The so-called Arab Spring exposed the lack of intellectual depth needed to stop the ruling regimes from being able to thwart the protesters. The time is for reflection.

As far as the notion of the ‘Arab world’ goes, it has to be acknowledged that this is not an uncontested term. Shared cultural, linguistic, religious and historical legacies should not take away from the fact that the region cannot ultimately be considered as a monolith.

As Hamid Dabashi recently pointed out, the state-sponsored ideology of pan-Arabism – which today arguably survives in people’s imagination – is at an end, nothing more than a colonial delusion and a racialized ideology that pacifies the indigenous social and political dynamics of the societies that make up the Arab world.

For the sake of simplicity then – which is of course always potentially dangerous – the term ‘Arab world’ as it is used here is to be understood as a fluid entity endowed with a ‘soft meaning’ in which the elements of differentiation seem to be as important as those that unify it.

Taking stock of the political situation in the Arab world today, one is quick to realise that – as is often the case – reality is more complicated than the often-polarised discussions of media pundits. While the lived realities of the people of the region are varied, from Morocco to the Gulf, many people’s experience can at least be partially understood through the variant lenses of either war, oppression or desperation.

This is particularly true in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring. While undeniably leading to some remarkable developments – particularly on the level of civil society – with rare exception, the ‘spring’ has regressed into winter.

Today, we see an Egypt that is governed by a more oppressive and paranoid regime than at any time in its modern history; Syria – at least what’s left of it – remains in the blood-soaked hands of Bashar al-Assad; Yemenis are dying from disease and starvation on a daily basis; Saudi Arabia and the UAE, under the de-facto rule of reactionary would-be heirs to the throne, have traded in the old, consensual mode of governance for a kind of upside-down world version of Neil Postman’s ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death.’ Political divisions persist as states in the region continue to divide themselves along increasingly rigid factional lines.

The mainstream opposition in many Arab countries, often led by Muslim Brotherhood affiliates, have been hamstrung by a so-called counter-revolutionary push and – in addition to prioritising organizational survival – seem to have little to offer in the realm of political thought beyond a re-framing of what are essentially neo-liberal approaches to politics, society and economics with an Islamic flavour.

Faced with what Ovamir Anjum refers to as an ‘intellectual deficit,’ the mainstream “Islamist” movements in the Arab world are confronted with challenges ranging from intergenerational ruptures to defections to militant groups, and the fact that there is arguably no well-grounded and articulate vision of Islamic politics emerging from their ranks.

The more secular-oriented opposition has often been co-opted by the counter-revolutionary state – as in the case of Egypt – or lacks a sound social footing in their respective societies. On the more extreme ends, Marxist-oriented discourse continues to offer a strong critique of the neo-liberal orientation of Arab states, however, in its more radical forms, it clearly lacks widespread legitimacy amongst a population where religion still plays a fundamental role in shaping worldviews.

Much of the grass-roots anger that sparked so many of the uprisings is founded in real-life grievances and should be given its due. However, while grass-roots movements arguably represent the most hopeful initiatives for genuine change, without an intellectual bulwark and deep reflection over what the future of politics and society could be, little will come from these movements other than the occasional outburst of anger against an all-too-often kleptocratic ruling elite.

While not meant here as a critique of the sentiments that drove much of the initial impetus to rise up, the luxury of retrospect has made several things clear. Firstly, the revolutions that broke out in 2011 generally lacked any associated intellectual anchors, meaning there was no coherent outlook guiding them in the way that characterised a number of 20th century revolutions.

Secondly, the uprisings had no accompanying ‘radicalism’, in the sense that there were no real coherent articulations of a genuine re-imagining of the socio-political or economic status quo.

According to Asef Bayat, in his book "Revolution with Revolutionaries: Making Sense of the Arab Spring", secular and Islamist actors alike took neo-liberal rationality for granted, paying only lip-service to the genuine concerns of the masses.

Even in Tunisia where there was a mostly-peaceful transition from the old order to the new, key elements of the old regime returned to power following the 2014 presidential elections. Furthermore, the socio-economic conditions that provided the fuel to the initial spark largely remain in place, with little prospects of being addressed.

