Thoughts on the Middle East Revolutions

There is presently the equivalent of a political earthquake rippling through that region of the world commonly known as the Middle East. Presidents have fallen. Royals have been challenged. Regimes teeter on the brink. Certainly, this has all the makings of a revolution. The Pharoah of the Nile has already been deposed. The Bahraini monarch is on the verge of collapse. Libya and Lebanon seem inclined towards civil war. It seems as if that notoriously reclusive beast, the Arab street, has finally revealed itself to be an active and potent force in the realm of politics. Unbridled people power, magnified by Western social networking marvels, has upended half a century of autocratic stability in a matter of weeks. History is condemned to repeat itself, and we should remember that although Rome wasn’t built in a day, the blood and sweat of countless generations was destroyed in but a few days of barbarian bloodletting.

What is at the heart of this revolutionary earthquake shaking the Middle East? The repression and terror of the dictatorial regimes, rising prices for basic necessities, a population explosion without a corresponding jobs explosion, Islamic fundamentalism, tribalism, lack of resources, and the emergence of a nascent democratic movement; all have contributed to the present political tremors. To all of these long-term trends we may add the recent ascent to the pinnacle of American politics a foreign policy and military adolescent who has derided the projection of American force and has left behind instead a power vacuum through his abdication of America’s traditional responsibilities as leader of the free world. It is the maturity and convergence of these trends that has necessarily upended the power structure and led to instability throughout the region.

From a different lens, it seems that what we are now witnessing is merely a classic example of what David Pryce-Jones terms the power-challenge complex. According to this theory, every power holder in the Middle East since the dawn of civilization has been authoritarian in nature. Never has there evolved a system of government to represent the will of the governed. Power must always be initiated by, and maintained through, the force of arms. Can you name a native, grassroots, liberal-democratic movement in the history of the Middle East? The Islamic world has no indigenous example to compare with the American Revolution, the Glorious Revolution, the French Revolution, or the Protestant Reformation.

The majority of political pundits and mainstream media outlets have hailed the Arab Awakening or Revolution as the first of its kind. It is claimed that we are witnessing true people power at work, and, in a way, we are. The immediate goal of the revolutionaries is undeniably noble. The heinous regimes in the Middle East deserve to be overthrown. Indeed, all civilized people should be sympathetic to the plight of the average, disenfranchised Middle Easterner. Trapped between the twin beasts of the Shariah and the secret police, the ordinary Muslim has been denied his inalienable rights, and should not be condemned for revolting against such intolerable depredations.

Yet a revolt is not in its essence democratic. It is said that the art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate, but at the long-term affects of any act or policy. The same can be said of politics. Even those revolts with nominally democratic elements tend to be superseded, in the long term, by anti-democratic forces within the movement. A political revolution such as the Middle East is currently experiencing may be construed as immediately positive, and we may generally view the shattering of a suffocating and repressive political order as a positive development. The failure of any Arab or Muslim regime to create a representative forum for the advancement of their nation is a testament to the stagnation of their civilization’s social, political, and intellectual order. Should we expect a more enlightened system of government to arise from a civilization that has translated as many books into Arabic in a thousand years as have been translated by a into Spanigh by a single state in a single year? That such power structures are being challenged, that the Arab street has been shaken from its apathetic slumber, that nominally democratic social networks are organizing the revolution, that the protestors are largely peaceful in action; all of these developments should be celebrated as improvements to a decaying authoritarian power structure.

But the joy of the chattering classes and the fourth estate should be tempered, lest their shortsightedness get the best of their reputations. For never before in the history of these societies has revolutionary fervor led to anything resembling the liberal, capitalistic, free democracies of the Judeo-Christian nations of the West and their political offspring in the Far East and across the world. The pressing question to which all civilized nations await the answer is whether or not the Muslim world can adapt itself to the structures of modern society? It is now one hundred years since that question was first posed by that most legendary of Western scholar of Islam, Snouk Hurgronje, and the answer is no more conclusive today than it was then. Today, that question is of much greater importance than ever before. Time will tell whether the long-term consequences of this revolutionary earthquake will have a positive affect on human development. For such an outcome to materialize, the Arab street will have to confront its moral and intellectual failures and come to terms with reason, science, free thought, individualism, and universal human rights.