A Diagram of Power in the Arab World

Michael Gilsenan

  • Master and Disciple: The Cultural Foundations of Moroccan Authoritarianism by Abdellah Hammoudi
    Chicago, 195 pp, £30.50, September 1997, ISBN 0 226 31527 4

Broaching the topic of authoritarianism in Arab societies has its risks for Arab intellectuals. How should the questions be formulated? Where, how, and of what can they speak? At different periods it has been a dangerous act for Iraqi, Saudi, Egyptian, Sudanese, Moroccan, and now especially Algerian thinkers and commentators to address such topics head on. Edward Said argues that the Palestinian Authority shows signs of following exactly the same authoritarian route. At one time, from the late Fifties until the wars that began in the mid-Seventies, Beirut offered a unique regional arena of debate, in contrast to other Arab capitals. Laissez-écrire matched the laissez-faire of Lebanon’s unbridled individualism. Elsewhere, France, Germany, Britain and the United States have served as varyingly hospitable destinations, temporary or permanent, for many Arab thinkers. But it would be naive to imagine that mere distance is a guarantor of freedom, or, in extreme cases, life. Hosts, moreover, have their own interests. They have their polite, perhaps unspoken, requirements; their own ideas of what constitutes an appropriate intellectual project, and what does not. Not the least of the virtues of Abdellah Hammoudi’s new book is that it resists censuring, insists on debate, and persists in what is essentially a collective effort to open up the possibility of critical reflection.

Why is it, he asks, that modern Arab regimes of all kinds are consistently authoritarian? Civil space is continually, often brutally, circumscribed. A single centre of power, however internally differentiated, controls the distribution of resources. Negotiation with citizens (assuming citizen to be an appropriate category) is limited at best. Opponents are co-opted or silenced. Security forces exercise harsh surveillance. Pluralism and diversity are denied. Yet this kind of rule is found in many other contemporary societies, and so Hammoudi seeks to identify some characteristically Arab variations on the theme. Though he does not use the same terms, his interrogations seem to me to be cousin to those of Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities and Jacqueline Rose in State of Fantasy: how are Arab communities and nations imagined? What are the fantasies that are constitutive of their different political and social identities? And in the shadows hovers the great question for Arab intellectuals: what is to be done?

Authoritarianism does not go unchallenged. Serious moments and movements of opposition occur – food riots, strikes, more subtle forms of resistance. There is no shortage of reasons. Economic and social blockages and contradictions abound. True, trade unions and left-wing movements are now marginal, in part because of the end of Russian influence. But ‘the street’ is volatile. Those millions of young men, city migrants, many with little behind them and less ahead, unemployed even when they have some training or a degree, and forming with their sisters a high percentage of the population of Arab societies, are a constant source of unease to governments. ‘The lads’ (the shebab) are ready to protest.

Some join Islamic groups, currently often the most visible and best organised form of opposition. Their publications on religion and the state, social justice and regulation multiply. Some of these very disparate groups – in Jordan and Egypt, for example – have learnt, more or less happily, to collaborate with the authorities. Others take on the social, educational and healthcare duties which governments either never filled or never even acknowledged. Radicals have attacked leaders (the assassination of President Sadat, which had no effect on the system) or created local ‘disturbances’ on a provincial scale (Egypt again). Uprisings and killings continue in the murky politics of Algeria. (In every one of these cases the state apparatus is at least as bloody as its opponents, sometimes more.) For all the emphasis on shura or ‘consultation’ on the part of some Islamic groups, few expect them to be any less authoritarian when they acquire real power and influence, as they have in Sudan.

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