'Each man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world'
-- Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

'Artists are tricky fellows sir, forever shaping the world according to some design of their own'
-- Jonathan Strange, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

The Maghreb Street

And so the Street rose up after a month of mass protests that featured new found civilian solidarity and resulted in the overthrow of a nation's president. But the uprising was not the violent extremity of an Islamist insurgency resulting in the toppling of an apostate regime, rather it was continued economic uncertainty that precipitated civil unrest, or as Sadiki describes it, 'an amalgamation of civil unrest, grassroots mobilization and what one could call a coup d'esprit'.

It seems that Fukuyama’s thesis still has relevance – when he states that man has two thirsts, firstly for economic prosperity and also a ‘struggle for recognition’ [Fukuyama, F. (1992) The End of History and the Last Man (London: Penguin), p.xiii] he succinctly identifies two elements that exist within a civilian population (Fukuyama further argued that economic prosperity was best fed by capitalism and recognition by liberal democracy and that these systems would dominate in the future).

The riots across Tunisian cities can be explained by these two elements – economics and a ‘struggle for recognition’. There have also been notable protests in Algeria (over food prices)  and Amman, Jordan (over general economic downturn). There have been reported cases of self-immolation in Cairo, Egypt; Nouakchott, Mauritania (the poorest Arabian country by many indicators) and Jordan, intended to replicate the Tunisian catalytic event with the Washington Post observing that events in Tunisia had ‘resonated across the region among young Middle Easterners, most of whom have lived under autocratic rule for their entire lives.’

Bill Clinton when campaigning highlighted the main concern for the American voter succinctly: ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ For America, read the Maghreb, read the Middle East, read any civilian population where the material pursuit of affluence is of import. Economics have created an uprising of an extent that militant ideologues could not possibly conceive. Consider Montasser al-Zayyat, speaking in Cairo in the early 1980s:

‘We have tried to express legitimate Islamic aspirations but these aspirations were lost amidst the smoke of shells and the noise of bullets.’
[Quoted in Mansfield, L., ed. (2006) In His Own Words, p.159]

And contrast this awakening with the continued militancy today, of for example, al-Alwaki, when he wrote to al-Shabab that:

‘the ballot has failed us but the bullet has not.’

Islamist groups have attempted to cash in on this uprising, to identify with its masses but Islamist insurgents are self-constituted elements that fail to speak for the grievances of the people. Walzer (Just and Unjust Wars (1977), p.180) has observed that guerrilla war is people’s war – a special form of the levée en masse, authorized from below. But for Islamist irregulars though they may claim they are fighting on behalf of ‘the people’ and invoke ‘the people’ as the source of their authorization they are nevertheless ‘self-constituted’ combatants. Even in countries where Islamist parties predominate, as in Kuwait where they account for half of the fifty seats in the National Assembly, for the voters, economic concerns are still paramount.  

Echoing Churchill (‘Great quarrels…arise from small occasions but seldom from small causes) the catalytic event was the self-immolation of a twenty-six year old man in Tunis following an altercation with police. Fisk, writing in the Independent exclaimed, ‘If it can happen in the holiday destination Tunisia, it can happen anywhere, can’t it?’ Echoing those Orientalist constructs of the Middle East so repugnant to Said, Fisk further laments that:

‘The truth, of course, is that the Arab world is so dysfunctional, scelerotic, corrupt, humiliated and ruthless…and so totally incapable of any social or political progress, that the chances of a series of working democracies emerging from the chaos of the Middle East stand at around zero percent.’

The crux of Fisk’s article is to be found here:

‘It’s the same old problem for us in the West. We mouth the word “democracy” and we are all for fair elections – providing the Arabs vote for whom we want them to vote for.
In Algeria 20 years ago, they didn’t. In “Palestine” they didn’t. And in Lebanon, because of the so-called Doha accord, they didn’t. So we sanction them, threaten them and warn them about Iran and expect them to keep their mouths shut when Israel steals more Palestinian land for its colonies on the West Bank.’

For Fisk the post-colonialist – the occupation settlements have become ‘colonies’. The redoubtable Fisk’s weary resignation is tangible but others see hope arising from recent events. Larbi Sadiki argues cogently that in the Tunisia effect lies the possibility of a democratic wave of the domino effect. But there are already problems – the main trade union refusing to recognise the national unity government, and three ministers resigning as a consequence

The struggle with notions of authoritarian rule has a long and torturous history. Sallust wrote, ‘Only a few men seek liberty. The majority seek nothing more than fair masters’, almost as Caesar was writing in The Gallic Wars that ‘Human nature is universally imbued with a desire for liberty and a hatred for servitude.’ For the time being in Tunisia, an anarchy under the gaze of the army has replaced police repression: The Maghreb street has spoken – it wants prosperity, recognition and it wants the West to stay out of its affairs.

Further: @bbclysedoucet is tweeting from Tunisia on the front line of the rioting

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