Charting the course

This text is the epilogue of a collection of articles published with Sarah Birke & Alex Simon. The entire collection, titled Daesh is Not the Point, can be found here.

FIVE YEARS HAVE COME AND GONE, wrecking hopes and spreading sorrow. In the giant maelstrom in which the Arab world is foundering, all seem to be clutching at the flotsam: some cling to hatreds that are consuming them, while others grasp at the receding horizon of salvation through migration. Those who can afford to philosophize ramble on about the same ideas, circling round and round: the end of Sykes-Picot; an obsession with the Islamic State; the lesser evil of reactionary regimes; or a brave new world shaped by middle-powers like Russia, Saudi Arabia or Iran. The contrast couldn’t be greater between the rigidity of these narratives and the extreme fluidity of the region to which they pertain. In an ocean of confusion, it appears that we can either sink to our doom or whirl on the surface of things.

These essays are part of a broader effort to chart this tragic journey, to navigate the storm of events and emotions. The voyage, of course, will continue; this epilogue is but an entry in the logbook, and we can only assume that the next five years will be as dense, intense and disorientating as the last. The greatest intellectual challenge posed by the transformations at work in the Arab world has been to understand them in their historic context. Societies move slowly, in pointed contrast to the hurried pace of individual lives; media coverage and political statements are more frenzied still, shaping in turn the cadence of pundits and many academic commentators. This book is an attempt to slow down the arms of the clock, posit a long view and take stock.

The ambition here is to explore the potential for iterative, accumulative, dynamic thinking that resists the temptation to always move on, while also fighting the lure of repeating the same soothing mantra. There should be no finding vindication in these traumatic transformations, that seem to endlessly negate our assumptions and invalidate their own outcomes. But the other pitfall has been to always project into the future as if it held the key to unlocking the present: for more than five long years of waiting for Godot, something was always going to happen that would change the course of events for the better—and save us from our failure to imagine ways of effectively doing so. Tomorrow will remain obscure to us, but there is no limit to how much light the past may shine on today. That is not because “history repeats itself”, but because it is a process, a continuum, an itinerary that has its logic and milestones, however convoluted the trajectory may be. It is also a way of remembering that even decades-old regimes are transient against the timescale of their societies.

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The 2011 uprisings were preceded by at least three other seismic upheavals in the region’s social fabric, all of which illustrated and reinforced the deepening integration that continues to drive change in the Arab world. The first was the late-Ottoman tanzimat, a string of reforms throughout the mid-19th century that initiated profound changes still visible to this day. In particular, the land reform of 1858 dispossessed large swaths of the peasantry in countries like Iraq and Syria, transformed tribal leaders into landowners increasingly cut off from their base, and laid the groundwork for the massive rural exodus that occurred in the 20th century. The latter pushed migrants into suburban slums and informal neighborhoods that, by erasing the physical boundaries between haves and have-nots, ultimately served as the incubators of the uprisings. The second was the elitist, intellectual Arab awakening or nahda, which in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire was pregnant with the emancipatory paradigms later known as Islamism and its secular counterparts, to include Baathism and Nasserism, all of which helped reshape both politics and societies in the aftermath of the Ottoman breakup.

The third was the upheaval of the 1950s and 1960s, which saw revolutionary, anti-colonial fervor wash over the region as coups overturned Western-friendly regimes in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya and threatened the foundations of several others. These military takeovers flowed neither from popular uprisings nor from elitist intrigues: they consecrated the dramatic ascension of provincial outsiders, united in the underground movements generated by the nahda, empowered by their absorption into militaries being modernized by colonial forces, and legitimized by the failure of existing power structures to confront Western interference and the traumatic reality of Israel.

Then, as now, much of the region was united by an electric solidarity, born of resistance to subjugation: yesterday’s domination came at the hands of predatory Western powers, today’s at the hands of the predatory strongmen who replaced them. Then, as now, emancipatory movements took on grand, universalist overtones: yesterday’s called for national self-determination (often through the framework of a romanticized pan-Arabism), while today’s have focused on personal self-determination through an end to region-wide despotism.

A key distinction, however, is to be found in the nature of the revolutions themselves. Yesterday’s were invariably orchestrated from above; while the revolutionaries of the era often came from petty provincial stock and leaned heavily on populist rhetoric and economic policies, the nature of their revolutions and the regimes they installed was always antithetical to inclusive politics. Where yesterday’s revolutions were top-down and belonged to strongmen, today’s are bottom-up and belong to everymen: Nasser and his ilk have been replaced as icons by the likes of Mohamed Bouazizi and the unnamed Syrian youths whose detention and torture sparked their country’s uprising.

