Hafed Al-Ghwell

The history of the Arab identity is as long and complex as the history of the Arab people themselves. Stretching over 22 countries with more than 400 million inhabitants — about 6 percent of the world’s population — the Arab world comprises a wide spread of ethnicities, religions, languages, distinct cultures, shared heritage and complex histories.

Multiple attempts have been made to formulate an inclusive and plural Arab identity through convergence of the aforementioned traits but, to this day, the region still struggles to acknowledge and protect its unique heterogeneity.

Instead, most societies have only ever favored embracing an extremely exclusive understanding of Arabism that tries to enforce homogeneity and enshrine narrow elitism. Unfortunately, doing so has repeatedly come at the cost of inclusion, participation and engagement, stunting social contracts and stratifying Arab societies in ways that complicate, rather than resolve, the pressing realities of our time — inherited, or otherwise.

Today, parts of the region have devolved into turmoil and disorder, while costs of living continue to rise against a backdrop of fluctuating conditions that have left governments preoccupied with maintaining a semblance of order rather than mounting timely interventions.

Naturally, in a world of compounding, convergent threats from within and from abroad, this obsession with exclusivity has only resulted in the most undemocratic forms of governance that thrive on widening divisions, creating difficult sociopolitical dilemmas and even fueling violent conflict — until the next regime comes to power.

Re-examinations of the events in 2011, and the profound effects they had on future Arab societies, might seem like a tired practice 12 years after the fact, with little or no fresh insights and only the rehashing of old arguments in an attempt to eke out some as yet untold truths.

However, in the context of establishing pluralistic Arabism, those waves of protests and demonstrations of yesteryear did, perhaps, tease the last best hope for those in power to reshape and guide Arab societies toward diversity, tolerance and inclusion as part of a wider regional lurch toward democracy.

An idealistic view? Yes, very. After all, that “last best hope” in the quest for stability only resulted in a more turbulent political environment in, for example, Libya and Iraq. In Tunisia, the hunger for a pluralistic democracy has been replaced by a feverish search for improved economic well-being that has only resulted in even more poverty and jobless youths.

Death and displacement appear to be the only rewards for those societies that sought better lives under better representation. And, in the worst development of all, the pursuit of democracy and better governance with the public’s consent only nurtured more authoritarianism and gave rise to failed states now under threat from radicalism, violent extremism and terrorism.

Yet by elevating as many diverse voices as possible and encouraging wider civic participation, the region’s fledgling democracies should have been able to maintain popular consent while also preventing the convulsions and ills typical of societies seeking to transform ideals into unmistakable reality.

Of course, that did not happen. In fact, even during the chaotic upheavals that uprooted old regimes, calls for the restoration of social justice or preservation of dignity rang much louder than those seeking to establish stable, pluralistic and prosperous democratic systems.

There are still ways for the Arab world to come into its own by recognizing its heterogeneity, building better systems of governance and rewriting social contracts so that they are better suited to the times.

Not surprisingly, not long after the fog of upheaval lifted and fatigue set in, protest-hit societies soon reverted to an all-too-familiar dynamic that is still prevalent more than a decade later. As had happened in the past, predatory regimes, and actors that feed on deep-rooted divisions for their survival, quickly re-emerged, fueled by legacies of persistent instability or fears of violent conflict, undermining the possibilities for cohesion, unity and, ultimately, inclusion.

As a result, the region lost yet another incredible opportunity to buck a woeful trend by actively engaging in efforts to embrace the diversity of thought, voices, aspirations and choices that came to the fore when the tiered societies and the suppressive structures that upheld them collapsed.

The still fresh memories of recent chaos failed to guide post-2011 sociopolitical developments, as transition authorities and re-established regimes resorted to fostering the mere appearance of stability through crackdowns or the marginalization of minority voices.

As time goes by, however, resorting to the same misguided, short-sighted tactics only exacerbates the long-held grievances that fuel generational angst, leaving fertile ground for more division, violent extremism and perennially fragile societies.

Granted, unequal and illiberal societies cannot be easily or quickly transformed into stable, functioning democracies overnight, particularly in a region notorious for a lack of good governance premised on inclusivity and citizen well-being. However, if the events of 2011, and subsequent mass protests, showed us anything, it is that the foundations of the old, exclusive and elitist order are not, and will never be, sustainable.

Fortunately, it is not all hopeless, nor is it too late. There are still ways for the Arab world to come into its own by recognizing its heterogeneity, building better systems of governance and rewriting social contracts so that they are better suited to the times.

It can begin with some deep introspection within the Arab world and a serious revision of ideas about what it truly means to be an Arab in a way that reflects, and is inclusive of, the region’s plurality and diversity, and rejects discriminatory, patently false or exclusionary notions of identity that only serve to elevate the few at the expense of everyone else.

Next, the affirmation of the rule of law as foundational to inclusive governance that strives to reduce inequity and narrow debilitating gaps that are responsible for sectarian tensions, owing to institutionalized inequalities in access to resources and opportunities for development and economic empowerment, particularly among women.
Thirdly, an acknowledgment that dissent is not, on its own, a destabilizing force.

It is only the heavy-handed response to it that drives a wedge between the governed, who are merely seeking answers or relief, and the governors who are threatened by the idea of greater self-expression.

Lastly, sustainable pluralism will not go far without checks and balances or other mechanisms to ensure accountability and transparency within public institutions. This will go a long way toward restoring the public’s trust and confidence, insulating societies from grievance-fueled upheavals and malign opportunism from elements antithetical to diversity and inclusion.

Between the collapse of colonial rule and the lost decade or so after 2011, the Arab world has consistently failed in its efforts to develop the kind of resilient, foundationally pluralistic societies that can endure even the greatest shocks.

That level of pluralism would also have made significant contributions to efforts to define a more coherent form of Arab identity that celebrates its diversity, embraces constructive dissent and welcomes all forms of expression, regardless of sectarian, religious or ideological pressures.


Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the Ibn Khaldun Strategic Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, and the former adviser to the dean of the board of executive directors of the World Bank Group.


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