Confronting the Arab malaise
Al-Arab fi Muwagahat Al-Udwan (The Arabs Confronting Aggression), Tarek El-Bishri, Cairo: Dar Al-Shorouk, 2002. pp120
Since the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington there has been an avalanche of writings by journalists, thinkers and political scientists designed to assist in answering some of the big questions stirred up by these events. Routine questions, about what has befallen the Arab nation, for example, or when will the Arabs stand up and be counted not as the hapless victims of an external enemy or of a despotic regime but as a people with a political will for change, have been the topic of countless lectures, conferences and intellectual gatherings.
Very few Arab intellectuals, however, have made serious attempts to address the issues that lie at the heart of the malaise. But Tarek El- Bishri's book represents one such attempt. El-Bishri, one of Egypt's most respected judges and an Islamist intellectuals, has maintained a lifelong interest in bringing together history and politics. His references to history as a way towards understanding today's politics are abundant in this book, and at the outset El-Bishri explains that the purpose of the book was to take issue with the dominating role of the nation state, which, in his view, has expanded at the expense of Arab civil society. This type of state, argues El-Bishri, is reluctant to allow any individual or social group the right to launch initiatives in the public sphere.
This is the thread running through the book's six chapters, mostly articles which the author has contributed to a number of Egyptian as well as Arab publications in the wake of the September 11 attacks and the second Palestinian Intifada. The book is not intended to offer a plan of action, as the title might suggest, but is rather concerned to glean lessons from the history of Arab politics over the past 50 years for the use of future generations in confronting the present Arab malaise. The questions at the centre of the argument are: to what extent has the central, modern state become powerful at the expense of the nation (umma), and in what way can this dialectic of strong state versus weak nation be explained and deconstructed?
In his attempts to answer these questions, El-Bishri addresses what he believes to be the three main issues central to the debate. These three issues are: the Arab-Israeli conflict and the way Arab governments have managed this over the past half century; the type of relationship between the ruling establishment and the political community, and the consequences of September 11 and the relationship between Arab governments and the United States.
The book was published before the war on Iraq and the subsequent US occupation of that country. However, the Iraq crisis has witnessed the reproduction of familiar questions about the Arab predicament. El-Bishri notes that "the Arabs and Muslims have been party to the big political events over the past 25 years. Two of the great three events in the past quarter of the century have seen the Arabs and Muslims party to them: they include the collapse of the Soviet Union, as Muslims in Afghanistan fighting the Soviet occupation helped contribute to this collapse, the Iranian revolution in 1979, the first Palestinian Intifada in 1987 and the second one from September 2000."
El-Bishri argues that at the heart of the Arab malaise lie a number of chronic cultural and political problems that the Arabs have not made any serious attempts to address, resorting instead to a series of "quick fixes". "When the immediate issue fades, we think the problem has ended, but then we are confronted with another crisis, so we begin to ask the same questions all over again, situating ourselves in the same positions, as liberals, Islamists, leftists, etc. We are still divided over the issues that existed at the turn of the 20th century: what should we seek to reform first, and how should we prioritise our actions? Should we initiate reform from the inside, or should we concentrate on resisting external threats? Which is the cause and which the result? Is the cause of the malaise internal weakness or external threat? With which should we start?"
While El-Bishri argues that internal reform and the resistance to external threats should go in parallel, he acknowledges that part of the problem facing the Arabs is that they have failed to develop a mechanism through which the two can be brought together. He believes that the responsibility of the nation state is to be "a protector of the community's national security in the face of external threats", seeing here the legitimate role of the state, which should be coupled with efforts to maintain the cohesion of the political community. The state apparatus should represent the core socio-political and cultural trends of the political community, and, as far as welfare issues such as education, health services and social security are concerned, El-Bishri suggests that they should be left to civil society bodies to deal with. These areas were originally assumed by civil entities, with the central state securing the state against external dangers.
El-Bishri acknowledges that there is vagueness and confusion amongst Muslims and Arabs as to what the concept of umma means. "We have left the concept of the umma, which originally denoted religious unity, and moved to a concept of umma as a national group that is linguistically united. By the same token, the concept of national security has become confused in the minds of the governments."
"One of the requirements of national security is to safeguard the political community and to defend it. This should come at the head of the state's duties towards the political community, and this is the main source for its legitimacy. But the state has failed to strike a balance between the requirements of national security and of 'state security', i.e. the security of the political system. State security has taken precedence over national security in a confusion that has beset most Arab and Muslim governments. This imbalance has been reflected in many of the Arab summits held to discuss the Palestinian question. The resolutions of such summits reflect how most of these governments are more concerned about their relationship with the United States than they are about their national security."
El-Bishri cites the Palestinian question as a stark example of how Arab national security has been vitiated by Arab governments. "Each Arab country has national boundaries beyond which its regional sovereignty ceases to function; however, the collective national security of the Arab countries in reality extends beyond such boundaries. Thus, the Palestinian question is of great significance in safeguarding Egypt's national security, as well as that of Lebanon and Syria."
So pre-occupied is El-Bishri with the question of Palestine, which he regards as being the core issue, that he almost sets out to outline a strategy drawn from previous historic experiences as to how the Arabs can properly manage the conflict and deal with the Zionist threat. He points out that the peace accords that Egypt signed with Israel in the 1970s did not put an end to the conflict, only putting an end to war between the two countries. He argues that struggle from within the Occupied Territories against Zionism should be the tactic to be employed against the Zionist entity: "all forms of resistance should be put to work, including violent resistance. There should also be a closing of ranks between the Palestinians inside the territories." El-Bishri is a great believer in the capabilities of popular movements, supporting popular and civic forms of resistance.
In the two chapters of the book devoted to the implications of September 11 for the Arab political scene, El-Bishri ridicules the idea that the date has become a point of reference in world history, insisting that it is purely an American one. "The United States wants to make 11 September a date with a universal significance. It particularly wants to make it a date connected with the Arab and Muslim world. Some of us have unfortunately fallen into this trap; however, it was a purely American event connected to American policies and contexts." As far as Arabs and Muslims are concerned, US policies laid bare after the attacks should be of far greater significance.
In addition, the 11 September attacks should not be regarded as an attempted 'act of liberation". The violence committed by the historical national liberation movements, El-Bishri explains, derived its legitimacy from the fact that it was undertaken in the service of such movements. The 11 September attacks, by contrast, were not. On the contrary, the "11 September attacks have provided the aggressor with the justification and moral ground to impose its hegemony. They have allowed the aggressor to present itself as being the wronged party, with a moral case."
Throughout the book, El-Bishri deftly takes the reader through the history of the Palestinian question, dotted with references to Egyptian history. He illuminates our understanding of the real issues at the heart of the Arab predicament. He not only defines the issues and the forces at work, but also offers what he considers a strategy, or blueprint, based on his reading of history, law and politics. With the Arabs continuing to experience political and cultural malaise, this book deserves urgent attention, and it makes a very compelling read.
Reviewed by Omayma Abdel-Latif