saghiyyah, "al-Iraq wa al-Mashriq bayn al-Taifiyya wa al-Muqawamah," al-Hayat, December 27, 2011.
8 Azmi Bisharah, "Badil al-Mashru al-Qawmi Huwa al-Ihtirab al-Taifi" al-Hayat, May 17, 2007; Muhammad Jabir al-Ansari, "al-Mashru al-Watani al-Jami Huwa al-Rad," al-Hayat, May 29, 2008; Khalil al-Anani, "Azmat Lubnan wa al-Sira al-Taifi fi al-Mantiqa," al-Hayat, May 21, 2008.
9 Religion is one component of six possible foci of primordialism described by Geertz: assumed blood ties, race, language, region and customs. "By a primordial attachment is meant one that stems from the ‘givens' — or more precisely, as culture is inevitably involved in such matters, the assumed ‘givens' — of social existence: immediate contiguity involved and kin connection mainly, but beyond them the givenness that stems from being born into a particular religious community, speaking a particular language, or even a dialect of a language, and following particular social practices" (The Interpretation of Cultures [Basic Books, 1973], 259).
10 Ibid, 260.
11 Ibid, 260-61.
12 Waddah Shrarah, Dawlat Hizb Allah (Beirut: Dar al-Nahar, 1992).
13 Interview conducted by Barbara Walters with President Bashar al-Assad, ABC News, December 7, 2011.
14 See Ziv Bar'el, "A Good Job It Is Hard to Find," Haaretz, November 11, 2010.
15 Raymond Hinnebusch, Syria, Revolution From Above (Routledge, 2001), 20. The Islamic-oriented writer Yasir al-Zaatirah argues that the vast majority of pro-regime demonstrators and their support bases relied principally upon these minorities: "Qadafi al-Sham wast Jamahirih al-Hashida," al-Dustur, January 15, 2012.
16 Hezbollah's pragmatism found ideological expression in the "Political Charter" published in November 2009. For the first time since the declaration of its founding communiqué, the Open Letter of February 1985, the commitment to the ideology of wilayat al-faqih was not referred to: "al-wathiqah al-siyasiyah li-Hizb Allah," accessed March 8, 2012, http://www.aljazeera.net/news/pages/5f5dd085-f3f0-4f4c-81a9-6bc0b2f21e3b.
17 For majoritarianism and its differentiation from consensus democracy, see Arend Lijphart, "Democracies, Forms, Performance and Constitutional Engineering," European Journal of Political Research 25.1 (1994): 1-17. Yvette Talhamy claims that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood's official platform of moderation and tolerance "is less a window into the group's thinking than a reflection of its political tactics"; Yvette Talhamy, "The Muslim Brotherhood Reborn," Middle East Quarterly 19.2 (2012): 33-40, quote at 33.
18 See Alastair Crooke, "Syria and Iran: The Great Game," Guardian, November 4, 2011.
19 For the full text of President Assad's speech, given on January 10, 2012, see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SsXFXQoZPEI.
20 Hinnebusch, Syria, Revolution From Above, 52-4.
21 For the consequences of the Baath breakdown, see Ali Allawi, The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace (Yale University Press, 2007).
22 For the partnership between the regime and the Sunni urban middle class, see Moshe Moaz, Syria: To Arabism and Back (Raanana: The Open University, 2011), 164-67 (Hebrew); Eyal Zisser, Assad's Syria at a Crossroads (Tel-Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1999), 38-39 (Hebrew); Aram Nerguizian, "Assad's Hidden Strength in Syria" Los Angles Times, March 2, 2012.
24 See Haaretz, March 4, 2012.
25 For the historical process and social developments which led to Alawite control over the army, see Hanna Batatu, "Some Observations on the Social Roots of Syria's Ruling, Military Group and the Causes for Its Dominance," Middle East Journal 35, no. 3 (Summer 1981): 331-44.
26 If the French journalist Vincent Nouzille is to be trusted, four days following Hariri's assassination the French and American presidents agreed to accuse the Syrian regime of involvement in the affair. See Vincent Nouzille, Dans Le Secret des Presidents (Paris: Fayard, 2010), 464-65.
27 See al-Rai's statements as quoted by al-Hayat, September 6, 2011 & October 22, 2011; see also Walid Shqair, "Dawr al-Masihien fi al-Rabi‘ al-Arabi," al-Hayat, September 16, 2011.
28 Radwan al-Sayyed, "Bashshar al-Assad wa Idrakatuh Lil-al-Thawrah fi Suriya," al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 13, 2012.
29 Hashim Salih, al-Insidad al-Tarikhi (London: Dar al-Saqi, 2007), 220-1.