The Middle East Channel

The second Arab renaissance

The democratic uprising is only beginning in the Arab world. It would be wrong to assess it  based on either its initial breakthroughs in Tunisia and Egypt or from the various setbacks, betrayals, and splits it will undergo in many countries. This is a regional movement of popular intifadas that are both inclusive and nationalist, ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

The democratic uprising is only beginning in the Arab world. It would be wrong to assess it  based on either its initial breakthroughs in Tunisia and Egypt or from the various setbacks, betrayals, and splits it will undergo in many countries. This is a regional movement of popular intifadas that are both inclusive and nationalist, but each protest develops inside its own framework of post-colonial borders and within its specific context. These demonstrations have vowed to stay peaceful unless confronted, like in Libya, with the regime’s terror. But this democratic uprising is also an irresistible renaissance, the victory of a generation that decided to claim control over its own destiny. And this modern renaissance carries alongside it the unfulfilled promises and the liberating energy of the first Arab renaissance, the Nahda, opened by Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 and concluded by World War II.

This "liberal age of the Arab thought", as Albert Hourani entitled his seminal book about the Nahda a half-century ago, was indeed the intellectual and political response to this French revolutionary challenge, which was simultaneously both an external military aggression and a spur to cultural progress. The Ottoman Empire was so shocked by such a blow that it let two modernizing dynasties launch, under its nominal leadership, their own reformist programs in Tunisia and Egypt, which were already at the vanguard. The ensuing spread of Arabic printing led dozens of newspapers to publish not only challenging ideas and information, but also a much more accessible language, something that is echoed today by satellite pan-Arab channels. Today’s "Facebook kids" were in the nineteenth century the cosmopolite strata of young and older graduates, often at odds with their religious hierarchies (whether Muslim or Christian), while the Arab diaspora in Europe and America was already supporting their audacious calls for change.

Further, consider many of the hisorical developments and genuine reforms in the time of first Nahda. Ahmed, the Bey of Tunis from 1837 to 1855, not only abolished slavery in 1846, two years before France, but also revamped the whole process of tax collection in the distant provinces. This process, known as the mahalla, involved two seasonal campaigns, the first in summer in Western Tunisia, and the second one in winter in the Center and the South. Ahmed Bey strove to make this tax campaign less predatory and aggressive, therefore pacifying the region targeted by the winter mahalla, the same one that rebelled in December 2010 and contributed to Ben Ali’s ousting.

Muhammad Bey, who ruled Tunisia from 1855 to 1859, established a "pact of social peace" (Ahd al-Aman) based on public interest (maslaha), equality before the law, and freedom of religion. His successor, Sadiq Bey, adopted in 1861 the first Arab constitution, with a de facto separation between the political and the religious power. The text simply expressed in general terms its respect for Islam and did not even explicitly state that the ruler had to be Muslim.

In 1881, France imposed her protectorate over Tunisia, and the following year the United Kingdom crushed the Egyptian resistance to its occupation, effectively putting an end to the reformist programs that the khedives — or local rulers — had undertaken in the preceding decades. In 1919, the detention and deportation of the delegation (wafd) that the Egyptian nationalists wanted to send to the Paris peace conference triggered a widespread popular uprising. This campaign of civil disobedience exhibited a degree of discipline, geographic breadth, and social inclusiveness that was mirrored in the recent anti-Mubarak revolution. The emphasis on the Muslim-Christian unity against the British occupier was echoed in the militant solidarity in Tahrir Square. And the 1919 revolution, despite facing bloody repression, forced the UK to recognize Egypt’s independence three years later.

The Libyan insurgency is now claiming the legacy of Umar al-Mukhtar and its unwavering struggle from 1911 to 1931 against Italian colonization. And the similarities between Qaddafi and the fascist governor are not only reflected in rhetoric: then and now, the manipulation of the geographic and tribal divisions is as cynical, the violent focus against Cyrenaica is as ruthless, and the toll inflicted by an absolute power on the civilian population is as high. The Libyan revolutionaries fight under the "banner of the independence" (‘alam al-istiqlâl) that was Libya’s flag from 1951 to 1969. This does not express the rebels’ aspiration to restore the monarchy but rather invokes the unity that was then forged between the three entities of Tripolitana, Cyrenaica and Fezzan. The civilian as well as military rebels in Libya are literally obsessed with the unity of their country.


The democratic intifada is perceived by its own actors as a national liberation movement, since the regime and the rulers are accused of being alien to a country they consistently plundered and foreign to a nation they humiliated. This explains the celebration of the army when it joins the people with the sea of Egyptian flags over Cairo on the evening of February 11, and the patriotic mantra delivered with pride and joy on every occasion ("Proud to be Tunisian/Egyptian"; "Raise your head high"; etc.). But this restored national pride also empowers revolutionaries to deal on an equal footing with the foreign states, while the dictators and their cliques keep on spreading their usual conspiracy theories about the Mossad or al-Qaeda. This is what distinguishes the current Arab awakening from the first Arab Nahda: The key difference being the realization of genuine independence previously hijacked by the autocrats at the expense of their own people.

This Arab Nahda is smashing the once-prevailing sentiment that what is good for the ruler should be good for the country. The Tunisian and the Egyptian armies valued loyalty to their country over obedience to their ruler, thereby forcing presidents Ben Ali and Mubarak to step down. And despite the savagery of Qaddafi’s retaliation in his country, a significant part of the Libyan armed forces boldly sided with an insurgency that would have otherwise been slaughtered. Similarly, what happens in Yemen will inevitably depend on the extent to which military commanders are willing to oppose president Saleh. And the Syrian protest was vindicated when the granddaughter of the leader of the anti-French 1925 uprising lashed out publicly at Bashar al-Asad and was swiftly detained. The moment the rulers are targeted as enemies or liabilities to their country, then the force of nationalist energies turns wholly against them.

This nationalist dimension makes the issue of foreign interference extremely sensitive. This is why it is so important that the international move to save Benghazi from Qaddafi’s wrath has generated such an unprecedented approbation in the region. The red line not to be crossed is clearly sending ground troops to Libya. This is a matter of history: we often forget that the first war a nascent United States waged was against the "Barbary Coast" of Libya and its pirates who were raiding American ships and enslaving their crews. In 1805, the star-spangled banner waved over Derna in Cyrenaica, where the US Marines supported a contender to the Libyan throne (he ultimately was abandoned because of deal between Washington and Tripoli). But the challenge today is not what the US did in Libya in 1805 or what the French did in Egypt in 1798, but how this second Arab renaissance is reclaiming the aspirations of the first Nahda from the colonial legacy and the "independence" under ruthless Arab autocrats. This is why the democratic intifada is so galvanized by the universality of the American, French and, hopefully, Arab revolutions.

Jean-Pierre Filiu is a professor at the Sciences Po in Paris and a visiting professor at Columbia University in New York. He is the author of Apocalypse in Islam (University of California Press, 2011).

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