Arabic reform codes

Abdel-Moneim Said
Tuesday 17 Jan 2023

Abdel-Moneim Said celebrates a new book


The evolution of human societies is based, in general, on the creation of agreed-on codes that determine how they progress or transition from one state to another: from primitiveness to modernity, from poverty to wealth, from disintegration to unity, etc. This is the stuff of History with a capital H, which studies the grand scheme of evolution since the Big Bang billions of years ago as a means to gain insight into present-day realities, how societies organise their material and mental world, and the current human condition.

Three Hundred Thousand Years of Fear by the Egyptian diplomat Gamal Abul-Hassan is a product of this discipline. It examines human evolution through phases he terms the discoveries of “codes” or the invention of a system of codes. One example is the “alphabetic code.” Prior to its discovery, humankind was closer to the animal state, producing sounds stimulated by instincts, such as fear of nature and fiercer beings or rivalries over food and reproductive competition. Naming something is the moment of inspiration. An object is named a “tree” through a process of consensus which turns that object into something that can be recognised without pointing to it and unleashes a generative process of naming associated objects such as different types of trees and their various fruits.

The alphabetic code made human communication possible. Another example is the numerical system. The sounds one through nine mean nothing in and of themselves until we start speaking about one apple, two apples, and so forth. The linguistic and computational systems enabled the group and its capacities to grow. With each new code, secrets are unveiled, puzzles solved and consensual systems arise that regulate how a group manages its affairs, from burying its dead to waging war. The agricultural revolution was the consummate fusion of a whole array of codes that made it possible to marshal enormous energies into developing irrigation, providing stable food sources, and building empires.

In a sense, Abul-Hassan’s book remains incomplete. It ends with the emergence of the revealed religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). What is important, however, is its method. It engages a form of Darwinism but does not exclude divine inspiration, especially at crucial turning points. As such, the book is relevant to the current phase in the evolution of the Arab order which has experienced waves of upheaval since the end of World War II. As important as many major events in that nearly three quarters of a century are, of particular concern to me here is the period that began in the second decade of this century and is marked by the wave of uprisings known in the West as the Arab Spring.

In critical times such as these, human beings need to search for new “codes” that will set them on a new path. Such a moment occurred in Europe in the wake of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars that swept the continent. Europeans had to decide whether to proceed in accordance with the “codes of revolution” or the “codes of reform,” the latter being a path based on the optimal utilisation of technological advances in the interest of economic and social growth. This is the path Europe took. As the first industrial revolution gained momentum, civil society organisations such as syndicates and political parties flourished, religious and ethnic minorities were recognised and granted equal rights, and a system of regional security emerged known as the Concert of Europe which included Britain, Russia, Prussia, Austria and France.

Although history does not repeat itself or reproduce exactly the same patterns, it does offer signposts and useful guidelines. The Arab world has also experienced many critical moments since Arab states gained their independence. They underwent revolutions and coups, often inspired by one of the new codes of the mid 20th century called Arab Nationalism or Pan-Arabism. Unfortunately, discord between Arab states and the Arab world’s failure to keep up with the global train of progress turned out to be the dominant theme of Arab history in that era. The reasons for this are of no concern to us here, except to say that it all came to a head with the Arab Spring which, itself, brought out several codes. The first was the “Revolutionary Youth” whose code was perpetuating anarchy as much as possible. The second was the Muslim Brotherhood whose aim was to create an Arab version of the Iranian regime. The third was a variation of the latter, but looked to Afghanistan as its frame of reference and reached its culmination in the so-called caliphate astride the Iraqi-Syrian border. The fourth, and most crucial, emerged in 2015 when a handful of Arab states initiated a process of comprehensive and sustainable reform as their code for work, life, development and progress.

In an article of mine that appeared in Al-Masry Al-Youm  on 11 October 2022 under the title “The laws of Arab reform,” I discussed the interrelated components of reform within the framework of the nation state, a concept that, in Arab literature, is distinct from the unified Arab national or pan-Arab state, which may see the light one day. I argued that reform is impossible without fully embracing the concept of the nation state with its distinct identity and territorial boundaries and in the framework of which all social groups and entities have an equal share in a single national project. Taking the nation state as the starting point on their path to modernism and progress, the Arab reform states have incorporated certain codes or visions into extensive plans that set 2030 as their target. These visions were broken down into sets of aims realised through mega-projects focusing on infrastructure, agricultural or urban development, and other such fields. Today, as this process enters its eighth year, we find that the Arab reform states have, in a rather spontaneous way, forged three types of international relations. One is their relations with each other through various forms of cooperation and consultation. Another is their collective interaction with the great powers, as epitomised by the Arab-American summit in Jeddah and the Arab-Chinese summit in Riyadh. The third is to be found in their joint action, which we saw articulated in the COP27 climate summit in Sharm El-Sheikh and in the World Cup in Qatar.

Considering that such major accomplishments and inroads occurred while the Arab “reform code” is still at its outset, we can look forward to many great developments in this framework. That said, more thought and ingenuity must be brought to bear to enable these countries to interface more effectively with other regions of the world, to engage in the global race for progress, and to acquire greater resilience against global shocks such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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