The Arab Wave

Eugene Rogan
Content Type
Journal Article
The National Interest
Issue Number
Publication Date
May 2011
Center for the National Interest
Contrary to so much conventional wisdom, the struggle for democracy in the Middle East is not new. The events of 2011 have deep roots in the nineteenth century. Islamic culture and self-governance are not mutually exclusive.
Political Geography
Middle East, Arabia
FOR DECADES, the Arab world has lived under a variety of governments whose only point in common was the degree of autocracy they imposed on their citizens. Some blamed Arab culture, others said that Islam was incompatible with popular rule, but most agreed that the Arabs were bucking a global trend of democratization. Yet the despair that drove the Tunisian vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi to set himself on fire in protest against an unjust and venal government is an angst shared across the region—and his terrible example inspired others to rise up and demand their political rights from regimes long seen as corrupt, as enriching themselves at the expense of their people. Indeed, the Arab world is now re-embarking on a journey of reform as old as the European Enlightenment. For contrary to so much commentary—and common wisdom—the search for democratic government is not new in the Middle East. What most people in the West don't realize is that the events of 2011 have deep historical roots stretching back to the early nineteenth century. Arab reformers have debated the merits of constitutional government since the 1830s and have sought to constrain absolutism with elected assemblies since the 1860s. Even in the nineteenth century, it was Egypt and Tunisia that led the reform agenda in the Arab world. Following the examples of Cairo and Tunis, liberal political-reform movements emerged in the broader Middle East, with constitutional revolutions in Iran in 1906 and in the Ottoman Empire in 1908. In the end, the past six decades of autocracy might well be remembered as but a setback in two centuries of popular pressure for constitutional rule and democratic rights. IRONICALLY, GIVEN our present-day doubts about the role of Islam in politics, the person who initiated the discussion of constitutionalism in the Arab world was a young Muslim cleric named Rifa'a Rafi' al-Tahtawi. Al-Tahtawi left Egypt in April 1826 dressed in the robes and turban of a scholar of Cairo's ancient mosque university of al-Azhar. He was bound for France, appointed chaplain to Egypt's first major education mission to Europe. He would not see his native land for another five years. While abroad, he kept a detailed diary in which he recorded his observations about what was to him a strange and exotic place. He wrote up his experiences in a classic book published in Arabic in 1834 and subsequently republished in Turkish translation. It was the best seller of its day and became an enduring classic that is still in print in Arabic and in several foreign languages.1 Beyond the fascinating reflections on what, in Egyptian eyes, made France of the 1820s tick, al-Tahtawi's most substantial contribution to political reform was his analysis of constitutional government. He translated all seventy-four articles of the 1814 French constitution, or Charte constitutionnelle, and gave an enthusiastic endorsement of its key points as the secret to French progress in all domains. This praise for constitutional government was courageous. As al-Tahtawi confessed, most of the principles of the French constitution “cannot be found in the Qur'an nor in the sunna [practices] of the Prophet”—a set of dangerous new ideas with no roots in Islamic tradition. And cheerleading for the foundations of that innovative political order threatened far more than his fellow Muslim clerics. It threatened the ruling order. After all, the constitution applied to the king and his subjects alike, and called for a division of powers between the monarch and an elected legislature. The Egypt of Muhammad Ali, the famous Ottoman army commander who ruled in the first half of the nineteenth century, was a thoroughly autocratic state, and the Ottoman Empire was an absolute monarchy. The very notion of representative government or constraints on the powers of the ruler was an alien—even subversive—idea. Moreover, al-Tahtawi gave a detailed and sympathetic account of the 1830 revolution in France that overthrew the Bourbon King Charles X—with its implicit endorsement of the people's right to overturn a monarch to preserve their legal rights. Sunni Muslim political thought asserted the duty of subjects to submit to rulers, even despots, in the interest of public order. Al-Tahtawi, who observed the political drama firsthand, clearly sided with the French masses against their king when Charles X suspended the charter and “shamed the laws in which the rights of the French people were enshrined.” Al-Tahtawi's extensive analysis of the July Revolution is all the more remarkable as a harbinger of the arguments that the demonstrators in Cairo's Tahrir (“Liberation”) Square would intone against the Hosni Mubarak regime in 2011; a sort of mantle passing almost two centuries later. THOUGH AL-TAHTAWI would not witness a constitutional revolution in his own lifetime, he set political change in motion. And while those forces mounted, he did enjoy seeing his ideas taken up by reformers in other parts of North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. The dynastic state of Tunisia saw its government (known as the Regency) taken over by a member of the royal family bent on an upturning of the status quo—at least of a sort. Ahmad