Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 - 16 March 2005
Issue No. 733
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Abdel-Moneim Said

The exception proves the rule

For decades Arab specificity was an excuse for inertia. Now Abdel-Moneim Said* sees belated signs of change

For two decades now the Arabs have been spoken of as a special case, as a people unlike other peoples. Apparently, what is good for others is not good for us. Rules governing the process of international change, it seems, do not apply to us. The rest of the world may embrace capitalism, it may tilt ever more towards democracy.

But that's the rest of the world. The first wave of what I shall call Arab exceptionalism became apparent in the 1980s when many countries around the world embraced the market economy and began privatising their public sectors. State- owned companies became more corporate and more cost-effective almost everywhere, apart, that is, from in the Arab world. We continued to create yet more public enterprises, expanding the public sector as if there was no tomorrow, and filling up an already bloated sector with ever more employees.

The second wave of exceptionalism came with the end of the Cold War. As democracy spread its wings across Eastern Europe, South America and Southeast Asia, and then, in the 1990s, across Africa, the Arab world shrugged its shoulders in indifference. Arabs resisted capitalism and frowned on democracy.

The rest of the world was changing. Democracy was on the march. Members of the former Warsaw Pact became members of the EU. We stood still and watched. It was at this point that some in the West began to speak of our exceptionalism, for how else could they make sense of this extraordinary situation?

And the notion that we were indeed exceptional was happily fed by Arab commentators, politicians and analysts. They were sceptical about globalisation, doubtful about capitalism, cautious about democracy. And they offered many reasons, ranging from leftover Marxism, to Pan- Arabism, to religious tradition and the legacy of our history.

And the world bought it. The world agreed we were a people like no other. Western politicians did. Universities and research centres did. Even civil society groups, mouths agape at the Arab World's appalling human rights record, bought into the myth of our difference.

The Arabs, everyone agreed, would need more time than others before moving forward. And everything that happened in our part of the world reinforced this assumption. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict made the region look quaint. Oil, and non-oil, interests made others want to believe us. Things deemed objectionable elsewhere were tolerated, so long as they happened in the Middle East.

And then came 9/11, and in its wake everything changed. Some in the West, particularly in Europe, continued to believe that the Arabs were exceptional, that they were inherently different. Others, especially the neo-conservatives in the US, increasingly disputed the assessment. The Arabs, meanwhile, became visibly defensive. Arab regimes appeared to enter a state of collective denial as they argued that yes, indeed, our region is unlike any other in the world. Any outside suggestion that reform was overdue was denounced as an assault on our sovereignty.

Politicians and intellectuals ranted against foreign intervention, even when that intervention promoted political and economic reform. Which is where we stand today. A great deal is happening in our midst. Conservatives challenge reformers, the government and opposition quarrel but agree on snubbing outsiders when the latter call for reform.

Outsiders are divided. On 9 January the Palestinians went to the polls to select a new leader and the winner did not get the usual 99 per cent landslide. On the same day Sudan concluded a peace agreement establishing a democratic federal state. Before January ended Iraq had held its first ever free elections in 50 years. On 26 February President Hosni Mubarak agreed to amend the constitution to allow multi- candidate presidential elections.

Earlier, local elections were held in Saudi Arabia, where women were promised that they would be able to take part in subsequent polls. In Kuwait there is a growing parliamentary consensus that there are no religious reason for women not to participate in elections as either candidates or voters.

Only this week the Lebanese took to the streets, following the assassination of Rafqi Al-Hariri, to demand freedom and independence. The scene in Beirut was reminiscent of Ukraine and other countries in East Europe, where populations had staged peaceful demonstrations demanding liberty and political rights.

Historians will soon enough try to make sense of current events in the Arab world. Some will argue that the change was due to external forces. Others will maintain that domestic pressure had reached the point of no return. What will be harder to fathom is whether Arab exceptionalism had finally died, or whether it was a bluff all along. Much has changed and much will change.

What we see now is the tip of the iceberg. We don't know whether the Sudanese agreement will hold. We don't know whether the election of Mahmoud Abbas is the beginning or the end of the struggle for Palestinian salvation. We don't know whether the Iraqi elections will bring national unity or civil war. We don't know whether thae changes in Saudi Arabia are the start of real reform, or a ripple across a stagnant pond. We don't know whether the constitutional amendment is the beginning of a comprehensive political makeover in Egypt or a measure designed to stall reform.

We don't know whether the Lebanese protests will nudge the country towards independence or chaos. All these questions lack answers.

All we know is that the bureaucracy, conservatism and fundamentalism that surround us remain strong. They are forces that thrived on our exceptionalism, and they will stop at nothing as they try to drag us back.

* The writer is director of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

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