Departure from Ideology

The Arab revolts of 2011 have been above all an uprising by the region's youth. From Rabat to Riyadh, from one end of the Arab world to the other, this is a generation which is sceptical towards any ideology, including that of Islamism. An analysis by Volker Perthes

الكاتب، الكاتبة : Volker Perthes

The Arab uprising is revolutionary and has affected the whole region. But it has not yet come to an end, and it will be more difficult to complete than the overthrow of the system in Eastern Europe; it will be bloodier and it will take longer.

So far, only three autocrats have actually been overthrown, but no state in the Arab world has been able to avoid entirely the pressure of this political movement. The movement began in Tunisia and Egypt, and it's these two states which have the best chances of developing into firmly established democracies.

The process will have not have the same effects throughout the region, and the differences between the various Arab countries may well become even clearer than they are now, at least initially – even if the citizens of the various countries have doubtlessly come closer as a result of the process.

The big task of building new, democratic political systems in the Middle East – or at least systems which are more representative, more responsible and better ruled – is sure to take a decade or even longer. And there are no guarantees. The process will also be a challenge for Europe, which, while it can't determine what will happen, will be able to influence events.

It would be a fair generalisation to say that the political and social situation in these states was marked by extremely poor government, with obvious abuses of human rights and human dignity, with corruption and increasing social inequality, and with discrimination against women and young people. And throughout the region, the countries are, or were, ruled by authoritarian, or at least undemocratic, political regimes.

Questionable democratisation

And it's a bitter truth that Western policies over the years have not really promoted democratic developments in the Arab world. One might well say that this is not really the task of the West or of any other outside player, but Europe and the USA have always spoken of promoting democracy. And, indeed, that was an aim which, in many cases, was meant perfectly seriously.

"A certain degree of shamelessness": There are some people who claim that the American troops who brought about the fall of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein provided an impulse which led to the revolutions of 2011, writes Perthes

​​Some programmes, such as those undertaken as part of the EU's Mediterranean Partnership, have without doubt contributed to the strengthening of those forces in society which have been campaigning for human rights, for press freedom or for the rule of law.

But democratisation is a term which has also suffered much abuse: even the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was described by representatives and ideologues of the American government of the time as a contribution to the democratisation of the Middle East. There are some people who, with a certain degree of shamelessness, continue to do so, claiming, for example, that the American troops who brought about the fall of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein provided an impulse which led to the revolutions of 2011.

It's easier to argue the opposite case: that the Iraq war of 2003 did indeed force a dictator from his palace, but it also extended the political lives of the other autocrats in the region. Iraq sank into years of civil war, and the democratic institutions set up by the occupying powers are still not working particularly effectively.

The Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, is not the only leader who has repeatedly pointed to the bloody chaos across the border in Iraq in order to make it clear to his citizens that they were better off under his authoritarian rule than under Western-exported democracy.

What is more important is that, ever since 2001 and especially since 2003, the US and the European states (Russia and China, which never championed democratisation, played no role) have been mainly looking for partners to support them in the "war against terror", and to help guarantee stability in the region.

There were additional motives in the West's concern over the increasing influence of Iran, the spread of Islamist tendencies and, as far as Europe was concerned, uncontrolled illegal immigration.

Arab governments may have been regularly told to implement political reforms and respect human rights, but the message which came across – in Cairo and Tunis, as well as in Riyadh, Rabat, Ramallah or Damascus – was a different one: any ruler who cooperated in the fight against the terrorist threat and helped to ensure regional stability would be seen as a "partner", or, as the Americans put it, as a "moderate" player, no matter how he treated his own citizens. Anyone who didn't cooperate ran the risk of being "democratised".

Islamism or Chaos

The rulers in the Arab world played along happily. Most of them were only too willing, out of self-interest, to act as the USA's partner in the fight against Al Qaeda or in the quarrel with Iran, and to receive financial support for their efforts.

"Extremely poor government": Towards the Europeans, Egypt's Mubarak presented himself as the only alternatives to chaos and radical Islam

​​Towards the Europeans, they presented themselves above all as guarantors of stability: the only alternatives to their rule were a takeover by Islamist extremists or chaos. The presidents of Egypt and Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, were particularly successful with this strategy.

There were many factors which contributed to the sudden movement in the fossilised political situation in the region which began at the start of 2011. Among them were technology, global economics, politics and aspects of the social structures: satellite television and the new social media played a role in spreading the protest so quickly; increasing food prices fuelled the protests by the poor; and some of the revelations by Wikileaks confirmed rumours and assumptions which were already widespread about the corruption of the rulers in Tunisia and other Arab countries.