Bey, who ruled from 1837 to 1855, was heavily influenced by the experience of Muhammad Ali in Egypt. This led him to create a similar modern army, along with a military academy and support industries. Though this did not result directly in an opening-up of political life, it created the space for new ideas. For among the military men trained to leadthis new army was a brilliant young officer named Khayr al-Din. He would prove one of the great reformers of the nineteenth century, rising to be prime minister both of Tunis and of the Ottoman Empire itself. Khayr al-Din had reached the rank of general by the time he entered political life. Fluent in French, Arabic and Turkish, he traveled widely throughout Europe in the course of his career. His firsthand experience of the Continent's progress made him an ardent supporter of liberal political reforms and of the need to draw on European experience and technology to enable Muslim states to realize their full potential. He set out his views in an influential political tract published in Arabic in 1867 and in an authorized French translation two years later. In The Surest Path to Knowledge Regarding the Condition of Countries, Khayr al-Din addressed his reform agenda to both a European audience skeptical of the Muslim world's ability to adapt to the modern age and to a Muslim audience that rejected foreign innovations as somehow contrary to the religion and values of Islam. In that sense, his times were not so different from our own. And also not different was the growing corruption and financial mismanagement seemingly innate to longtime autocracies governing their lands unchecked by popular sentiment. Khayr al-Din watched with growing dismay as he saw the rulers of Tunisia take their country down the road to insolvency through vanity projects and bad investments. “It is clear that the excessive expenses which burden the kingdom beyond its capability are the result of arbitrary rule,” Khayr al-Din warned. To reform-minded thinkers, the solution to both reckless government spending and arbitrary rule lay in constitutional reforms and representative government. The echoes of al-Tahtawi's analysis of the French constitution (which Khayr al-Din acknowledged in his own book) could be heard very clearly in the second half of the nineteenth century. Under this system, a country would prosper, the people's knowledge would increase, their wealth would accumulate and their hearts would be satisfied. At least that was the theory. And so Khayr al-Din worked to introduce constitutional rule in Tunisia. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Tunisian constitution of 1861 fell well short of reformers' hopes. The text placed few limits on the executive power of the monarch (the bey), who retained the right to appoint and dismiss his ministers. And though it did call for the establishment of a sixty-member representative assembly nominated by the ruler, this Grand Council, as it was known, held little in terms of real authority. Khayr al-Din, who served as its president, was soon disillusioned, recognizing that the powers that be had only convened the council to rubber-stamp their decisions. He tendered his resignation in 1863. A similar false start was taking place in Egypt circa 1860 as well—for much the same reasons and with much the same results. The khedive (viceroy) of Egypt at the time, Ismail Pasha, called for the creation of the first Assembly of Delegates in 1866. Like the bey in Tunisia, Ismail sought to implicate the landed notables in his controversial financial policies by “enfranchising” them politically, even if their role was limited to a consultative capacity (deputies played no part in the making of laws). But though a creation of the ruler, this seventy-five-member council, indirectly elected to three-year terms, became a forum for Egyptian elites to voice criticism of the policies of the khedive and his government. Indeed, it marked the beginning of broader participation in the affairs of state. What neither of these openings-up was able to do was stave off economic collapse. The early constitutional movements were too respectful of authority to impose constraints on their rulers. Reformers hoped that the bey in Tunis or the khedive in Cairo would accept checks and balances voluntarily and share power with representative assemblies as an act of enlightened benevolence. These were not realistic expectations. Absolute rulers cling tenaciously to power, and there was no constraint to prevent these men from spending their governments into insolvency. THE GOVERNMENT of Tunisia declared bankruptcy in 1869; Egypt, in 1876. For Cairo, this ushered in the army's first involvement in politics—indeed, as the voice of, or means to an end for, the Egyptian people—reflected now in the military's role as the caretaker of the government post–the Tahrir Square uprising. The parallels to 2011 are striking. A popular movement opposed an autocratic ruler who had failed to provide for the economic needs of his people. But the revolution of 1882 turned out very badly for the Egyptians. In the immediate wake of the financial meltdown, the Egyptian elites still enjoyed a political platform in the Assembly of Delegates, and representatives in the assembly began to demand a role in approving the Egyptian budget, increased ministerial responsibility and a liberal constitution constraining the powers of the khedive. But the Europeans began to intervene; they would manage the bailout. Increasingly under the financial control of outsiders, the khedive had neither the power nor the inclination to concede to such demands. And soon