Challenging Problems in Analysis

Via Brian Whitaker, Michael Hudson has a long reflective essay on the Arab uprisings at Jadaliyya (from 16 May). He he concludes with five challenges to “political scientists and other analysts” looking at Middle East/North Africa. His critique is important and highlights problems that affect the analysis provided by many writers, including this one. It is an excellent critique of the general tone of much western discourse on Arab politics in general. Some of these points have been made before, notably by Issandr El-Amrani at The Arabist and others (Nir Rosen published an essay on the Al Jazeera English website more aggressively critiquing western journalists’ coverage of the uprisings and the Middle East generally; this is included at the end of the post). Hudson argues:

Quite a lot of analytical attention has been devoted to the instruments of state authoritarianism, but not enough has been paid to the strength and durability of the protest movements. It would seem that a combination of factors–group-think, theoretical tunnel vision, ideological agendas, insufficient attention to the work of Arab intellectuals, and a lack of multidisciplinary approaches —help account for the difficulties. Is it not time for a rethinking of categories such as state (failed or otherwise), regime (rogue or otherwise), nation, society (civil or otherwise) and leadership. And must we not emphasize the importance of new media and information technologies in clarifying (and energizing) the Arab “imagined community?”

This post will highlight the key segments of the essay. The five points will come first, then the rest. His calls on analysts to reexamine:

(1) The “durability of authoritarianism”. How valid now is the argument that mukhabarat states can keep several steps ahead of societal opposition through better access to and use of new technologies of information and repression?

(2) Democratization is an inappropriate goal and impossible to achieve in the Arab world. Were the so-called “demo-crazy” analysts really so blinded by their presumed liberal preferences?

(3) Populations are passive—anaesthetized by the opium of the rentier state or bowed down by the burdens of daily life or cowed by fear of the mukhabarat. How then to explain the extraordinary massive popular protests?

(4) Arab nationalism is dead; people are reverting to their primordial affiliations. But how then to explain the so-called “contagion effect” of the Tunisian and Egyptian upheavals? Facebook alone did not cause them. [. . .]

(5) the Middle East regional system is essentially stable; states still are the prime units; the regional balance of power is stable; and the system is still encased in American hegemony. But how then to explain the strategic setback suffered by the United States and Washington’s apparent inability to manipulate the new situation.

Hudson begins:

The story of how the struggle for Arab national independence and unity was derailed into a system of segmented authoritarianisms is well known. Arab nationalist aspirations were cut short by the colonialist interventions after World War I. The map of the old mostly Ottoman-dominated Arab world was redrawn. Instead of a unified Arab state constructed along liberal and constitutional lines, the pre-existing colonial creations became independent and took on an authoritarian character of their own. The “progressives”, led most famously by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Ba’th Party pursued the dream of Arab unity, liberation, and socialism (wahda, hurriyya, and ishtirakiyya) through the modalities of a military-dominated single-party “republicanism”. The “conservatives,” mainly traditional monarchies (some of them oil-rich) preferred paternalism, capitalism and protection from the West. Their legitimacy rested on their claims to represent authentic cultural traditions and Islamic rectitude. But they were no less authoritarian than their “republican” counterparts.

This state of affairs has lasted for half a century. Political scientists specializing on the Middle East might be forgiven, then, for focusing on why authoritarianism has been so persistent. They came up with multiple explanations, among them the following:

  • The mukhabarat state. Whether republican or patrimonial, Arab regimes were able to build up formidable bureaucracies of control: intelligence agencies, multiple police forces, paramilitary organizations, and of course the military establishment. People obeyed because they were afraid.
  • ”Deferential” Arab political culture. Although this argument is almost universally rejected by serious social scientists, it still enjoys wide currency in Western policy circles, public opinion, and even among many people in the Middle East. It holds that authoritarian rule “fits” the political culture because that culture privileges the elites over the masses (the khassa over the ‘amma) and because people are socialized from earliest childhood to defer to patriarchal authority. Islam, it is said, also counsels obedience even to a bad ruler over the worse alternative of fitna or chaos.
  • Western domination. By this argument the colonial period put in place the structures and habits of authoritarianism that would outlast the colonial period itself. Moreover, the post-colonial period itself was marked by significant manipulation of local politics by the new global hegemons—the Soviet Union, and then, solely, the United States. Through economic and military assistance, intelligence cooperation, and diplomatic support the United States propped up friendly authoritarian regimes for reasons of Realpolitik and especially because it feared the anti-American tendencies in Arab public opinion. That condition, of course, was due primarily to America’s support for Israel and its occupation of Palestinian territory. To this very day American politicians and officials debate whether the U.S. should support friendly dictators or take its chances with emerging (but possibly unstable) democratic forces.

