At no point has this question exercised the minds of scholars and commentators more so than at present. Ever since Mohamed Bouazizi’s act of self-immolation, the matter of what Arabs want has become a central feature of the global debate. Yet there is little that is known for certain apart from a general aspiration to be in a state of freedom—hurriya in Arabic. What that means for the Arabs on the streets of Cairo, Tripoli or Sana’a is wide open to interpretation. Those of a Western disposition would tell you that it means to live in a secular democracy, while an Islamist would argue that true freedom can only be achieved by way of a state that applies the Shari’a.
What is freedom?
There is little consensus among the Arab political classes on the definition of “freedom,” in no small part because they have not yet settled that most elemental question of politics: that of political authority. As Berlin himself put it, “‘Why should I (or anyone) obey anyone else?’ ‘Why should I not live as I like?’ ‘Must I obey?’ ‘If I disobey, may I be coerced?’ ‘By whom, and to what degree, and in the name of what, and for the sake of what?’” Convincing answers have not been forthcoming.
The result is has been a blanket of pessimism and foreboding that has descended on the Arab world as “revolutions” have given way to conflict and chaos. “When ideas are neglected by those who ought to attend to them,” Berlin warned in the 1950s, “they sometimes acquire an unchecked momentum and an irresistible power over multitudes of men that may grow too violent to be affected by rational criticism.” Is this not what troubles the Arab intellectual today? The uprisings may have launched a thousand political careers, but they have not produced a unifying intellectual movement that defines the popular will in the same way as the philosophes did for the French Revolution. There is much that is indefinite, and it is in the indefinite spaces that the power-seekers of Egypt, Tunisia and so on now quarrel, clothed, as they often are, in the language of freedom.
That it is the language of “freedom” and not anything else is significant. But as Berlin argues in Two Concepts of Liberty, the term is heavily nuanced and can serve as much to emancipate as to enslave. Communism may not have survived the last century, but its underlying account of what freedom is lives on through a host of ideas that have dominated Arab political culture for decades.
Whether it be Arab nationalism or political Islam, insofar as these ideologies maintain that the freedom of the social whole—be it a nation or a body of believers—to be of a higher value than that of the individual, they can be said to espouse a vision of “positive freedom.” Communism promised the proletariat the freedom to achieve collective self-realization as a class, while Arab nationalism promised to do the same for a linguistic group, as a sovereign people in a world of sovereign states. “Freedom to” contrasts with “freedom from,” the latter of which is merely the absence of coercion or interference by others. In the West, political freedom has come to mean this “negative,” individual liberty.
However, across the Middle East, calls for the pursuit of ideals exterior to one’s self—“positive freedom”—appear to growing louder and louder. In Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria, Islamists are on the march, promising their peoples the freedom to become great once again, despite the fact that many of the dictatorial regimes that were overthrown relied chiefly on the same type of collectivist ideas for legitimacy. The ideological soil from which Arab democrats hope to cultivate freer societies could hardly be less fertile, and yet what is expected to emerge is something resembling a Western-style liberal democracy, complete with a free press and respect for human rights.
How one intellectual tradition can give rise to a political system that emerged out of another quite distinct tradition remains one of the great paradoxes of the Arab Spring. Those who have already written off the uprisings as unmitigated disasters will say that what the “Arab street” really wants is just another dictator, only this time with a beard. But there is another explanation, which says it has something to do with an Arab propensity to hold simultaneous ideas that are not easily reconcilable. Many in the early part of the last century adopted the slogan “modernity and tradition” (al-asala wal mu’asara) as a cure-all for several centuries of slumber, while the Ba’athist call for “Unity, Freedom, Socialism” a few years later served much the same purpose.
Could it be that, given the deep confusion in the Arab public's mind and its lack of decisive quality, what the Egyptian peasant thinks he wants is both individual and collective freedom? Quite possibly. What is more certain is that, at least with “negative” individual freedom, it is the same type everywhere, whether in Cairo or Oxford, because the objective wants and desires of all human individuals can only be one and the same. Where there is a difference it is not in kind but in quantity, and that is a question of horse-trading between civil society and the government of the land.
The republican fraud
No entity has shaped Arab attitudes to freedom more so than the state. But as Moroccan historian Abdallah Al-Arawi notes, the Arab state has never been associated, in its emergence and development, with the idea of political liberty in its Western sense. “Liberty (hurriya) in Islamic thought has a psychological/metaphysical meaning, whereas in Western thought it carries mainly a political and social meaning,” he wrote.