Ismail Pasha suspended the assembly in 1879—with the European powers' support. The landed elites responded by joining forces with the growing opposition movement in the Egyptian Army. The military had been hit hard by the austerity measures imposed after the country's bankruptcy. When Egypt's financial controllers decreed sharp decreases in the size of the force, Egyptian officers rallied to their men's cause and began to mobilize against unfair dismissal. They were led by one of the highest-ranking Egyptian officers of the time, Colonel Ahmad Urabi. In January 1881, Urabi submitted a petition signed by a group of officers demanding an end to cuts in troop numbers imposed by European financial controllers. Urabi was arrested. This provoked a military mutiny; the men stormed the Ministry of War to secure Urabi's release and to force the government to accept their demands. They succeeded. This turned Urabi into a popular figure, marking the entry of the army into Egypt's politics. The large landholders and urban elite from the disbanded Egyptian Assembly of Delegates recognized that they stood a far better chance of imposing their liberal constitutional reforms upon the unwilling khedive in partnership with the armed forces. Between February and September 1881, a mixed coalition of Egyptian Army officers, large landholders, delegates from the assembly, journalists and religious scholars took shape, calling themselves the “National party.” As the Islamic reformer Shaykh Muhammad Abduh explained to a British observer, Urabi's actions had “gained him much popularity, and put him into communication with the civilian members of the National party . . . who put forward the idea of renewing the demand for a Constitution.” The members of this coalition each had their own objectives and grievances. What held them together was a common belief that Egyptians deserved a better deal in their own country. They took “Egypt for the Egyptians” as their slogan and gave their support to each other's cause—the better to promote their own. For Urabi and his fellow officers, the constitution represented constraints on the khedive and his government that would protect them from arbitrary reprisals. It also enhanced their role as defenders of the interests of the Egyptian people, and not just the narrow interests of the military. Khedive Tawfiq (who had followed his father, Ismail, as ruler) succumbed to the reformers' pressures and reconvened the Assembly of Delegates. In January 1882, the delegates submitted a draft constitution for the khedive's consideration. The constitution was promulgated in February, and a new reformist cabinet was appointed—with Ahmad Urabi as minister of war. Egypt's revolution of 1882 seemed on the verge of success when foreign interests stepped in to prop up absolutism. In both Tunisia and Egypt, government bankruptcies could not in the end be handled by the countries themselves (and even heavy-handed outside intervention was not enough). Colonial occupation soon followed. France seized Tunisia in 1881, and Britain took control of Egypt the following year. The British occupation of Egypt brought this significant constitutional-reform movement to a close. Urabi's cause faced growing opposition from Britain and France. Every measure taken by the European powers to support the beleaguered Khedive Tawfiq discredited him in the eyes of his own people. Tawfiq took refuge in his palace in Alexandria and left the running of government to Urabi and the cabinet. In the end, Britain intervened militarily in September 1882 to overthrow Urabi and restore Khedive Tawfiq to power, ushering in a period of British domination over Egypt that would last until 1956. YET OUTSIDE the Arab world, other parts of the Middle East witnessed constitutional revolutions to constrain absolute rulers—in Iran (then known as Persia) and Turkey. Inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1905, which forced the czar to concede to a constitution for his people, a group of Iranian reformers began to mobilize in mosques to demand the rule of law in their own country. The movement gained momentum, drawing on all levels of society in support of the basic demand for a constitution. The ruling Qajar dynasty tried to preserve absolutism by all means, but by the end of 1906 the shah capitulated to public pressure and signed into law a newly drafted constitution establishing an independent judiciary and legislature. While the 1906 revolution might not have delivered the full democracy that activists had hoped for, the country remained under constitutional rule until the 1920s, when a new autocrat named Reza Shah Pahlavi reestablished arbitrary rule in Iran. Of course, the country never managed to recoup its losses. The popular overthrow of the autocratic Pahlavi shahs in 1979 only led to an era of oppressive clerical rule. But the tradition of a democratic past remains. In the end, it was Turkey's democratic experiments that truly flourished. Perhaps it is to be expected then that so many now look to Ankara as a model for the upturned Arab world. Also dating back to the nineteenth century, the battle for democratic norms was hard won, fraught with the death throes of autocratic rule. Sultan Abdulhamid II (in power from 1876 to 1909) introduced a constitution and oversaw parliamentary elections in the early months of his reign, only to dismiss the parliament in February 1877 when it began to criticize the government's handling of a disastrous war with Russia. For the next thirty years, Abdulhamid imposed his heavy hand in the face of a growing opposition movement. These were the Young Turks, a