Hudson continues, after summarizing the progress of the protest movements in the Arab region:

This survey, which has sought to place the recent events in historical and theoretical context, raises at least five questions about the apparent ripple effect we are seeing across the region:

  • First, is it like a “disease” or a “cure?”  Obviously it depends on where you stand. But names do matter. To label a phenomenon in a subjective, let alone pejorative, way invites faulty analysis: one need look no farther than “the war on terror” for a good example. If you are analyzing a “contagion” you are tempted not just to study what it is but to find ways to eradicate it. At the same time it serves little purpose to romanticize the “awakening.” But we are social scientists, not epidemiologists. For better or for worse, the wave suggests to me that political legitimacy has emerged as the fundamental issue—more important than economic grievances, foreign interference, religious agendas or even Israel. This is not to say that these matters do not play an important contributory role in the current upheaval. But the main issue seems to me to be a questioning of the right of ruling establishments to govern. “Why should we obey you?” people are asking. “Because you always have” doesn’t seem any longer to be a satisfactory answer.
  • Second, is it a coherent, monolithic “thing”? Is it singular or plural? Is it an organic region-wide movement or just a series of incidents that happened to occur roughly at the same time? Here we have to be careful.   Only a careful study of the message and the composition of the protesters can tell us. But we do see common threads in the message. It seems to be all about governance: a demand for meaningful popular participation, the condemnation of authoritarianism and corruption, the call for better governance, and a demand for social and economic development. There is also a “negative” similarity: we do not hear demands for an Islamic polity, nor, for that matter, for Arab unity. So while protesters focus on particular rulers regimes and local situations, there are these broad similar themes being expressed across the board.
  • Third, on the reasonable assumption that these protests are causally linked, how do we account for it?. I would argue that the role of satellite television and social media as a “force multiplier” is crucial. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that protesters are communicating and collaborating across borders. Al-Jazeera Arabic, with an estimated 40 million-plus viewers, has provided an unprecedented platform for viewing the protest drama. Even if it is beginning to pull its punches on coverage of arenas considered sensitive by the Gulf rulers its effect should not be underestimated. On Facebook and Twitter protesters in Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, Syria, and no doubt in the salons of Saudi Arabia, are saying, “We celebrate and support the protesters of Tunis and Egypt; they have broken “the wall of fear” and we would like to see something similar (but not necessarily identical) happen in our countries.”
  • Fourth, are the various Arab countries equally “susceptible” to “infection” by the “virus”? Here the answer is “probably not.” As Gretchen Head has pointed out in the case of Morocco, protesters there are not targeting the king and don’t necessarily want a complete change of political system. Ziad Abu-Rish has made a similar point about Jordan, where the monarch (so far) seems insulated from the anger of the “street.” And, incidentally, we should be careful in assuming that “the Arab street” is a homogenous entity, similar across the Arab world. Again, with due apology for the pejorative metaphor, we might observe that so far the two most effective “vaccines” for the “democratic contagion” are (1) riches (the rentier effect) and (2) legitimacy of the political system as a whole. But with respect to the rentier effect one must note that it has not completely immunized the ruling establishments of the GCC (viz., Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia) . In terms of the legitimacy factor, leaders who enjoy some moral or political authority, based on their perceived heritage or their policies (viz., Morocco, Jordan) may ride out the current epidemic of protest. But for the others, they may not be sleeping so well. They may be reminded of the autobiography of one of the more successful Arab rulers, King Hussein of Jordan: “Uneasy Lies the Head.”
  • Fifth, what happens to the “wave” when the protesters meet the tanks? It will soon be a half-year since the first protests broke out. The speedy and decisive outcomes in Tunisia and Egypt have not been replicated elsewhere. Now we have to consider that protests may follow different trajectories and different places. Waves washing up on beaches may quickly erode sand castles, but what of waves crashing against rocks? In Bahrain a swift and relentless crackdown broke the protests, although the story is far from over. In Libya, Yemen and Syria the outcome may ultimately depend on which side has the greater endurance. Mass protests probably cannot be sustained indefinitely without developing mobilization structures and resources. To what extent is this happening in these countries? On the regime side, how long can the ruling elites afford to maintain thousands of security forces and equipment in combat mode? And how long can they maintain their moral cohesion as innocent citizens die?  In some cases the outcome is win or lose. In others, where the momentum of protest is less intense and the regime response more flexible perhaps one can expect a “no victor-no vanquished” trajectory. But rulers who are paranoid about mass political action and followers who are utterly unconvinced that “reform from above” is anything more than a charade will make negotiations very difficult. In such cases, perhaps we should expect the enormous popular energy first manifested in mass peaceful protest to be transformed into armed attacks and low-level guerrilla warfare. Simultaneously the initial democracy discourse might be transformed into more radical ideological formulas. The besieged rulers of Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain unconvincingly claim that they are a bulwark against religious or sectarian extremists, but as time goes on and conflict smolders it would be alarming if these claims turned into a self-confirming prophecy.

