A way forward

Abdel-Moneim Said
Tuesday 13 Feb 2024

Abdel-Moneim Said demarcates the path of reform


During the first decade of this century, many Arab intellectuals were focused on the subject of reform. I, myself, participated in two projects aimed at reformist change in the Arab region. One was hosted at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, bringing together intellectuals and scholars to discuss the slow pace of change within the Arab countries, if it occurred at all while the rest of the world was racing forward to the future and a new and completely different world. The second was the “Arab Reform Initiative”, which was mainly pursued by political and strategic research centres keen to produce the bedrock of thought on which to build change in a region that kept eluding it.

Both projects were a response to the notion of “Arab exceptionalism” which had taken hold at the time. It held that our part of the world was some kind of stagnant backwater, cut off from the major democratising changes that had swept Eastern Europe, Asia and South America, the latter, in particular, a region once rife with dictatorships and coups.  Even in Africa, despite massive famines and massacres, South Africa threw off apartheid offering a democratic model for all. Both projects proceeded from the Western premise that “change and reform” required the implementation of a model of democratic government as defined by its outward mechanics such as political parties, bottom-up elections, and majority rule. Francis Fukuyama’s thoughts about the “end of history” and Samuel Huntington’s idea of the “clash of civilisations” had gained prevalence at the time and inspired a US invasion of this region which so stubbornly refused to change. The Arab intellectuals involved in the reform projects, and others like it, were conscious of the need for an Arab content that would give local substance to reform which needed to take into account conditions and circumstances in this region.

On 2 March 2011, I published an article with the title, “The end of the Arab exception!” It opened: “The current scene in the Arab region is at once part of a global process and a situation particular to Arab countries. Simply put, what is unfolding in Arab capitals is the end of the “Arab exception”, a theory espoused by both Arabs and non-Arabs that holds that the Arab world has a unique and special nature that keeps it remote from the “democratic revolution” in the rest of the world. I had spoken too soon. Before long, the budding Arab revolutions took two directions. The first was spearheaded by the Arab left in its Nasserist, Marxist and liberal sects. They had a talent for stirring up all sorts of widespread anarchy which opened the gates to a fusion of sectarianism and violence that spiralled into Civil War. The second was the burgeoning of the Islamist current, the main face of which was the Muslim Brotherhood which, in turn, was bred more radical terrorist movements determined to outpace it in the race to paradise via sowing bloodshed and setting the earth ablaze. The 2010s did not treat the Arabs kindly, what with having to choose between anarchy and militant religious fanaticism. That was unfair, especially since neither had a national project aimed at bettering the lives of the people in any practical way. All they offered were slogans.  Before that decade ended, another wave of the so-called spring struck Sudan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Algeria. Like the first, it did not produce a single step forward for the conditions in the countries concerned.

The experience of that decade as a whole was nothing less than tragic for the Arab Spring countries. At best the states managed to remain intact; at worst they degenerated into failed states that left them prey to foreign intervention. In the middle of that decade and that catastrophic morass, a reformist current emerged in some Arab countries. It was characterised by a certain pragmatism as it set its sights on lifting these countries out of misery, setting them on the path to progress and higher standards of living, and steering them to the foremost ranks of advanced nations.

The reform drives in these countries took seriously the Chinese proverb that says, “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.” They also proceeded from the premise that the birth of the modern state was the starting point for progress in the world. Then followed the search for national identity as the foundation of patriotism and citizenship. Without such forms of cohesion in the Arab environment, our societies become vulnerable to division, fragmentation and extremist ideas. The pragmatic process that was thus set into motion, served to countervail the ideological flooding that inundated the Arab region in the 1950s and 1960s with forms of Arab nationalism and political Islam that elevated themselves and political allegiances above the state. Now, the nation state has been reinstated as the incubator of the individual Arab citizen who, through his and her development, contributes to its history, achievements and ability to compete with other nation states, not with other faiths or sects.

Today, intensive development and progress is visibly on the move in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, the UAE and other countries that managed to weather the so-called Arab Spring. Change is palpable everywhere, because the reform has penetrated the entire territory of the state, bringing the benefits of progress to all citizens, regardless of religion, race, regional origin or other affiliation, inspiring pride in the state that is for all its people. Another significant feature of this complex process is that it includes the youth. The young are at once the demographic majority in the Arab region and the part of society that is most in touch with the technological advancements of the age and the resultant global interconnectivity. This has given rise to new forms of institutionalisation which is materialising in unprecedented ways from the recently organised World Cup to the rise of smart cities. Is this not the essence of modernity?  

* A version of this article appears in print in the 15 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Short link: