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The Arab Spring Feels Weak on "Strongmen"

Posted: 01/21/2013 5:37 pm

This article was first published at OpenCanada.org.

As we mark the two-year anniversary of the Arab uprisings, we see plenty of figurative post-mortems on the Arab leaders, or strongmen, that have been usurped by the masses. But what can we learn from these revolutions about the Arab people and the type of government they seek? How do these uprisings complicate the theory of "Arab exceptionalism" (as it was once described in polite academic and analytical circles)?

This term, I'm afraid, was not intended as a compliment: Many analysts of the Middle East talked about how the Arab world was "exceptional" to the experience of democratization -- and, implicitly, to modernization -- thanks to resilient authoritarian political structures. In other words, Arabs were really good at constructing systems that revolved around security institutions, and that relied on nepotism and cult-ish adoration of the leader by the masses to survive.

I have never found this argument helpful in explaining the politics of the region, not least because it typically descended into cultural arguments about how the Arab people want strongmen, respect the abuser, or simply view "might as right." It is an academic theory that has always been too reminiscent of cultural psychologist Raphael Patai's 1973 book, The Arab Mind, which provided lessons on how to dominate the Arab people, and implied that such lessons were legitimated by the behaviour of Arabs themselves.

When Seymour Hersh wrote his exposé in the New Yorker about the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, he noted that Patai's book was the inspiration behind the Bush neo-conservatives' modus operandi for containing the Arab people. The book, like Abu Ghraib, is a reminder of how the Arab people have been dehumanized as they've been poked and prodded by outside analysts.

So, what does this theory that the Arab people want strongmen have to do with the Arab Spring?

In my opinion, the Arab Spring has debunked this theory once and for all, as Arabs have shown the world they are looking for the complete opposite of strongmen. The uprisings were devoid of charismatic leaders, and none have captured the imagination of the various revolutions thus far. Indeed, the international community has at times made loud calls for the revolutionary groups to find leaders so external powers would have interlocutors.

Frankly, the Arab people are not searching for new larger-than-life leaders. They are not looking for someone to take to the podium and rhyme off speeches that try to restore confidence with rhetoric and empty promises. Arabs do not want to pay deference to strongmen, real or perceived -- they are fed up with omnipotent leaders.

So, when Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi gave his speech to the nation, and when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stood in front of the Damascus Opera House to give his statesmen a lesson in geopolitics, they were out of sync entirely with the dynamic of the revolutions.

Today, the people of the Arab world want technocrats, functionaries, and doers to lead them. Long-winded speeches and convoluted ideological arguments are not satisfying to a class of educated, well-traveled, and increasingly cosmopolitan people. Greater and greater numbers of Arabs are calling on leaders to effectively formulate and implement policies -- they want reforms in every sense of the word. Fiery nationalist speeches that may have been enough to spark hope in days past now only fan feelings of frustration.

In many ways, this is the reason for the Arab uprisings: It is a process resulting from the increased education, urbanization, and empowerment of the Arab people. It is hard to tell a generation of young, educated people that because someone else commands the megaphone and has a stick to back it, they ought to acquiesce. The actions of this generation disprove any thesis that Arab societies are predisposed to dictatorship and stagnation. The Arab Spring should put an end to "Arab exceptionalism", and to the idea that we are merely waiting for alternative Arab strongmen to replace the ones that have been forced out.

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  • Egyptian protesters chant slogans at rally in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012. Egyptians flocked to Cairo's central Tahrir square on Tuesday for a protest against Egypt's president in a significant test of whether the opposition can rally the street behind it in a confrontation aimed at forcing the Islamist leader to rescind decrees that granted him near absolute powers. (AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra)

  • Egyptian protesters attend an opposition rally in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012. Thousands flocked to Cairo's central Tahrir square on Tuesday for a protest against Egypt's president in a significant test of whether the opposition can rally the street behind it in a confrontation aimed at forcing the Islamist leader to rescind decrees that granted him near absolute powers.(AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

  • A masked Egyptian protester takes cover during clashes with security forces near Tahrir square, where an opposition rally has been called for to voice rejection of President Morsi's seizure of near absolute powers, in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012. Egyptian protesters and police clashed in Cairo on Tuesday just hours ahead of a planned massive rally by opponents of the country's Islamist president demanding he rescind decrees that granted him near-absolute powers.(AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra)

  • Tens of thousands people take part in a mass rally against a decree by President Mohamed Morsi granting himself broad powers on November 27, 2012 at Egypt's landmark Tahir Square in Cairo. Clashes between police and protesting youths erupted near Cairo's Tahrir Square, ahead of the demonstration. The planned demonstrations come a day after Morsi stuck by his controversial decree in a meeting with judges that was aimed at defusing the worst political crisis since his election in June. (GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images)