Nir Rosen writes (18 May):

In discussing the manners in which the Western intelligentsia and media depict the Middle East, the French intellectual and scholar Francois Burgat complained that two main types of intellectuals tasked with explaining the “other” to Westerners dominate. Firstly, there is what he and Bourdieu, another philosopher, describe as the “negative intellectual” who aligns his beliefs and priorities with those of the state, and centres his perspective on serving the interests of power and gaining proximity to it. And secondly, there is what Burgat terms as “the facade intellectual”, whose role in society is to confirm Western audiences with their already-held notions, beliefs, preconceptions, and racisms regarding the “other”. Journalists writing for the mainstream media, as well as their local interlocutors, often fall into both categories.

A vast literature exists on the impossibility of journalism in its classic, liberal sense with all the familiar tropes on objectivity, neutrality, and “transmitting reality”. However, and perhaps out of a lack of an alternative source of legitimation, major mainstream media outlets in the West continue to grasp to these notions with ever more insistence. The Middle East is an exceptionally suitable place for the Western media to learn about itself and its future, because it is the scene where all pretentions of objectivity, neutrality towards power, and critical engagement have faltered spectacularly.

Rosen goes on:

Journalists are the archetype of ideological tools who create culture and produce knowledge. Their function is to represent a class and perpetuate the dominant ideology instead of building a counter hegemonic and revolutionary ideology, or narrative, in this case. They are the organic intellectuals of the ruling class. Instead of being the voice of the people or the working class, journalists are too often the functional tools for a bourgeois ruling class. They produce and disseminate culture and meaning for the system and reproduce its values, allowing it to hegemonise the field of culture and since journalism today has a specific political economy, they are all products of the hegemonic discourse and the moneyed class.

The working class has no networks, that applies too to Hollywood and television entertainment and series; it is all the same intellectuals producing them. Even journalists with pretentions of being serious usually only serve elites and ignore social movements. Journalism tends to be state centric, focusing on elections, institutions, formal politics and overlooking politics of contention, informal politics, social movements.

Those with reputations as brave war reporters who hop around the world, parachuting into conflicts from Yemen to Afghanistan, typically only confirm Americans’ views of the world. Journalism simplifies, which means it de-historicises. Journalism in the Middle East is too often a violent act of representation. Western journalists take reality and amputate it, contort it, and fit it into a predetermined discourse or taxonomy.

[. . .]

The recent assassination of Osama bin Laden was greeted with a collective shrug of the shoulder in the Middle East, where he had always been irrelevant, but for Americans and hence for the American media it was a historic and defining moment which changed everything. Too often contact with the West has defined events in the Middle East, but the so-called Arab Spring with its revolutions and upheavals evokes anxiety among white Americans. They are unsettled with the autogenetic liberation of brown people. However, the Arab Spring may represent a revolutionary transformation of the Arab world, a massive blow to Islamist politics and the renaissance of secular and leftist Arab nationalist politics.

But the American media has been obsessed with Islamists, looking for them behind every demonstration, and the uprisings have been often treated as if they were something threatening. And all too often, it just comes down to “what does this mean for Israel’s security?” The aspirations of hundreds of millions of freedom-seeking Arabs are subordinated to the security concerns of five million Jews who colonised Palestine.

The point on Islamism is somewhat understated: obsession with Islamists and Islamist politics reflects power interests in that such tendencies are seen to represent mechanisms of resistance to existing authority in the same sense that obsession with leftists and leftist politics took this role in the Cold War. This is sometimes to such an extent that the presence and influence of Islamist groups in a given polity is conflated with the strength of said Islamist groups. As Rosen notes this does tend create a myopia that excludes non-Islamist channels of resistance and political expression likely at the beginning because writers’ and analysts’ target audiences are interested in these specific elements and then from habit and culturally ingrained analytical deficiencies. This is not to deny the importance of Islamist factions or religion in politics, but it is important to factor in as much of the relevant elements in the regional political scene as possible. Readers may find other elements of both articles more interesting.

One thought on “Challenging Problems in Analysis

  1. While the analysis on our own perception of the Arab revolution is interesting (and, as usual with your blog, excellent), I am more concerned with the risks of counter-revolution. Even in countries where the revolution was so spectacularly successful, such as Egypt and Tunisia, there seem to be forces, mostly within the military apparatus, which seem to be moving in to preserve some statu quo. While this is very understandable, as corrupt middle-level officials are certainly not so keen in losing their income sources, it is also very worrying. And it is completely unreported in Western media. I follow many people in Tunisia and Egypt and the image that is forming is not good at all. As point in case, I would quote the recent demission of Slim Amamou in Tunisia and all the rumours around it. But also the ultra-violent crackdown of the Egyptian military transitional regime on various protesters… The legitimate will of restoring some kind of order does not justify the violence. And while it is true that old habits don’t die easily, it is also true that power corrupts, even if such power is only allegedly transitional.

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