Al-Ahram Weekly Online   13 - 19 January 2005
Issue No. 725
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Hala Mustafa

The return of the spirit

Hala Mustafa* explores obstacles to political reform

"The only thing we should fear is fear itself." This statement set me thinking as I was turning the pages of an article on renewing political party life in the Arab world. Renewal is a synonym for reform and modernisation. It is the issue of our time, with Arab societies in a critical phase of reforming all aspects of their political frameworks.

Change -- any change -- invariably raises fear and suspicion, and leads to challenges that we cannot overcome without first breaking down the barrier of fear within us. Heritage, traditions and experience, regardless of their relevance to contemporary reality, can create obstacles that not only prevent the adoption of new concepts but prevent even the trying of anything different.

This fear of the new is not limited to Arab or developing societies, or to those in the process of reforming their political systems. Developed countries, too, have had to deal with the same response. The statement at the beginning of this article was in fact taken from a speech made in the early 1930s by US president Franklin Roosevelt in which he announced to the American people that the government was to implement major internal reforms, dubbed the New Deal.

Fear of change is a universal phenomenon, not related to the size, wealth or experience of a country. What differs from one society to another is the ability and means of those in government to deal with it. This must be considered when looking at the process of democratic reform and modernisation in the Arab world, which demands the revision and development of many of the existing ideological and political frameworks.

A sound multiparty foundation is the basis for any modern political system based on legally sanctioned pluralism, openness and free competition between different political and social forces. Members of a society cannot participate in the political process without a political party framework that provides legitimate channels for expression of thought and pursuit of interests -- as opposed to control by factions built on tribal, ethnic or other affiliations. As political parties provide a framework for expressing views and pursuing interests, they automatically widen political participation, thus ensuring that the political system continually adapts to reflect the needs of society. When parties are unable to "modernise" the system, they effectively lose their primary function.

Within this context there is much that could be said concerning the rise and development of Arab political parties. The Arab experience saw the early formation of parties, which have transformed from one form to another in line with the development of political, social and cultural conditions. The long heritage of these parties has at certain moments in history helped them to modernise and develop themselves, and at others has hindered them.

Arab political parties were not born out of the same circumstances as their European and US counterparts nearly two centuries ago. The western experience was related to the industrial revolution and the grassroots social and economic changes that accompanied it, while the formation of the modern institutionalised state also increased political participation. In other words, multiparty politics took hold in the West as a result of industrial development and modernisation -- conditions that were not present in the Arab experience. In some cases, the weakness or lack of state institutions and the consolidation of traditional components of Arab society hindered the development of political life. Primary affiliations such as the family, tribe, faction or sect remained stronger than general national political affiliations, leaving a social, economic and cultural environment not conducive to the development of a multiparty system.

In other cases, political parties have existed as modern political organisations within a traditional environment. While there have of course been achievements in terms of modernisation and development, huge steps have been the exception. Egypt, for example, began to modernise and to institutionalise its politics at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, when Mohammed Ali implemented a renaissance project that left strong foundations for the growth of a nation state.

It is important too that most Arab political parties were formed in the colonial era, which meant that their main political concerns were related to a specific historical situation -- the fight for independence -- which was also their reason for being. There were exceptions, however, such as the first liberal era, which followed on naturally from the modern Egyptian and Arab renaissance, in which the ideas and ideologies of political parties varied as a result of the spread of liberal culture, constitutional laws and the principles of civil rights. The post-colonial stage, however, with its revolutionary tone, saw the implementation of a number of grand political projects not necessarily compatible with political pluralism or democratic reform. This was the era of Arab nationalism. Arab political life was dominated from the late 1940s by the Baathists, and throughout the 1950s and 1960s by the Nasserist experience in Egypt, which sought to install a single political system across the region. In the second half of the 1970s, Egypt looked once more to the principle of political pluralism -- albeit in a limited form -- and encouraged others in the region to follow suit.

Without delving too deeply into history, what matters here is the effect of recent history on the development of multiparty systems in the Arab world. It was no historical coincidence that Arab socialist nationalist thought was related to a one-party system. The ideological focus of the Arab nationalist movement, regardless of its different tendencies, was the need to counter foreign intervention and achieve independence. Within this context, pluralism was considered a form of division, incompatible with the main goal. The right of political and social forces to differ was thus not needed, welcomed or granted. There is no doubt that this nurtured the principle of the one-party system within Arab socialist thought, leading to an era of one leader, one voice. At this time, all political mechanisms, as well as the media, were used for mobilisation of the public -- not as an outlet for free speech or political expression.

The era of the one-party system led to an institutional form closer to the concept of the "national front" than the political party. It was based on the idea that fighting colonialism, imperialism and Zionism was -- or should be -- the unifying factor between nationalists, leftists, Islamists and liberals. This was perhaps best expressed by Egyptian writer and thinker Tawfiq Al-Hakim when he wrote of "all for one" in his 1933 novel "The Return of the Spirit." In this novel, which Gamal Abdel-Nasser considered a prediction of the 1952 revolution, Al-Hakim calls upon the Egyptian people to stand up and revive their spirit by backing a single leader who will bring back that spirit.

"The Return of the Spirit" was a romantic dream of independence and renaissance, the first part of which was achieved. The issues of renaissance, modernisation, freedom and democracy, however, remained unsolved until the loss of 1967. In 1972, Al- Hakim wrote "The Return of Awareness," 20 years after his first dream. It did not take the form of a novel but rather a selection of thoughts; as he said himself, he was not writing history but only scenes and emotions from his memory expressing that he was wrong to follow one leader. Here he admitted an earlier lack of political awareness, shared by the whole nation, at a specific moment in history. Al- Hakim was honest in both cases: expressing hope for a revolution that would bring renaissance; and the need for self-revision after the experience failed.

Yet the legacy of the past need not govern the present. "All for one" could come to refer to a unified national affiliation, though of course one that considers the right to differ a primary human right. The difference would be pluralism in thought and politics, supported by a multiparty system.

While most political parties in the Arab world still lean towards unilateralism, and focus more on international than domestic issues, the parties themselves are not entirely to blame. They are, after all, subject to the political, social, cultural and legal limitations of their environment. It is impossible to imagine, therefore, that a new stage in multiparty politics will occur without a comprehensive vision of how this can be achieved. The need for a new vision stems from the sweeping changes of the last two decades on the international, regional and domestic levels. What was suitable in the Cold War era, for example, in the context of a bipolar world order, is no longer applicable. The Arabs must therefore seek to revise and develop their policies, for only by embracing policies that are flexible and quickly adaptable to changing realities will they be able to move forward.

It is clear that political discourse and the dominant political trends in the Arab world remain under the influence of the past, and that there must be efforts to find a vision to replace that of pan-Arabism. Yet change should not be in the form of a revolution, which would result in totalitarianism and oppression. What is needed is cooperation from all sectors of society in order to form and maintain the necessary political spirit to create a vision that will guide the Arabs to a better future. With this in mind, the Arab experience of multiparty politics -- both in the liberal pluralist era and the nationalist socialist phase -- has created an intellectual, political and institutional heritage that can be built on.

* The writer is editor-in-chief of the quarterly journal Al-Demoqratiya (Democracy) published by Al-Ahram.

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