Indeed, the first recorded use of the word “liberty” to denote “political freedom” dates to the year 1798, when Napoleon Bonaparte issued a declaration in Arabic addressing the Egyptians on behalf of the French Republic “founded on the basis of freedom and equality.” One can then speak of a tension between the concept of liberty and the concept of the state in traditional Arab–Islamic society: “The more extended the concept of the state,” Arawi argues, ”the narrower the scope for freedom.” That is why Arab nation-builders in the modern era failed to entice the Arab citizen into regarding the nationalist state, created in the European image, as a manifestation of a general will or of public ethics. Instead, Arab states are to varying degrees obsessed with power and strength, “but lack the necessary moral, ideological and educational supports.” The result, argues Arawi, is that the state remained “alien” in relation to society, feared but unloved.
This was not a happy start for Arabs who had newly emerged into modernity. It got worse for some when Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser inspired the rise of a fiercer breed of state: the radical, populist republic. Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Algeria and Sudan all came to be ruled by regimes that mimicked Nasser in his authoritarianism, corporatism, militarism and pseudo-socialism. Invariably, power in these states revolved around three poles: the president, the army and the party. In this system, popular legitimacy was found not in procedure or achievement, but in lofty goals expressed in nationalist, religious or class terms, to which ends individual interests and desires were wholly subordinated. In such a state, writes political philosopher Anthony de Jasay, “the subject’s whole existence shall be ruled by one and the same command–obedience relation, with no separate public and private spheres, no divided loyalties, no countervailing centres of power, no sanctuaries and nowhere to go.”
Faced with criticisms over his trampling of political freedoms, in 1961 Nasser set out to explain what he understood by the word “freedom”: “There can be no political freedom in this nation without there being first social freedom,” he declared, “because social freedom is the basis on which man becomes free. Political freedom has no meaning if man is not free from feudalism, capitalism and monopolies.” Herein lies the problem.
Nasser was an angry young man who felt humiliated by Israel, European colonialism, and by a redundant upper class of indolent pashas and effendis. After capturing power, he embarked on an ambitious programme of nationalization, centralization and industrialization, waging a battle to transform the whole of society in spite of itself, to create a more modern and more assertive state that he and his fellow Arabs could be proud of. And because this rapid pace of transformation required a new social ethos, what transpired was a deliberate confusion of values—an ideological sleight of hand by Nasser—in which the limited degree of “negative” political freedom that Egyptians had previously enjoyed was replaced with Soviet-style “positive” freedom that prioritized collective national goals.
The underlying motive for leaders of Nasser’s generation was therefore not the search for political freedom at all, but a search for status by a people wishing to escape a position of perceived inferiority to which colonialism and its trappings of democracy and capitalism had consigned it. And so the term freedom (hurriya) became loosely interchangeable with national independence (istiklal), justice (‘adala), and dignity (karama), blurring their meanings together. For Nasser and his disciples (Mubarak, Saleh, Gaddafi, and so on), freedom was the freedom of the Arab to be taken seriously.
Inasmuch as the recent uprisings were a conscious rejection of the Nasserite model of government, they were also a rejection of that poorly defined freedom that came along with it. Not by chance did republican regimes collapse while monarchies did not. Several factors appear to be at play. The liberalizing influence of satellite television channels on Arab political culture from the mid-1990s onward helped to popularize “freedom,” “democracy,” “elections,” “human rights” and other words that engendered a liberal consciousness. There was also the uncomfortable adjustment to market capitalism that many of the populist republics had to endure, which resulted in a contraction of the state’s social base and a widening of the gap between rich and poor. For paternalistic regimes that prided themselves on being able to provide for their people, this proved particularly damaging.
But there is also another factor, one that shattered the foundations of the radical republican dream. The humiliating defeat of Saddam Hussein proved to be the crippling blow because he, more so than any other Arab dictator, took the Nasserite model to its logical (and rather absurd) conclusions. But far from elevating the status of Iraq in the rank of nations, he brought disaster upon it in a series of misadventures that destroyed his country’s prestige, economy and society—exactly the opposite of what the Nasserite model was meant to achieve. His demise underscored the moral bankruptcy of a system that suppressed humanity’s empirical needs and desires to a transcendent and controlling “self”—a bloated bureaucracy no less—which manipulated and crushed the individual until he had lost all agency. Saddam’s undignified end was not only the final nail in the coffin for a deeply authoritarian system of government, but also for the vision of freedom on which it was based.
