Where next for the Arab world?
This was asked when Arab revolutions broke out in the middle of the last century, when army officers squandered popular goodwill and gave their people decades of dictatorship. As now, there was hope in the air. Then, the ideological underwriting for tyrants was pan-Arabism and Arab socialism. Today, the ideology of radical Islamism and the lack of mobilized, political alternatives threaten the street uprisings of young Arabs.
Googlers, Facebookers, and the Twitterati may have helped overthrow military dictators, but these elite, urban youth do not possess political alternatives, constituencies, movements, and trust in parts of their countries where social media has no presence. This mismatch helps explain, for example, why they lost the referendum on changes to the Egyptian constitution in March of this year. The critical mass in most Arab countries is still mobilized by the Muslim Brotherhood and its various offshoots through mosques, organizational networks, trade unions, schools, and even businesses.
My fascination with Arabs began at elementary school when at London’s Regent’s Park Mosque I participated in annual Quran recitation competitions with Egyptians and other Arabs. I first visited the Middle East aged 18. It was a trip to the holy sites in Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. Fixated by the ways of the Arabs, I’ve since lived in the region, travelled across it, learned the Arabic language, and studied Arab politics as a graduate student. I continue to spend time in Arab countries in the gatherings of ordinary people in homes, mosques, and cafes, but also among activists of secularist, liberal, nationalist, Islamist, and even Jihadist tendencies. My propensity is to avoid presidential and princely palaces—real power in the Arab world increasingly lies elsewhere.
In coming years, I believe Islamist parties will be on the rise in Arab countries. As they gain power, their liberal critics will amplify criticism of Islamist policies in the public space—although translating that criticism into votes will prove tough in the foreseeable future. In contrast, Islamist parties that work through the electoral process will be attacked by extreme Salafis and Jihadists for compromising Islam and not declaring an “Islamic State” in Egypt or Tunisia.
In “The Arab Street,” I aim to
- explain and highlight policy-relevant debates between clerics, politicians, and activists that will ultimately determine Islam’s role in society throughout the region;
- examine and track al-Qaeda’s narrative and appeal as developments unfold in the Middle East;
- analyze government and civil society efforts (or the lack thereof) to counter facets of Islamist extremism, the precursor to Jihadist violence; and
- contrast and comment on how Pakistan’s challenges compare with those in the Arab world.
From time to time, I will write from the region. Throughout, I want to hear your views, too. Please feel free to write and agree, disagree, comment, or question. You may also engage with me on Twitter at Ed_Husain. My only request is that in the spirit of the ancient Arabs, we maintain adab, or courtesy and politeness.