For over two decades, the Arab region — replete with historical events — has been passing through a turbulent phase. This phase reached its peak with the Arab Spring revolutions over a year ago. This phase gave an indication that it was very painful as we have witnessed in Libya and are now tragically seeing in Syria. On the other side, this phase with its developments does not give any indication of a near end.
Ironically, while incidents and developments take place on the ground at this stage, the thought, with all its directions, seems less able to keep pace. The values of freedom, democracy and civil state show themselves clearly on the scene, but without developing into a cohesive thought with a clear identity that would lead these movements and put them on the right track.
The revolution that took place was an action that came out of the social and political reality without agitation or intellectual incentive outside this reality. The revolution was a spontaneous action directed against despotism. There was no ideology before and there has been none so far. What does this situation say about the nature of the relationship between the thought in all its forms and the reality with all its complications? It is obvious that the value of freedom and the desire to be emancipated from the fetters of dictatorship were the driving force for the masses in Arab countries that witnessed the pangs of the popular revolution, but what is the value of freedom when it loses its momentum due to the absence of an ideological frame encompassing it?
Horizontally, the thought that was accompanying the revolution (not the thought of the revolution) in Egypt, for instance, was divided into conflicting currents. Vertically, each single current was in itself divided into trends that were at odds in their attitudes and visualizations. For example, the Islamic current comprises the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafis, the central party and the Azhar school; while the liberal current includes parties that are purely national, some with inter-Arab inclinations; a third group with liberal tendencies; and a fourth with leftist color.
The Muslim Brothers with their Islamic thought could have been the domineering power, especially when we take into consideration their long history, their rich political experience, their broad popular base and the big size of their organization. However, their political performance since the outbreak of the revolution has been causing them successive political losses that could not be justified.
Moreover, despite their long history and big size, the Muslim Brothers were not able to present a cohesive Islamic ideological formula belonging to the spirit of the revolution and manifesting its aspirations. Maybe for this very reason, the chances of their presidential candidate Muhammad Mursi, who came first in the first round of the elections, look bleak in the runoff against Gen. Ahmed Shafiq, the candidate of the old regime against which the revolution broke out. This is a paradox that nobody foresaw or expected. It is still surprising many people.
What is happening to the Egyptian political thought during the phase of the popular revolution is being repeated in other Arab countries with the same experience. Therefore, it is part of an overall Arab way of thinking that is innate in this particular phase. The revolution broke out before it was preceded by the formation of a political and social ideology to rely on.
In other words, the reality was changed by the Arab Spring before there was any change in the political thought, or so it seems. If this observation is true, then the revolutions of the Arab Spring represent a unique historical case that may be unprecedented. These revolutions are, therefore, completely opposite to what had happened to the society of Makkah, when Islam first appeared during the first half of the seventh century or to Europe at the start of the Enlightenment period in the 18th century. In both cases, the thought was the first indicator of change that anticipated the reality and decided its direction.
Can we say, in this case, if the examples of Makkah and Europe are a proof that the thought, one way or another, is just a reflection of the reality, then the revolutions of the Arab Spring are a proof of the other supposition, which is that the thought is independent from reality? The question in this form and this meaning may insinuate a wrong conclusion, because it depends on the logic and not on the direct observations taken from the reality and its relationship with thought.
Out of this, we should note that there is a harmony between the reality on one side and the thought on the other in the two examples of Makkah and Europe. In the case of the Arab Spring, it is clear that both the political thought and the political reality are suffering from uncertainty, division and instability. This means that the thought is in harmony with the reality and it reflects it. The question is: Has the reality preceded the thought in making the change? And is the reality independent from the thought and not affected by its suppositions and visualizations? Or is the matter contrary to what it looks in its superficial appearance? The question was imposed by the differences between the historical era of the Arab Spring and that of Makkah during the appearance of Islam and Europe during the advent of the Renaissance.
In both cases, the change took place within the framework of an international system, which was less cohesive and less hegemonic compared to the present capitalist system during which the Arab revolutions took place. We can safely say that the change that happened in Makkah and Europe took place in the absence of foreign ideological and political influences and foreign pressures, while the Arab Spring took place with a different regional and international setup due to the great revolution in communications and information technology.
The foreign world had direct influence on the political, cultural and economic accumulations that led to the outbreak of the Arab revolutions. This happened from a number of angles — the interaction between the Arab world and the West at various levels and the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is true that the regimes that were targeted by the revolutions were linked by strong political and security ties with the international powers that are influential in the world order, such as the US.
These relationships supported the despotic nature of the targeted regime. Here we have to notice that the influence of the foreign factor has passed through a domestic filter. The most important of these influences were the intellectual and political ones, which have accumulated over a number of decades and via various channels. Once again, this happened because of the capitalist nature of the world order, which is also hegemonic. Is the hypothesis that reality preceded thought in the Arab Spring correct?
￼ Khaled Al-Dakheel is a Saudi academician and writer.
(Courtesy of Al-Hayat newspaper)