Speaking at an Arab League summit in 2008, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi showed that he knew that the writing was on the wall. “A foreign power occupies an Arab country and hangs its leader while we watch and laugh,” he harangued fellow heads of state. “An entire Arab leadership is taken away to the gallows while we watch! Maybe it will all be your turn next!”
One of the great tenets of the post-Bouazizi era is that what Arabs want is democracy. In an earlier generation, similar pronouncements were made about Arabs wanting nothing more than the liberation of Palestine, or socialism, or the nationalization of oil. General assumptions such as these risks pigeon-holing Arab needs based on whatever slogan happened to be fashionable at the time. Isaiah Berlin, for one, saw no necessary connection between freedom and democratic rule. “The answer to the question 'Who governs me?’” he wrote, “is logically distinct from the question ‘How far does government interfere with me?’” Indeed, a democracy may deprive an individual of many liberties which he might otherwise enjoy in some other form of society.
Present-day Egypt serves as a warning against confusing democracy with freedom. The country’s rulers may have been elected through a free and fair vote, but they have been unwilling to dismantle the authoritarian state against which the youths of Tahrir Square ranged themselves. "That authoritarian conception of the state remained entrenched regardless of the differing ideologies and motivations of those who ruled," wrote commentator Jack Shenker, “from colonial officials to the post-1952 military dictatorship, from Hosni Mubarak's kleptocrats to the army junta that managed the so-called ‘transition’ to democracy,” and now arguably to the Muslim Brotherhood. So what really has changed in the new Egypt? Activists continue to be imprisoned, NGOs hounded, voluntary associations criminalized and women victimized, while contrived identity politics dominates the political space. Without an agenda to enshrine individual liberty—that is, to redraw the boundary between public authority and private life decisively in favor of the latter—the promise of the revolution will remain unfulfilled.
The Arab Spring may have opened a Pandora’s Box of unresolved prejudices and vendettas, but it has also broken open the box containing Arab individualism, which so far has not expressed eloquently, but it is there nevertheless and cannot be put back in the box. It is the natural counter-reaction to the authoritarianism of the Nasserite republics, and it represents the latent energy that has sustained an irresistible drive for change.
This is manifesting in various ways. Political scientist Olivier Roy has written extensively about the “diversification and the individualization of the religious field,” and how this has helped bring religion back into the private sphere and exclude it from government management. In politics, too, this process is taking place, albeit with some unexpected results: a study by an Egyptian social scientist shows that voters in a village in Fayoum chose the Salafists over the Muslim Brotherhood partly because they came across as less monolithic and centralized. Arab political culture might still be dominated by collectivist and statist ideas inspired by “positive” visions of freedom, but these are increasingly being used simply to legitimize what is blatantly a free enterprise agenda aimed at creating diversity and meeting individual tastes. Thus the Salafists of Egypt will talk about an Islamic state, but what they really appear to be interested in doing is opening profit-making TV channels, segregated coffee shops and alcohol-free hotel resorts. The idea that a state—any state—can hope to solve society’s ills in the coming decades is declining in the public mind and giving way to a quasi-libertarian vision that accommodates different lifestyle choices within a politically neutral, though not necessarily fully democratic, framework.
Some states, like Syria and Yemen, may not survive this process, but the current trajectory of the uprisings points to that end. The Arab search for individual “negative” freedom is, in this respect, absolutely elemental to an understanding of the spirit of the Arab Spring
For any of that to be realized, there must first be an authority that will sustain and protect political liberty. Here, the discord-riven republics can learn something from the monarchies that have traditionally been more successful in delineating the public and private realms. The historian Bernard Lewis believes that this may have something to do with how different Arab countries came to experience Western hegemony. “In those [Arab] countries which were never entirely taken over [by colonial powers],” he writes, “the discussion of freedom was concerned primarily not with the rights of the group against other groups or of the state against other states, but rather with the rights of the individual against the group or the state.”
Consequently, the monarchies have tended to recognize society and its constitutive groups and have not sought to supplant them as the populist republics had done. Attachment to family, kin, neighborhood and community, observance of custom and tradition, an adherence to a collective faith and a general nostalgia for the past: this is the “organic” ideology on which all Arab monarchies are established. Indeed, authority in monarchical states can said to be more “social” than “political,” more cultural than coercive. This, in large part, explains why revolution has not taken place in Jordan, Morocco or Saudi Arabia. Post-Arab Spring “democracies,” take note.