group of young and well-educated reformers, civilians and military graduates of the empire's elite academies. The movement reached its climax in 1908 when the Young Turks forced the sultan to restore constitutional and parliamentary life in the Ottoman Empire. One year later, they took the revolution further, deposing the sultan and ruling in consultation with an elected parliament. The Ottoman Empire ultimately collapsed following defeat in the First World War, but parliamentary life and constitutional government were preserved in the Turkish Republic. EGYPT HAS never quite been able to consolidate its desire for democracy in the way of the Turks—even though it is the country that achieved the highest degree of multiparty democracy in the modern history of the Arab world. Though still under British occupation, the Egyptians drafted a new constitution in 1923. It introduced political pluralism, regular elections to a two-chamber legislature, full male suffrage and a free press. A number of new parties emerged on the political stage. Elections attracted massive turnout at the polls. Journalists plied their trade with remarkable liberty. Yet this almost-golden age of Egyptian politics was rife with factionalism, struggling to find its footing. Three distinct authorities sought preeminence in Egypt: the British, the monarchy and, through parliament, the nationalist Wafd Party. The rivalry between these three proved disruptive to say the least. And the internecine squabbles between the Egyptian political elite played right into the hands of both the king and the British. The popular nationalist leader Saad Zaghlul may have led his Wafd Party to sweeping victory in Egypt's first parliamentary election in 1924 and used that mandate to try and negotiate Egypt's independence from Britain, but autocratic forces remained. At the opposite end of the political spectrum was Ismail Sidqi, who defected from Zaghlul's Wafd Party. Sidqi was an advocate of a strong monarchy, opposing, as he put it, “the tyranny of the majority over the minority.” He wanted to free the government from its constitutional bonds and rule by decree in partnership with the king. In the summer of 1930, King Fuad invited Sidqi to form a new cabinet. In accepting, Sidqi assured his monarch that “my policies would start from a clean slate and that I would reorganize parliamentary life in accordance with my views on the Constitution and the need for stable government.”2 In October of that year, Sidqi introduced a new constitution that expanded the powers of the king. It reduced the number of elected deputies in the parliament and gave the king control over the upper chamber. Sidqi's constitution reduced universal suffrage, taking voting power from the masses (on whose support the Wafd relied), and concentrated electoral authority in the propertied elite. The powers of the legislature were reduced, as was the length of the parliamentary session, from six to five months, and the king's powers to defer bills were expanded. The new constitution was blatantly autocratic and provoked near-unanimous opposition from politicians across the political spectrum and the general public. The press, refusing to be silenced, did keep up a steady barrage to turn popular opinion against Sidqi's government. Security conditions began to deteriorate as the public grew more outspoken (Sidqi had always justified autocratic rule in terms of providing law and order). Faced with a nascent anarchy, the British began to agitate for a new government to restore public confidence and curb political violence. In September 1933 the king dismissed his prime minister. Down but not out, he remained one of Egypt's most influential politicians until his death in 1950, and his machinations against constitutional rule did much to undermine public confidence in Egypt's fitful Liberal Age. By 1952, the Egyptian people had lost faith in the institutions of democratic government. Political parties had been platforms of factionalism. The British had played on divisions between the monarchy and the parliament to extend their rule over Egypt. Even the nationalist Wafd Party had lost popular support when, after thirty years, it still had not secured Egypt's total independence. When a group of military men called the Free Officers Movement led by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser seized power in July 1952, the people of Egypt (and of the Arab world at-large) celebrated a new order of forceful, decisive government. Similar revolutions followed in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, ushering in a new age of autocratic rule that would last over half a century. For six decades now, the Arab world has lived under absolute rule of one form or another. Monarchy has continued primarily in the oil-rich states of the Arabian Peninsula. The only two non-oil monarchies to survive were in Morocco and Jordan, where charismatic kings enjoyed sufficient support to weather the revolutionary 1950s and 1960s. The rest of the region, with the exception of Lebanon's dangerous sectarian democracy, fell under the control of military-men-turned-presidents and single-party rule. Neither the monarchies nor the praetorian republics were tolerant of opposition. Government monopoly of the press and censorship limited the scope of debate. Constitutions were amended in ways that enhanced the power of government at the expense of citizens' rights. That Arabs should agree to live under such a miserable social contract only convinced the outside world that Arabs were somehow incompatible with democracy. Reforms and constitutional debates stretching