But perhaps the most important aspect which can explain the uprising is demography. The Arab revolt of 2011 is above all an uprising by the youth. The 20- to 35-year-olds, those born between 1975 and 1990, make up more than 30 percent of the population across the Arab world. In other words: this is about the baby-boomers of the Arab world, those who were born as population growth reached its highest-ever levels.

It comes as no surprise that it is members of this generation who have been the main actors in the revolts in Tunisia, Egypt and the other Arab countries: they are generally better educated than their peers from previous generations, and they are in many ways better connected and globally oriented. This is above a result of the expansion of the education system which the Arab states have implemented over the past decades. But one effect of this has been that youth unemployment is higher in the Arab states than in other parts of the world.

The youth rises up

It is remarkable how far the 20- to 35-year-olds in the Arab world are a generation which has been characterised by common experiences. To oversimplify only a little: from Rabat to Riyadh, throughout the Arab world, this is a generation which feels that it had been cheated of its chance to take its economic, social and political place in society. Its members have no or very low incomes; as a result they cannot rent their own apartment, and without an apartment, they can't start a family.

"Enough is enough!": Throughout the Arab world, this is a generation which feels that it had been cheated of its chance to take its economic, social and political place in society, writes Perthes

​​The more conservative the society, the harder it is for them to have a sexual relationship while unmarried. They experience an inequality of income which is growing, and they learn that politics is the business of elites (and often it is truly a business) to which they have no access, unless they belong to one of the families which are allied with those elites.

They go into the internet daily, where they can read in Wikileaks how corrupt US diplomats think their rulers are. They often have their own experience of the arbitrary way in which the police and the authorities use their power against the young, against rural people, workers or dissidents.

If these common experiences have made this age-group into a "generation", the uprising in Tunisia and the revolts which followed have made them into a political generation, which sees itself as a player in the political events, and is seen as such by others.

As a result, the demands made by the protest movements are much the same everywhere – although they are different from the slogans which one could hear in Europe in the angry protests of the 80s and 90s of the last century. With rare exceptions, we have not been hearing "Islam is the solution", or "Down with imperialism and Zionism".

Unlike earlier revolts in Arab countries, these uprisings have been non-ideological, and, as the French Islam expert Olivier Roy puts it, "post-Islamist". They did not seem to need any of the ideologies which have traditionally been available in the Arab world, such as Islamism or Arab nationalism.

Islam as a religion, not an ideology

Nowhere, even to the slightest extent, were the Arab uprisings of 2011 an Islamic revolution. Even so, political Islam will play a role in the future, Perthes asserts

​​The 2011 generation is a generation of sceptics. It is sceptical towards any ideology, including that of Islamism. Many of its members are religious, but they see Islam as a religion, not as an ideology. Above all, this generation does not believe what the official propaganda put out by the authoritarian systems proclaims.

And why should they? They have had their own experience of the cynicism of their parents and teachers and how they dealt with the public declarations of loyalty required by the government.

Everyone knew that voting in presidential elections in countries like Syria, Egypt and Tunisia – elections which were described in the official media as "acts of homage" towards the incumbent – made no difference to the result. Governments and ruling parties called themselves "democratic", although they merely guaranteed the power of a small clique. Anti-corruption campaigns always failed to have any effect on those favoured by the regime.

There was always talk of Arab solidarity and support for the Palestinians, even though the largest Arab state, Egypt, kept its border with the Gaza strip closed and thus supported the Israeli blockade. And the regimes always glorified their past achievements, even though they had no relevance to the life lived by the people.

Nowhere, even to the slightest extent, were the Arab uprisings of 2011 an Islamic revolution. Even so, political Islam will play a role in the future. In virtually every Arab country, there's the basis for a popular conservative party with a religious foundation, on the model of the Turkish AKP. But even here, the variety on offer will increase. The opening of the political systems will also force political Islam to become more pluralist.

That can already be seen in Egypt with the divisions and spin-offs of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose members are no longer welded together by the pressure of persecution. Such a differentiation in the spectrum of political Islam is basically a healthy process which will divide the pragmatists and the reformers from the fundamentalists.

Rejection of the terrorist Jihad

One of the really good aspects of the Arab revolts and revolutions has been that they have also included a rejection of the ideology of violent, terrorist Jihad, as represented by Al Qaeda. The demands of the protesters for individual freedom and democracy are directly opposed to the ideology of Al Qaeda.

Three months after the revolution, Ayman al Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's deputy and successor, told the Egyptian people in a video message that their revolution would not be complete until they had established a true Islamic state. It was a message which obviously met with little resonance.

To today's generation of angry young people, what Al Qaeda can offer ideologically seems stale. The power of the people, and their desire for change, is more attractive than terrorist violence.

Volker Perthes

© 2011

Volker Perthes is an expert on the Middle East and director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

Editor: Lewis Gropp/