In 1938, George Antonius, a Lebanese-Egyptian writer and diplomat, wrote a seminal book titled “The Arab Awakening,” tracing the spread of Western ideas in the Arab world and the origins of a new pan-Arab consciousness to institutions such as the American University of Beirut and Robert College in Istanbul.
In the postwar years, this hopeful vision was replaced by the ideology of Arab nationalism, an ill-digested mix of Marxism and Arab triumphalism summed up in the Baathist slogan “One Arab nation, with an immortal mission.”
The resounding defeat by Israel of Arab aggression in 1967 exposed Arab nationalist ideology as a fraud, and for the next generation it became the god that failed. The resulting ideological vacuum was filled by more or less virulent versions of Islamic politics, encouraged for a time in Egypt, Jordan and elsewhere as an antidote to the threat of leftist infiltration of the state and the army.
The assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981 by an Islamic extremist led to a crackdown and the banning of Islamic political parties across the Arab world. Iraq, the second most important Arab state after Egypt, remained a savage police state.
Arab politics stagnated under the dead hand of corrupt regimes, from (as the Arabs say) the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf, and both Arabs and outsiders concluded that this was the natural order of thing — the former with despair and self-loathing, the latter with an element of smug racism.
Arabs watched with impotent fury as the United States overthrew Saddam Hussein but failed to secure the peace; launched a war on terrorism which seemed to treat Arabs mainly as threats; and allowed the peace process to stagnate as Israeli settlement activity compromised the last chance of a two-state solution in Palestine.
It is now clear that this stability of the grave was an illusion, and that the Arab world was not dead but asleep.
Over the last decade, the threadbare credibility and legitimacy of Arab regimes was undermined by the information revolution. The growth of satellite television and the Internet ended their monopoly over what their citizens could see and hear. Stations like Al Jazeera, which reached virtually every Arab home, exposed the lies of their leaders — except for those in Qatar, where Al Jazeera is based.
This democratization of information reached a flood stage as a new Arab generation gained access to such social networking tools as Facebook and Twitter.
In Tunisia and now in Egypt, we have seen the result — the rarest of events, peaceful revolutions. More Arab dominos may fall in the weeks and months to come, though this is far from certain.
The Arab regimes that survive will have to learn to ride the demographic tiger of a young, angry, and newly empowered population.
If — and it is a big if — the Egyptian and Tunisian armies follow the Turkish model, returning eventually to their barracks and leaving politics to civilian institutions, the implications for American Middle East policy will be profound.
The United States will face the task of establishing a relationship of equals with these emerging democracies, ending the client-patron politics of the past.
Israel will no longer be our only democratic partner in the region, and our current neglect of the Arab-Israeli peace process is unlikely to be sustainable, much less desirable. Israel will view this shift with understandable disquiet, but over time a new relationship with a more democratic Egypt may work to Israel’s advantage.
Groundless euphoria? We’ll see. But I would argue that there is cause for sober optimism in both the Arab present and in the Arab past.
In the 14th century, the great Arab political theorist Ibn Khaldun, based on his study of what are now the modern states of Egypt and Tunisia, wrote of what he called “asabiyya,” or social cohesion, which he viewed as the essential component of a successful society.
This quality of social cohesion was evident both in Tunisian’s “jasmine revolution” and in the joining of hands in Tahrir Square between army and people to remove a hated dictator.
There are hard times ahead, of course. Rebuilding Arab societies along more democratic lines will be the task of a generation. But after this second Arab awakening, it is clear that the Arab world will never be the same again. That in itself is grounds for rejoicing.
By Laurence Pope, a retired U.S. diplomat and former political advisor at the U.S Central Command.