This represents, of course, part of the broader shift from the top-down to the bottom-up, and the new model brings both benefits and immense risks. The grassroots, decentralized quality of the new uprisings has empowered individuals and, to an extent, mitigated the chances of new strongmen who would consolidate power and run roughshod over their populations for decades at a time. Yet in much of the region, the toppling of the old political order with little in the way of coherent alternatives has inaugurated an unprecedented level of disorder with no end in sight. If the almost Hobbesian chaos engulfing Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen is enough to provoke nostalgia for yesterday’s tyrants, it is not enough to produce any aspiring tyrants capable of reining it in.

In neighboring states, meanwhile, the long-standing binary offered by regimes between despotism and chaos is increasingly compelling. Yet it cannot be repeated enough that the underlying dynamics that spurred the uprisings—repression, corruption, demographic shifts, growing connectedness and political awareness, economic malaise—have, if anything, intensified, and will not be swept under the rug forever. Endorsing failed leaderships to contain the explosive effects of their governance is an absurd proposition we seem all too keen to hang on to.

The complexity and fluidity introduced by the uprisings and subsequent conflicts has caught the Western world flat-footed. America and Europe appear simultaneously mired in Cold War strategic thought and post-Cold War triumphalism: while some policy choices rest on naive assumptions of the transformative power of democracy and diplomacy, others are rooted in the notion that superior force can contain complex socio-political phenomena that clearly jump borders from the Middle East to Africa, Europe and beyond. It is ironic that the West would revert to an anthropological, almost colonial understanding of conflict as the expression of archaic fault-lines and primordial hatreds while seeking as un-anthropological as possible a relationship with the societies in question—substituting barbed-wire, surveillance, airstrikes and proxies for genuine engagement.

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Aside from the aforementioned chaos, perhaps most distinctive about this moment is the level of uncertainty by which it is defined. Notwithstanding shallow talk of partitioning this or that country, destroying the Islamic State, or installing a UN unity government in Libya, it is impossible to say with any confidence how the region will look in ten or twenty or thirty years, except to say that it will look very different than it did in 2010. Surely something better is somewhere over the horizon, but it remains altogether unclear what that something will resemble and when it might arrive.

At some level, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice may be said to have prophesied the current state of affairs with her notoriously callous invocation of “creative chaos” as a framework for change in the Middle East. The Iraq war indeed helped unleash the pent-up forces necessary to convulse the old order, but with results very different from the stuff of neoconservative fantasy: rather than a miraculous transformation into functioning pro-Western democracy, we got violent pandemonium with a hard sectarian edge. This chaos is now an increasingly regional affair, and it remains to be seen just what it will create. What is clear, though, is that tearing things down without a positive vision to build something new is not the sort of freedom that breeds progress—at least not in the near-term and without immense collateral damage. George W. Bush, learning of Saddam Hussein’s fall, scribbled: “Let freedom reign!” Amidst all this bloodshed, the memory triggers a nervous spasm. Paradoxically, Barack Obama’s preference for disengagement has a similarly laissez-faire bent: “Do whatever you must, just keep us out of it!”

Of course, outsiders’ self-centrism and general failure to promote a coherent, positive vision in the Middle East would be far less problematic if local elites were not so guilty of the same sins. The region has made little progress in intellectualizing its own change, leaving a gaping cognitive space for others to conquer. Too many local voices, especially the loudest, are quick to negate any agency of their own, define all problems as imported, and endlessly speculate about solutions they believe can only come from abroad. Even claims of resisting Western schemes, which now serve to veil power grabs, sectarian hubris and the lack of any constructive agenda, are just another way of surrendering to them. The region both echoes our own imaginaries and is maddened by them.

Complexity and the internalization of domination are two genuine obstacles to a homegrown vision of change. Another is ambiguity. The region is locked in a labyrinth of words where every other term seems both an inescapable pathway and a dead-end. We speak of the Lebanese parliament, the Syrian army, or the Iraqi state for lack of better words, but such entities are extraordinarily difficult to define. Tribes have little in common with the romanticized vision projected onto them by Western observers and many locals alike, inherited from forms they once took that have long since transformed beyond recognition. We continue to use the same term for borders, which remain in the same place but whose functions have evolved spectacularly over time. The Saudi or Egyptian regimes today are works in progress at best, increasingly at odds with everything we thought we knew about them. Libya is a place that almost defies semantics, which is precisely how its former tyrant Muammar Qaddafi wanted it.

