Of fate and the Arab soul

In Middle East on 31. March 2017 at 22:25

LAST TIME AN Arab leader was the head of an Arab empire was a time when we had yet to discover the delights of the enlightenment or the colours of the renaissance. Fatimid Empire, based in Cairo, was dominant in much of Arab peninsula, Levant and entire northern Africa. Its satellites, proxies and sympathisers were in Palermo, in and around Caliphs heartlands in Bagdad and among certain individuals of thinkers and philosophers who marked the Arab golden age.


Cairo of then and Cairo of today is nowhere near comparable. Neither its leadership, nor its populace – neither its economic reach, nor its political might. Looking abroad, there are petty Arab states that compete to be the sole representative of this people, but no one manages to be inclusive, popular or a source of stability for the entire segment.

Nostalgia does rule in such circumstances – examples are many of the decline of the Arab supremacy in economy and politics in this region, no need to revisit them. But why has history not changed its course? How come even though the Arab wants rights and representation, they have not materialized in the form of good governance, democracy, religious harmony and meritocracy? What role has Egypt to play in this and, will it define what is to come in future?


Fatimid’s became history, but the last of the major Egyptian rulers, the Albanian Pasha Ali did reach out with his political might. The Pasha crushed the Mamluk military order but also the civil society in the form of waqf-system – first one for the better, last one for the utter disaster.

Ali dynasty had claims in much of northeastern Africa, its rulers founded Khartoum, and it repelled the zealot Wahhabi-Saudi invaders from the Najdi desert. It had the guts to fight the Caliph of the Sunni Muslims in Istanbul. At varying degrees allied or opposed the European powers – being in control of the Greek Morea and Crete or the Muslim holy sites of Mecca and Medina.

Egypt, in other words, has in its genes to be the major source of a new pivot in the region. Instead, its experience with democracy became short, the old Mamluk class came back and instead of being the influence outwards, it became the dependent of petro-dollars from the Gulf, rubles from Moscow and aid from US.

As is the custom, the main currents in the Arab world, be it nationalists of secular or tradition cloth, or islamists of purist or traditional cloth, the failure for current miseries is laid on each other’s ideological framework.

However, popular resentment and anger do manage to canalize through street protests against the main culprit, the head of state, and his long arms through military, police, intelligence services, religious organizations, or the traditional/cultural tribal leadership. It seems, that when it matters the most, people do not want to be duped by conspiracy theories, and rather would like to address the lack of good governance.

Current round of protests went exactly against those with power – it sought freedoms the likes democracies enjoy, and it wanted solidarity and support from other democracies. They used modern technological channels with the aim of toppling a dictator in order to establish a democracy. Egypt was the core to this Arab spring – and rightly so, being home to 90 million citizens, a large chunk of them Arabs, with the backing of its recent historic legacy of being the cultural capital of currents and thoughts for the entire Middle East.


Acquittal of Dictator Hosni Mubarak – the face of injustice for Egyptians during Tahrir protests – marks a deadly blow on the struggle of millions of people. While Tunisia manages to cling too democratic ideals with its challenges, rest of region is either in total anarchy, full out war, or again under the control of the brutal Hakim. The state-in-person that crushes not only the bones of its citizens, but also the soul of its cultural and intellectual capacities – few states are those who somehow try to govern, despite hurdles, according to democratic norms.

Arab intellectual diaspora is in exile – and has to fight its preservation, and its future, with the mercy of foreign countries – those few – that open up its doors to such activism.

In meantime, two things are happening simultaneously. The autocrat, be it a monarch, an elected turned dictator or a General, is consolidating power – more so, through means of technology, and the suppression of freedoms. Detainment without law, surveillance, intimidation and threats to family is evident and well documented in countries as Syria, Bahrain and Egypt – or their allies.

Another current is the increasingly polarization and politizaton of religious and sectarian identity. Not only does Egyptian Dictator use fight against jihadism as excuse to stay in power, he at the same time supports Salafist networks in order to weaken the much more popular Muslim Brotherhood network. Cross-look into Damascus you will find another brutal dictator who use the same excuses to stay in power, despite slaughtering civilians en mass.

Sectarian challenge is yes orchestrated, to a huge degree, as witnessed with the rivalry of Shaikh’s and Ayatollahs – but it is also indigenous with the increasingly channel of populist rage against minorities and sectarian opponents. A major pillar for authoritarians to stay in power is indeed to let sectarian identities define whom to support, and whom to oppose – in addition the islamist currents as the brotherhood is itself hugely sectarian and channels popular rage not only against ‘secular’ dictators, but also religious minorities or rivals.

Egypt is home to the largest Christian community, a community wilfully used by authorities to legitimize their own reigns – and is now a tool for both those in power, and those who seek power, in the process quashed and persecuted.

Free will

They say that Arabs have tried secularism, that it failed, and they tried nationalism – and it failed too – and therefore, let the islamists be given a chance. It is a weak analysis of history, one that looks at the colour of the badge, but not how many coats of colours it has.

The idea of freedoms and rights is the factor that challenges the current Riyadh-Tehran rivalries in the region, it challenges the old guard, the remnants of Baathists and Nasserist’s, it challenges the traditions based structure of tribalism-sectarianism – it challenges the dreams of a theocratic state, or of ethnic supremacist ones.

Freedom from oppression is the main cause in this, and with bad governance, and in consequence, bleak economic outlooks, a wide variety of citizens will again gather behind a cause, which fights oppression. Now the activists born out of the 2010 events are the veterans and the guidance for future rounds of protests, and they will be even more prepared to channel public anger towards a rights-based democratic future. The people, and the activists will be prepared, but how prepared are the democracies that will be asked to give support, once a people again do speak up?

Glories of the past cannot be achieved by emulating the past, and they belong to the past. Cairo or the Arab golden age was not infested with democracy or individual rights, freedoms and liberty, but it was innovating and it used the fresh ideas within warfare, economy and governance, in order to be competing and dominate the region for a long time.

Cairo is no longer the transit-port of information to the citizens of the region. Instead information on rights and freedoms is widely available, the history of revolutions and progressive ideas can be downloaded within seconds. But Cairo is the capital of the largest Arab state in modern Middle East, and it can with a democratic structure be the major disrupter of the current lock up between sectarian and ideological rivalries. In other words, Cairo has to witness a new round of popular protests, and we, the bystanders, need to support its currents that wish for freedoms we ourselves enjoy.


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