  • An Egyptian protester attempts to throw back a tear gas canister on November 27, 2012 during clashes with the Egyptian Riot Police in Omar Makram street, off Tahrir Square in Cairo. Clashes between police and protesting youths erupted on Tuesday near Cairo's Tahrir Square, ahead of a mass rally against a decree by President Mohamed Morsi granting himself broad powers. The planned demonstrations come a day after Morsi stuck by his controversial decree in a meeting with judges that was aimed at defusing the worst political crisis since his election in June. (GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images)

  • An Egyptian protester blows a stadium horn as he gestures at a cordon of security forces near Tahrir square, where an opposition rally has been called for to voice rejection of President Morsi's seizure of near absolute powers, in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012. Egyptian protesters and police clashed in Cairo on Tuesday just hours ahead of a planned massive rally by opponents of the country’s Islamist president demanding he rescinds decrees that granted him near-absolute powers. (AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra)

  • Egyptian security forces arrest a protester during clashes near Tahrir square in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012. Egyptian protesters and police clashed in Cairo on Tuesday just hours ahead of a planned massive rally by opponents of the country’s Islamist president demanding he rescinds decrees that granted him near-absolute powers.(AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra)

  • An Egyptian protester hurls a stone during clashes with security forces, unseen, in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012. Egyptian protesters firebombed one of the offices of satellite broadcaster Al-Jazeera on Wednesday and attacked a police chief who tried to negotiate an end to three days of violent protests in central Cairo.(AP Photo/Ahmed Gomaa)

  • An Egyptian protester drags a security barrier during clashes outside the country's high court in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012. Egypt’s highest body of judges slammed on Saturday a recent decision by the president to grant himself near-absolute power, calling the move an “unprecedented assault” on the judiciary. The statement from the Supreme Judicial Council came as hundreds of demonstrators clashed with police outside a downtown Cairo courthouse. They were protesting the Thursday declaration by President Mohammed Morsi that courts could not overrule his decrees until a new constitution and parliament is in place, several months if not more in the future. (AP Photo/Mohammed Asad)

  • Egyptian protesters gather outside the country's high court in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012. Egypt’s highest body of judges slammed on Saturday a recent decision by the president to grant himself near-absolute power, calling the move an “unprecedented assault” on the judiciary. The statement from the Supreme Judicial Council came as hundreds of demonstrators clashed with police outside a downtown Cairo courthouse. They were protesting the Thursday declaration by President Mohammed Morsi that courts could not overrule his decrees until a new constitution and parliament is in place, several months if not more in the future. (AP Photo/Mohammed Asad)

  • Egyptian protesters gather in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, Sunday, Nov. 25, 2012. President Mohammed Morsi edicts, which were announced on Thursday, place him above oversight of any kind, including that of the courts. The move has thrown Egypt's already troubled transition to democracy into further turmoil, sparking angry protests across the country to demand the decrees be immediately rescinded. The banner in Arabic, top center, reads, "members of the Muslim Brotherhood are not allowed." (AP Photo/Ahmed Gomaa)

  • An Egyptian protester shouts political slogans against President Mohamed Morsi's decree granting himself broad powers as others wave their national flag during a demonstration in Cairo's Tahrir Square on November 27, 2012. The planned demonstrations come a day after Morsi met with the country's top judges in a bid to defuse the crisis over the decree, that has sparked deadly clashes and prompted judges and journalists to call for strike. (GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images)

  • An Egyptian protester recovers from tear gas inhalation on November 27, 2012, during clashes with the Egyptian Riot Police in Omar Makram street, off Tahrir Square in Cairo. Clashes between police and protesting youths erupted near Cairo's Tahrir Square, ahead of a mass rally against a decree by President Mohamed Morsi granting himself broad powers. The planned demonstrations come a day after Morsi stuck by his controversial decree in a meeting with judges that was aimed at defusing the worst political crisis since his election in June. (GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A group of protesters shout slogans against Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi during a demonstration in front of the White House in Washington on November 26, 2012. Morsi stuck by a controversial decree granting him sweeping powers, on the eve of planned nationwide rallies to protest the move, in the worst crisis since his election in June. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

  • A group of protesters shout slogans against Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi during a demonstration in front of the White House in Washington on November 26, 2012. Morsi stuck by a controversial decree granting him sweeping powers, on the eve of planned nationwide rallies to protest the move, in the worst crisis since his election in June. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)


 

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