Modernization, legitimacy & the Middle East

Posted on | september 17, 2011 | No Comments

Samuel P. Huntington

One reason I always enjoyed Sam Huntington’s work ever since I was an undergraduate reading Soldier and the State is because he was a master at trying to capture the long-view of global historical trends and doing it with a great deal of thought after examining various sides of the issue and providing thought-provoking analysis in the process. Labeling ‘third wave’ the transition from authoritarianism to ‘democracy’  from the mid-1970s to the 1990s in countries from southern Europe (Portugal, Spain and Greece, to Latin America and Africa was a way to make sense of global trends.

I will not add much to the ‘third wave’ pros and cons arguments, except to point out that  those familiar with the literature and/or the countries that are included in the ‘third wave’ know very well that what was described as transition to democracy was in essence a transition from corrupt authoritarian regimes to corrupt semi-democratic ones for most, and in all cases without exception countries that became even more thoroughly dependent economically on the regional economic blocs dominated by the US, northwest Europe, and Japan.

It is true that at the cultural and to a degree social levels there has been greater ‘pluralism’ in societies that transitioned during the ‘third wave’. However, while women have more rights, the judicial system is more just, and there are greater opportunities for mobility based on a more meritorious system, it is also true that these countries compromised their sovereignty by surrendering to the globalized market economy to a much greater degree than they had under authoritarian regimes that tended to support ‘national capitalism’ more than international capitalism.

For example, the people of Portugal and Chile that are part of the ‘third wave’ elect their national leaders who only follow and execute policies in accordance with the rules of the market economy and under considerable pressure from the US and EU directly or indirectly through the IMF, World Bank, OECD, European Central Bank. To what degree do Portugal and Chile enjoy national sovereignty when the IMF and European Central Bank basically dictate to them monetary and fiscal policy that impact living standards and result in social engineering? In short, the ballot box affords the illusion of freedom of political choice, but the national economy and public finances have been surrendered to global finance capitalism that operates with comprador bourgeoisie at the national level.

If the ‘third wave’ did not result in the type of social justice politically, socially, and economically that one would associate with a Norwegian model of democracy, let us just say as an example that many admire, why would the imaginary ‘fourth wave’ be any different taking place now in the Middle East? Second, the suggestion that modernization can come solely or primarily as a result of ‘ideas’ is in some respect reactionary, initially suggested by none other than the master propagandist of counter-revolution Edmund Burke. Adamantly opposed to the French Revolution, Burke faulted the ‘radical’ ideas of the Enlightenment for poisoning the minds and hearts of people who blindly followed the leaders to the streets of Paris in 1789.

Let us establish that all uprisings that evolve into revolutions must necessarily be based on a coherent set of ideas, otherwise they are what in scholarship we call ‘Robin Hood’ movements. But the suggestion that the ideas per se or their interpretation (secular or religious) cause uprisings that may or may not evolve into revolution is not supported by any empirical evidence for any uprising in human history from the German Peasants’ War that Luther’s doctrines inspired to the Cuban Revolution. Even assuming the irrational takes over sound judgment in people acting as groups, people people in masses do not hit the streets risking injury or death for the sake of ideas alone, otherwise, those who read and think for themselves should be in the streets all the time protesting against the status quo.

The more essential question is what are the dynamics of the Arab uprisings and what are the possible scenarios under which future regimes can operate. The suggestion that the Arab uprisings are not rooted in Islam is difficult for me to comprehend. I firmly maintain that legitimacy for the establishment and the opposition seeking reform throughout the Arab world is rooted in Islam and not in any secular ideology that may be in the periphery. Muslims did not arrive here from Mars but were born into Islamic culture, thus societal legitimacy emanates from the faith. Nevertheless, I would be interested to see public opinion polls at some point after the dust settles across the Arab world about what motivated people to rebel.

Without empirical evidence, I will assume that Islam is an integral part of all other issues intertwined with the faith, especially in Egypt where the Islamic Brotherhood played a key role, but also in Yemen and Tunisia. In the absence of a secular political ideology, religious doctrine is what the masses rally around. This was indeed the case in the German Peasants’ War when there was no political ideology, thus Lutheranism served the purpose. Whereas the identity of a Muslim emanates from the faith as well as the nation-state, social status and lesser factors, the identity of a Christian in France or US is rooted in multiple institutions mostly secular, that may or may not include nation-state and faith.

While I briefly read some of Rachid Benzine’s ideas on Islam and looked at French video interviews, I am not sure what he is saying that is not already thoroughly explained in most Middle East textbooks on history, culture, social structure, and economy. However, it is important for each generation to produce its own spokespeople and Rachid Benzine serves such a purpose in France and Europe today. In essence, he is following a long-standing tradition started by Bernard Lewis, Fazlur Rahman and others, as well as Edward Said who was a critic of conventional scholarship. But is the failure of the Arab world, and more widely the Islamic world, to undergo an intellectual revolution (Renaissance and Enlightenment like Europe), invariably linked to social development, owed to a ‘misreading’ of the Koran and in failing to recognize and respond to specific historical situations?

As a traditional society that has not undergone a Renaissance, a Scientific Revolution, an Age of Reason, an Industrial Revolution, and in addition has been subject to foreign conquest that imposed monocultural economic structures (export-oriented economies) on it, the Arab world finds itself confronting the contradictions of wanting to preserve its cultural identity on the one hand, keeping up with the western world on the other in order to lessen exploitation of its resources and labor, and strengthen national sovereignty, and finding it impossible to avoid integration into the world-system of the market economy, which entails dependency at some level.