Interestingly, the narratives that best capture the state of the region are those that are the least factual and analytical, let alone ideological. The Middle East is best rendered in artistic, literary, lyrical terms. There is no shortage of such voices, if one lends an ear.

The region also tells its own story through innumerable metaphors that could hardly be more explicit. Iraq is cowering under the quasi-biblical threat of an impending rupture of the Mosul Dam, a derelict structure that evokes 30 years of erosion and attempts to paper over the cracks. Egypt’s president laid out his vision for rebuilding the capital from scratch, in a Freudian admission of how little he can do about the country’s backlog of existing problems. In a case study of literal thinking, Sisi also purports to build a massive bridge to Saudi Arabia that almost no one has any reason to cross, but which may somehow tie the two countries’ fates together. Lebanon has decided to sit on its garbage, having abandoned processing it for months. You can dine at a fancy outdoor restaurant and suddenly the wind changes, bringing in the nauseating reality of local politics; but nothing else moves, in a country determined not to take the smell of rotting for the omen that it is. In martyred Aleppo, the US and Russia agreed on one thing only: calling a ceasefire a “silence period”, as if the goal was to keep the media quiet.

But today’s Middle East is so much more than the sum of its own contradictions and convolution. It reverberates around the world, shaping and being shaped by the American presidential campaign, Europe’s political identity, Moscow’s resurgent ambitions; more than ever, it captures our imagination, with its tormented uprisings, the phantasm of the Islamic State, the peril supposedly posed by refugees, the hyperbolic threats or opportunities offered by Iran, the boundless, talismanic power of democracy gifted to or taken by peoples long repressed. This deepening connection is paradoxical, at a time when the region counts for virtually nothing in the world’s financial or knowledge economy. What is striking is that the Middle East has become important, however implicitly, for its people and their agency: what they believe in, what they reject, what they consume, and where they move. In a sense 2011 achieved people’s power—a blatant reality that nonetheless needs constant repetition.

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As the West and the Middle East go on interacting in ways both subtle and spectacular, the challenge of understanding the latter’s chaotic evolution looms ever more urgent and intractable. A last goal of this book is to set forth some ambitions regarding how best to approach this task; even as the region’s urban fabric and infrastructure continue to break apart, intellectual landscaping and road works can commence. The needs, of course, are boundless, but three conceptual construction sites can provide a useful foundation.

The first is a people’s history of the ongoing dynamics, which are the least intelligible the more we succumb to generalities. The geopolitical lens that used to clarify an order of things only reveals how messy and confused the world has become. There is much more certainty to be found at the micro than at the macro level: in the surrounding chaos, an epiphany often comes from just talking to individuals, and understanding what all this means in their everyday lives. Never has the old style of fieldwork—the patient, qualitative, heartfelt, instinctive kind—felt more indispensable. Never has it been more challenging.

The second rests in de-essentializing the Middle East and all its tumultuous change—in looking beyond the region’s mesmerizing violence to see the global dynamics with which that violence is bound up and from which it distracts. Climate change, human mobility, a straining nation-state framework, failing elites, the explosive tension between gaping, growing inequality and technology that empowers the global underclass to both visualize and cry out against its lot. The vague underlying causes to which politicians refer in discussing the Islamic State happen to be extraordinarily banal in nature—the very opposite of the uniqueness they attribute to the group itself. In this context, we trivialize the wrong object: extreme violence on all parts is being accepted as the new normal in the Middle East, while genuine change is being conceptualized as implausible and even undesirable. We have come to view the region—which has also come to see itself—as an anomaly worthy of a set of rules and values that would not apply elsewhere. Recognizing the region for what it is—not an outlier, but part of a broader, tentative process of global reinvention—is essential if we are to begin accepting change as welcome and rejecting wanton violence in all its forms.

Finally, and consequently, the Middle East can only be understood as part of an ecosystem with the rest of the world. Its political economy, which has produced so much waste and warring, is not detached from our own. Local political elites have for decades externalized their quest for legitimacy, seeking it in carefully cultivated alliances and rivalries. The region’s wealth of financial capital, mostly derived from plundering natural resources and privatizing the state, is enmeshed in a globalized economy that helps find ways of being unproductive. Our imaginaries, as said, feed on each other. Its issues resonate among our people, and its people have long lived with us or today knock on our doors. The region is not an organism foreign to our own: until we treat the Middle East as part of us, we will continue to suffer from self-inflicted wounds.

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Illustration credit: roller coaster by Pixabay/ licensed by CC.