This is one significant reason why the nascent revolutions were so susceptible to counter-revolutionary impulses. As Bayat points out in his book, all revolutions inherently carry within themselves the seeds of counterrevolution, however, the more important question relates to the presence of the proper intellectual armour to withstand the restorative drive.

Saudi-Iran Rivalry

Much of the region’s current political ills are reflected in the ongoing rivalry between Iran and a US-backed Saudi-led alliance. From the human catastrophe in Yemen, to Palestine, Syria and the political games being played in Lebanon, the so-called ‘cold war’ between Saudi Arabia and Iran has continued to fester, often with disastrous consequences for the people of the region.

By selling their regional approach to the outside world on the basis of the idea of social and economic reforms, certain Arab regimes have presented themselves as the champions of what they call ‘moderate’ Islam.

By articulating a discourse of ‘reform’ and religious ‘moderation’, the rulers of a number of Arab states are taking advantage of the ambiguity of the term and playing on the Western obsession with so-called ‘moderate Islam’, which has led many among the social and intellectual elite to sing the praises of tyrants deploying the rhetoric of ‘modernisation’, ‘secularisation’ and ‘moderation’. Western pundits fawn over pronouncements of ‘reform’ – as if women being permitted to drive in Saudi Arabia is somehow a cure for the region’s ills.

Seemingly unconcerned with the opinions of the wider Arab public, the foreign policy agenda of the current de-facto leadership of Saudi Arabia and the UAE is geared towards creating close business, security and military relationships with firstly the United States, and secondly with Israel, for the purpose of leveraging their growing power in order to establish themselves as the uncontested leaders of the Arab and Sunni-Muslim worlds.

The Palestinian issue is particularly illustrative in this regard. It has become clear that within particular circles of powers in the Gulf States, rapprochement with Israel is being increasingly advocated and promoted in public discourse. There has even been discussions regarding the possibility of Saudi Arabia taking over management of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem from Jordan. Given the trajectory of Saudi-Israeli relations, this would undoubtedly be pleasing to elements in Israel who seek to implement stricter controls over sites in the contested city.

The recent Warsaw Summit on ‘peace in the Middle East,’ attended by Israeli and Arab delegations alike, is only the latest example of an increasingly public display of affection. In fact, the position of the Saudi-Emirati bloc towards Palestine is reflective what has become their general approach to foreign policy, one in which enmity towards Israel – the one-time unifying factor between Arab states – has been replaced by Iran.

On the other hand, the region is faced with an Iranian regime that has cynically deployed a sectarian approach in pursuit of its regional objectives. Support for the Assad regime in the name of ‘resistance’ has contributed directly to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and advanced what is effectively an ethno-religious cleansing in Syria. Iran for its part, claims that it represents the bulwark of ‘resistance’ against American and Israeli designs in the region. 

While this point arguably carries with it a grain of truth, despite all the soft-talk of the Iranian regime, Iran has clearly and deliberately engaged in fomenting sectarianism in the region, upsetting local patterns of life and disrupting long-established demographics in the name of defending the gains of the ‘revolution’. The mask of ‘resistance’ of Iran and its regional proxies has fallen, as it has become clear that it does not reflect the will nor the political orientation of the majority of the region’s population. 

What is left then for a region caught in between what are essentially neo-liberal, colonial era monarchies on the one hand, and a sectarian ‘revolutionary’ state on the other, where the mainstream political opposition is either non-existent or largely inarticulate on matters pertaining to the root causes of so much of the region’s ills? 

If the so-called Arab Spring accomplished anything of lasting significance, it is this: that the people of the Arab world realized that belief in their own possibilities is what gives them power. If given the necessary space, they possess all the required intellectual and social tools that can lead them to develop societies built on solid foundations, through which real social and economic justice can be attained. 

Perhaps this will still require generations of hard work, and perhaps it will be accomplished through means other than what are conventionally understood as ‘revolutions’, but as the old adage goes, hope springs eternal.

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