Friday, October 21, 2011


"Qaddafi was the last of the old-style Arab nationalist strongmen, and his death on Thursday marks the end of an era. His contemporaries were the likes of Saddam and of Assad's father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad -- military men from poor families and hardscrabble towns who fought their way to the top, riding the wave of revolutionary sentiment that swept the Middle East in the 1960s and 1970s. Their inspiration was Egypt's charismatic military officer, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who overthrew the British-backed King Farouk in 1952. Nasser's rousing speeches, heard across the region via the newly invented transistor radio, kindled visions of Arab unity. It was a time of upheaval, in which the merchant and feudal elites -- the allies of the old European colonial powers -- were losing their grip. At first, Saddam, Qaddafi, and Assad seemed to embody a promising new era of populist reform.

Arab nationalism began to wane after the humiliating Arab defeat in the 1967 war with Israel, which left many Arabs feeling betrayed by their leaders. With Nasser's death three years later, the great hope of Arab unity was extinguished. Citizens figured out that their heroes had turned into corrupt, authoritarian despots who suppressed any opposition, executed their critics, and squandered national resources. By the 1980s, Islamist movements were gaining ground across the region, buoyed by Iran's Islamic Revolution and the jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Arab societies turned more conservative, and Islamic movements dislodged pan-Arab and secular parties, exerting significant influence over cultural and personal life. In an effort to crush any challenge to their authority, the region's autocrats built elaborate security apparatuses aimed at both Islamists and secular opponents. The Arab liberation movement would end in betrayal, exile, and carnage.

Now, one by one, the strongmen have begun to teeter and fall. A new generation of revolutionaries has fostered a revitalized sense of pan-Arab identity united around demands for broad political and social rights. As the protests that began in Tunisia have spread to Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria, each uprising has been inspired by the others. A vanguard of civilian leaders is beginning to emerge from the revolts, and although they draw on some of the old Arab nationalist doctrines, such as anticolonial rhetoric and resistance to Israel, they are well aware of the failures of Qaddafi's generation.

At the height of Arab nationalist and pan-Arab fervor, leaders such as Nasser sought to mobilize political support across borders by appealing to the idea that Arabs are bound by a common language, culture, history, and political identity. Today's revolutionaries are using similar rhetoric in their struggle against authoritarianism. It is no accident that the crowds in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and elsewhere have been largely peaceful and repeat the same Arabic slogan: Al-shaab yurid isqat al-nizam ("The people want the fall of the regime"). Arabs are inspired by one another's methods and goals, and they no longer accept a social contract in which they effectively make peace with government repression, arbitrary laws, state-run media and censorship, and single-party rule, in exchange for security and stability. Instead, they demand justice, freedom, and dignity. "The people should not fear their government. Governments should fear their people," read a popular placard in Cairo's Tahrir Square earlier this year.

The current Arab revolutions are different from those of the mid-twentieth century in one crucial way: They are not top-down movements like those that brought the autocrats to power. They are not being led or instigated by military men or charismatic figures. The age of the Arab strongmen is over, and although it remains unclear who or what will ultimately take their place, today's revolutionaries are redefining Arab nationalism by making it more populist and grassroots".

Mohamad Bazzi, "The Death of the Qaddafi Generation: the era of the Arab Strongman comes to an end." Foreign Affairs. 21 October 2011, in

"A corpse died yesterday."

L'Humanite on the death of Andre Gide, 19 February 1951.

The death of the Libyan ex-dictator, Qaddafi represents au fond the terminus of the 'Arab Nationalist' generation of dictators, strongman, politicians in the Arab speaking world. With yesterday's killing, that generation which commenced with Nasser's July Revolution in 1952 has seen its role in world history played out. Finis. Which in its way is historical justice, as Qadaffi's revolution in 1969 overthrowing the Monarchy in Libya was the very last of the Arab Nationalist 'revolutions' in the region to succeed. No doubt in the future there will be other dictators in the Arab world, but insofar as they exist, they will not care to adorn themselves with the mantel of Pan-Arab nationalism `a la Nasser. For good or for ill (I happen to think for good), secular, statist, autocratic, Arab Nationalism has been played and found wanting. History I would surmise will not be very kind to it. Coming to power in the immediate aftermath of the colonial era, in the 1950's and 1960's, Arab Nationalism proclaimed that it would overthrow the existing, pro-Western elites and usher in an era of economic growth, political equality and independent development. Of course quite the opposite happened. The comparative statistics on the Arab World's economic well-being has been widely noted in recent years, and they make rather sad reading. Perhaps the best quoted one is that the State of Israel has more patents registered in the United States by a factor of three, then the entire Arab World 1. Whether or not, the newer generation coming to power in much of the region in the next five to ten years time, does better only time can tell. I will venture however, that if nothing else, they can hardly do as bad as the generation spanning Nasser to Qaddafi.

1. Bernard Lewis, "Free at Last? The Arab World in the Twenty-first Century." Foreign Affairs. (March / April 2009), pp. 81-82, for these and other sufficiently depressing statistics.


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