The convulsions in the Arab world in 2011 are creating a new political and social reality. But what will be its character? Tarek Osman identifies three factors that are shaping the possible future.

The wave of revolts across the Arab world in 2011 will give rise to a new political paradigm in the region. The diversity of events in the various countries affected means that the immediate situation is fluid and its particular outcomes uncertain. But taking a longer-term view, it is possible to identify three factors that will help compose this new paradigm, and make the Arabs’ future very different from their recent past.

The generational infusion

The first factor is demographics. More than half the population of the Arab world is under 30 years old. This young generation sparked the rebellions that toppled the Tunisian and Egyptian administrations, and is currently leading the effort to accomplish similar changes in Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan, Syria, and Libya.

The upsurge of the Arab spring in the second decade of the 21st century is closely related to the changing demographic composition of most Arab populations. The falling average age cast a fresh light on an earlier generation, the one that had fought the 1967 and 1973 wars against Israel, felt it had paid its dues. Many of its members were disenchanted by the failure of Arab nationalism, an experience that had shaped their collective psyche; and later by the inability of all Arab states to progress as east Asian or Latin American countries had. But there was also a loss of energy and ambition.

The rising generation, by contrast, is untroubled by any experience of defeat. True, it feels it has inherited failures it did not contribute to or deserve – but this leads it to wish to change the sad present primarily to save its own future. By the first decade of the 21st century, a critical mass of young Arabs was entering the region’s social and political stage. The full consequences of this demographic revolution are still unfolding.

The religious revival

The second factor is the new Islamism. Since the mid-1970s, two developments have shaped the Arab world’s Islamic movements. A form of simplistic and reductive Islamic thinking that draws on outwardly different sources – Wahhabism and TV-evangelism – has come to dominate, especially within the Salafist movements that command major support amongst the region’s lower middle classes. This thinking and its accompanying rhetoric evolved far from the Sunni world’s leading schools of thought (mainly Cairo’s Al-Azhar); its character was heavily influenced by the skin-deep modernisation that the Gulf societies and the new middle classes in Egypt, the Levant, and the Maghreb have undergone since the late 1970s.

This current of new Islamism represented a great departure from the religious ethos that arose alongside the Arab liberal experiment in the first half of the 20th century, when many Muslim scholars were courageously exploring ideas that could compose an intellectual renaissance within Islam. By contrast, the formulaic and sloganeering propositions of the past three decades induced an artificial comfort-zone that numbed minds and discouraged confident examination and intellectual scrutiny.

At the same time, some key players of political Islam did begin to engage in serious intellectual reassessment during this period. They realised that remaining locked within an ideological framework of blanket social Islamisation could not win it broad purchase. That awareness triggered an evolution towards a relatively liberal vision framed by secular narratives. These players included figures within the Muslim Brotherhood, who embraced two vital ideas: the concept of the modern nation-state (as opposed to the Islamic nation), and that the citizen both has a duty of loyalty to such a state and – crucially – that citizenship bestows equal rights, on Muslims and others.

The rejuvenation of the Islamic narrative was visible in some Islamist parties of the Maghreb, as well as the Ikhwan in Egypt and Jordan. The movements most affected were offshoots of classic political Islam which thereby drew on the legitimacy of its founding establishments; yet they came across as modern and relatively liberal, thus not antagonising the Arab middle classes that tend to be both inherently pious and opposed to the idea of a religious state on the Iranian model.

This new Islamism is still developing – and now in the new context of the overthrow (in Tunisia and Egypt) or of protest against oppressive regimes, it will continue to find its voice. The test facing it will be to propose to the emerging generations of Arab citizens, and especially the Arab middle classes, persuasive social and political projects that could become a route to government in several significant Arab states.

The creative spark

The third factor is the potent currents of capitalism, entrepreneurship, and cultural creativity now sweeping the Arab world. In the region as a whole, the private sector has replaced governments and the public sector to become the largest employer. A significant percentage of young Arabs is opting to start small independent businesses in various sectors; and though the Arab world’s largest credit and key equity markets remain highly concentrated (in terms of allocation and capitalisation), the marked rise in the medium-sized industrial and services sector is the driving force behind the region’s economic growth over the past few years.

In addition, major changes are taking place in the artistic and cultural sphere. Young Arabs are experimenting with new waves in music, cinema, literature, and theatre. It is notable that the most powerful and moving expressions of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts were not political speeches or ideological arguments, but the artistic creations – songs, videos, slogans, poems, personal testimonies – amongst the young.

There is a link between these various spheres. The growth of the region’s communications and media providers in turn provides a larger market for these new cultural initiatives and increases their chance of commercial success. The impact on public life is already considerable and will be ongoing. In the same sense that Arab art and culture played a leading role in the Arabs’ renaissance in the late 19th and early 20th century, the cultural effervescence of the early 21st century may become the catalyst of wider social and political questioning.

If history is any guide, such cultural excitement will strengthen Arab liberals. The Arabs’ renaissance a century ago stimulated the drive to modernise Arab societies. It even provoked, from pioneers such as Rifa’a Al-Tahtawi (1801-73) and Mohamed Abdou [Abduh] (1849-1905), bold re-examination of the Islamic heritage; these figures aimed to build a bridge between Arab societies’ Islamic pasts and the advances of western civilisation (in science, but crucially also in social and political arenas).

Today, Arab societies do not need such a bridge. There are already very strong “civilisational” links, and swathes of highly educated Arabs able to lead a socio-political breakthrough in their Arab societies. The chances of Arab liberals exerting a major influence on their societies’ future, however, will depend on their ability to carve pragmatic proposals and narratives capable of addressing major problems, and ally these to a skilful promotion of liberal values that does not affront the dominant sensibilities of Arab societies.

These three factors – and the interactions between them – will fashion an Arab world in the 2010s and 2020s that will be very different from that of the past half century. Each of these developments could yield progressive outcomes that would benefit the Arab world and its peoples.

And yet, the potential of other scenarios is also present: where liberal Islamists fail to achieve their potential; where classic Arab liberals never become viable players in their pious societies; and where the sparks of cultural vitality and creative capitalism remain dry and stunted.

The future is poised. Millions of young Arabs, reinforced by huge numbers of the middle classes, have managed to usher in a new phase of Arab history. That might prove to have been the easy part.

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