The Roots of the Arab Spring   /   Fall 2011   /    The Roots Of The Arab Spring

Whither Political Islam and the “Arab Spring”?

Ahmed H. al-Rahim

What has been widely dubbed the “Arab Spring” or “Arab revolutions” is, in many respects, a misappellation. The protests and, in some cases, revolts that began in Tunisia in December 2010 and swept through much of the Middle East and North Africa would be more accurately described as postcolonial, national revolts against the regimes of the largely Arab nationalist revolutions or, more accurately, the military coup d’états of the 1950s and 1960s that brought these republican regimes into power. To begin to understand the nature of the recent protests, we need to examine three major events or shifts in the history of the Middle East and North Africa. First is Napoléon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798—the backdrop to much of the region’s modern history—which ushered in modernity to what would, in time, become the territorial nation of Egypt and, more broadly, to the Muslim world. The second is the “Arab liberal age,” or “Arab renaissance” (al-nahda, which the Tunisian Islamist party and movement took as its name), namely, the vibrant intellectual period of (Arab) Muslim thought about the challenges posed and opportunities offered by Western modernity, particularly in the socio-political, constitutional, and economic realms, extending from 1798 to 1939. This assimilation of Western thought and of the rethinking of Muslim tradition laid the intellectual foundation for much of the modern Middle East and North Africa, without which the recent protests and revolutions—and more importantly their demands for ending autocratic rule and for democratic, representative government—may not have been possible. And the third is the postcolonial context of nationalism and nation states in the Middle East and North Africa. The political discourse—or, more accurately, the grievances and demands of the protesters—has, in terms of language and political goals, markedly shifted away from the various strands of pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism that dominated much of the region’s history in the second half of the twentieth century to a nationally—namely, Tunisian, Egyptian, etc.—based agenda with clearly defined, and in their eyes achievable, goals. After discussing these historical phases, I will outline three current political models in the Middle East that indicate possible future trajectories for political Islam today.

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