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Editorials 26 June, 2011

The Unity of Consciousness


Hichem Karoui

​After earning a PhD in Sociology from the Sorbonne University, Dr. Karouii began specializing in international relations and the sociology of elites. His research includes studies on networks of politicians, businessmen, and military leaders, locally and internationally, with a particular focus on the relationship between the United States and the societies of the Arab-Muslim region (the Middle East and North Africa); the reproduction of elites and their affiliations; ideologies, frames of reference, and comparative values; and the interactions of Arab and Muslim minorities in the West with their surroundings and origins. He was the founder and editor-in-chief of the Middle East Studies Online Journal, a peer-reviewed academic journal that is published in three languages. He has been following and commenting on Arab and international politics for more 25 years. In addition, he has published hundreds of articles and numerous research papers in Arabic, French, and English in specialized journals in Europe, the US, and the Arab world. Since the 1980s, Dr. Karouii has published several books on international relations, as well as political and social conditions in the Arab world. Among his publications are The International Balance from the Cold War to the Détente (Tunis, 1985); The Eagle and the Borders: A Preface for a Critique of the Arab Political Reality (Tunis, 1989); Post-Saddam Iraq (Paris, 2005); The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: Where to? (Paris, 2006); Muslims: a Nightmare or a Force for Europe? (Paris, 2011).

The outbreak and spread of unrest and revolutions in a number of countries is not surprising, especially following the successful overthrow of the regimes and heads of state in Tunisia and Egypt, and the start of a process of change affecting the constitutional and legal constellations according to which political life is organized in these two countries. States that have been united in their repression of dissent for so long now witness a new type of union we can call a "union of popular anger," based on a "union of consciousness".

After spreading throughout North Africa, from the far Maghreb to the Nile Basin, the revolution is now raging in Libya, uprisings and protests are succeeding in forcing Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh out of the country. Simultaneously, popular rage is spreading throughout Syria.

It is obvious that the Syrian regime and their Libyan counterpart are, in fact, in their last phases, for when a political regime runs out of political options, and can only maneuver a popular crisis by means of killing, then that political regime is, essentially, politically dead.

It is also obvious that civil and democratic revolutions are redefining the political map in the Arab World in ways that raise numerous questions of strategic magnitude in Israel and the United States. It is, therefore, inevitable that these revolutions will have a lasting impact on those regimes popular rage has not yet reached - regimes which have, for so long, disregarded popular demands for basic rights, as well as advice from Western allies. This impact will be a positive one if it empowers reformists under autocratic regimes with the prerogatives necessary to embark on reforms that address the social and political dynamics of their populations before it becomes ‘too late'. Inevitably, change has become the inescapable fate of all societies; the earlier political regimes achieve this change, the more likely they are to preserve a degree of credibility and legitimacy - provided they are genuine reforms.

The struggle in the 1970s and 1980s

It is worth noting that the political and economic frameworks and dynamics of the Arab world started to shift significantly in the 1970s and 1980s as a result of a population explosion, the oil boom, and the emergence of a new generation with better chances and more access to opportunities and education unavailable to their predecessors. These changing dynamics produced new demands, problematizing the foundations of established in the immediate post-independence era. In this context, a strong political phenomenon emerged under a variety of names: the Islamist current, the Islamist revival, and Muslim fundamentalism, amongst other titles. Despite these different titles according to various countries, these political currents have shared a very similar core critical of the "imported solutions" - capitalism, communism and socialism - and their failure to address the social ills of Muslim societies. As such, these political entities refuse to leave the delegation of power and authority to ‘experts', especially those backed by international institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and refuse to acknowledge ruling regimes as legitimate. Instead, "Islam" was presented as the alternative solution.

Consequently, this fundamentalist current attracted a large following from amongst the youth and granted them the capacity to organize, associate, and struggle against autocratic rule. Nevertheless, this political movement soon found itself, much like secular opposition movements, excluded from the political arena in all North African, as well as Middle Eastern, countries. Like its secular counterparts, the Islamist movement suffered repression and oppression at the hands of ruling regimes. Importantly, this current did not trigger, move, or influence popular revolutions in any country, contrary to what many believed. In fact, it only succeeded in ‘tagging onto' the revolution once the masses were on the streets in Tunisia and Egypt already - much like a number of other forces.

I, therefore, argue that Arab youth only joined the Muslim Brotherhood and the more fundamentalist Islamist currents in the 1970s and 1980s as a result of the absence of alternative frameworks capable of containing and channeling political activism and social dynamism towards constructive opposition movements. By that, I do not refer to political parties per se - after all, both Tunisia and Egypt were home to a number of ‘opposition' political parties acknowledged and authorized by the law long before the two January revolutions. Why, then, did the revolution occur in both countries despite the presence of partisan ‘opposition'?

Reasons behind the revolution

It does not suffice for the state to merely acknowledge opposition political parties, trade unions, and syndicates, in addition to allowing independent newspapers and television channels. Instead, it is necessary that the state gives meaning to this political process through legal and constitutional frameworks that safeguard and enshrine the people's freedom to choose. In other words: effective measures that allow the people to effectively and genuinely exercise their sovereignty. These measures include, among others, the ability to: choose their representatives in Parliament through elections; be guaranteed freedom and fairness in such elections; implement popular election monitoring; possess unrestricted and indivisible freedom of the press within the ethics of the profession itself; uphold freedom of expression, association and protest; hold the military, as well as the entire executive authority, accountable to the legislative and judicial authorities; and ensure the freedom, independence and integrity of the judicial system.

Civil and democratic revolutions have erupted with the precise aim of achieving these important changes even though they are, supposedly, enshrined in the Constitution. However, because these important processes and rights remain absent in much of the Middle East and North Africa, and as far away as Afghanistan, a number of other political earthquakes and popular demands for reform can be expected in the region. The reasons for these popular outcries are twofold. On the one hand, the fear barrier has been broken. On the other hand, political regimes and governments still do not realize that if repression is aimed at terrorizing the opponent - in this case, the people - and sending strong messages that the state has the upper hand and is in control of coercive force, repression does have a limit. If regimes cross this limit and commit atrocious massacres unacceptable by the people, its repressive grip and control may in fact be lost, exacerbating popular anger and hastening the downfall of the regime.