back to the 1830s were forgotten by Arabs and Westerners alike. SEVERAL FACTORS contributed to making 2011 a revolutionary year in the Arab world. Over the past two decades, the standard of living in the non-oil Arab states has dropped precipitously. Only sub-Saharan Africa scores worse on the un's Human Development Index. Yet the ruling elite did not share in the suffering of common Arab people. On the contrary, corruption and cronyism enriched those who surrounded kings and presidents in ways that were all too obvious to their citizens. With this growing inequality came deepening resentment as a young and increasingly well-educated population entered the job market . . . only to find that there were no jobs. Worse yet, these aged and corrupt leaders were paving the way for family members to follow them in dynastic succession. Arab citizens faced the prospect of unending restrictions on their political and human rights by rulers who had failed them in every respect—and rebelled. Much to the world's surprise, it was Tunisia that led the way. The self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi galvanized public outrage against everything that was wrong in Tunisia under President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's reign: corruption, abuse of power, indifference to the plight of the ordinary man and an economy that failed to provide opportunities for the young. After twenty-three years in power, Ben Ali had no solutions. His wife, Leila Trabelsi, and her family soon came to personify cronyism. In Tunisia, it was long common knowledge that the Trabelsis had enriched themselves with government funds, and the rumors were confirmed when WikiLeaks published a number of U.S. State Department reports attesting to much the same. While Mohamed Bouazizi's tragedy was gaining attention, the Trabelsi family's extravagances were made public. On January 4, 2011, Mohamed Bouazizi died of his burns. An individual tragedy, a communal protest movement, a discontented nation, social-networking websites, Arabic satellite television and WikiLeaks: it was the making of the perfect twenty-first-century political storm. When Ben Ali realized that he no longer commanded the loyalty of his army, and that no concessions were going to mollify the demonstrators, he stunned his nation and the entire Arab world by abdicating power and fleeing Tunisia for Saudi Arabia. The Jasmine revolution, as the Tunisians called their movement, had toppled one of the long-reigning autocrats which had dominated Arab politics since the 1950s. Within two weeks, the next revolution would start in Egypt. “The people should not fear their government,” read a placard in Cairo's central Tahrir Square, “Governments should fear their people.” The message captured the moment as hundreds of thousands of democracy activists using social-networking platforms to organize their grassroots movement brought the whole of Egypt to a standstill. Known as the January 25 movement, named for the date the demonstrations began, the Egyptian revolution of 2011 witnessed mass protests in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, Ismailia, and other major Egyptian towns and cities. For eighteen days the whole world watched transfixed as Egypt's democracy movement challenged the Mubarak regime—and won. The government resorted to dirty tactics against the demonstrators. They released convicted prisoners from jail to provoke fear. Policemen in civilian clothes assaulted the protesters in Tahrir Square, posing as a pro-Mubarak counterdemonstration. The president's men went to theatrical lengths, mounting a horse-and-camel charge on the democracy activists. Yet every attempt at intimidation was repelled with determination, and the number of protesters only grew. Throughout it all, the Egyptian Army refused to support the government and declared the demonstrators' demands legitimate. As Ben Ali before him, Mubarak recognized his position was untenable without his army's support. On February 11 he stepped down amid jubilation and wild celebrations in Tahrir Square. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, made up of senior military men, assumed control of the country and dissolved parliament to oversee the transition to democratic government. Mubarak's fall was thus but the first stage in Egypt's revolution. Emboldened by the fall of Egypt's strongman, popular demonstrations have followed across the Arab world: in Jordan, Bahrain, Yemen and Libya. The crowds repeat the same Arabic four-word slogan as their North African brethren: al-shaab yurid isqat al-nizam—“The people want the fall of the regime.” Long after Western analysts had dismissed Arab nationalism as a spent force—a bankrupt ideology ever since the Arabs were defeated by Israel in 1967 and the death of Nasser in 1970—the events of 2011 reveal a new and potent form of Arabism. It is clear that what happens in one part of that world is incredibly influential across the rest of the region. Bound by a common language and historic experience, citizens of different Arab states are inspired by each other's methods and goals. And a crucial part of that historic experience is the struggle to constrain absolutism, resumed in 2011 with a vigor that puts to rest once and for all the myth that the Arabs as a people, or Muslims more generally, are somehow incompatible with democratic values. 1 An excellent English translation of al-Tahtawi's book was published by Daniel L. Newman under the title An Imam in Paris: Al-Tahtawi's Visit to France (1826-1831) (London: Saqi Books, 2002). 2 Ismail Sidqi, Mudhakkirati [My memoirs] (Cairo: Madbuli, 1996).