Embracing ‘modernization theory’ which is in essence suggests trying to fit Islamic institutions and society into a secularized Western-dominated world is not exactly revolutionary as some would argue. In the first half of the 19th century, Albanian-born Egyptian reformer Mehmet Ali tried to strengthen Egypt by modernizing it through a strong state structure while maintaining its Muslim institutions. Egypt’s attempts at reform under Mehmet Ali worked to a limited degree while he was in power to strengthen the country and prevent colonization, but the fact that Egypt fell deep into debt by heavily borrowing, and eventually became a British colony.

The second round of reform came with Gamal Abdel Nasser who like Ali was a nationalist rooted in Muslim faith but determined to modernize the nation to prevent its exploitation and manipulation by foreign powers. Influenced by socialist ideas, Nasser moved from the West to the Soviets to the non-aligned bloc, but in the end the hegemonic Western capitalist system with its mighty military machine behind it was too much to withstand for Egypt that failed to convince the Arab states to form a regional bloc. Ali and Nasser gave Egyptians a sense of national pride, a sense of dignity that at least they were living in a country that enjoyed national sovereignty, but he too failed as his successors Sadat and Mubarak reduced Egypt to a semi-colony. 

Given that reforms under Ali and Nasser had limitations in improving living standards and in strengthening the nation to the degree that it could resist external dependence, where is Egypt headed in the 21st century? Egypt is in a very strategic position geographically, having just gone through an uprising against authoritarianism as part of similar regional uprisings in a world dominated by regional economic blocs, a world where there is no Soviet Union or non-aligned to use as leverage, a world where finance capital is stronger than ever in the history of capitalism and the state relatively weak even after the recent global recession that temporarily revived the state’s power.

Is Egypt part of a ‘fourth wave’ toward democracy, or is that another phantom mental construct designed for the convenience of those who want to make sense of events and be optimistic that the modernization theory works – equating modernization  with Western concepts of bourgeois capitalism. In my view, ‘transformation policy’ that the US began implementing after WWII as a means to integrate the rest of the world into the global system of capitalist institutions is inevitable not just for Egypt, but for the entire Arab world, no matter what regime emerges after the uprisings of 2011. Alain de Benoist is right on target that now that the popular uprising has ended in Egypt, the divisions among the various opposition groups will emerge more clearly; not that such divisions will make much difference in so far as what has taken place in Egypt as well as Tunisia is a political revolt and not a social revolution.

In the absence of a regional (Middle Eastern-North African) economic bloc, in the absence of some revival of Nasser’s dream for Arab solidarity, Egypt will be even more thoroughly integrated into the capitalist system than it was under Mubarak who had set up his own fiefdom. The only question is what leverage does Egypt have at its disposal in order to enjoy greater national sovereignty, no matter what regime emerges, anything from an Islamic fundamentalist to the most liberal westernized model one can imagine. If the new regime goes running to the Chinese, they will demand that Egypt conform to the rules of the marketplace, to the IMF and World Bank, to the World Trade Organization, to observing all of its foreign treaty and other obligations; exactly as the US demanded from the Egyptian army so that the foreign aid can continue pouring in.

Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, Bahrain, and the entire Arab world, will remain Western dependencies because they do not have better options that would serve the entrenched elites. After all, Libya under Muammar al-Gaddafi, now challenged by a segment of the discontent population reintegrated his country fully with the West after trying Soviet, Arab League and non-aligned paths.

Western dependency entails few changes in the status quo of the Arab world, merely enough to satisfy those that have fought to end authoritarianism. While it would be a great development to have more respect for women and broader observance of human rights in general,  the trend for Egypt and the rest of the Middle East is westernization through commercialism – consumer products and services, pop cultural influences, telecommunications, media and technology – which entails influencing the value system based on Islam and becoming more like Turkey that seeks full membership in the European Union.

This subtle form of infringement on Muslim sovereignty to which Arabs object comes slowly, and it contributes and is a reaction to popular uprisings, along with the broader recognition that the Muslim world is made up mostly of poor people, while the Christian West is prosperous, immersed in materialistic, hedonistic values and lifestyles. The closely integrated globalized economy entails withering cultural identities and that is the case in the Muslim world as well.

The only hope to strengthen national sovereignty and lessen external dependence for the Arabs is to revisit some 21st version of Nasser’s dream of an integrated Arab world, regional solidarity at all levels possible as a means of increasing leverage around the world. Given that Arab princes and millionaires are putting their money in global financial markets, expensive real estate in the West, and other businesses around the world, given that the Arabs are pitifully divided, regional economic integration is unlikely.

AUTHOR: Jon Kofas
E-MAIL: jonkofas [at]


Leave a Reply

  • agriculture (29)
    book (3)
    briefing (16)
    business & trade (21)
    child (92)
    consumption (3)
    corruption (20)
    crime (152)
    culture (30)
    defence (15)
    deforestation (6)
    democratization (54)
    demography (6)
    Discovery (5)
    drugs (73)
    Dutch foreign policy (3)
    economic (105)
    education (28)
    effectiveness (3)
    election (64)
    embassy news (1)
    emergency (8)
    energy (42)
    environment (144)
    Eurasia (36)
    Europe (36)
    fair trade (5)
    flora & fauna (24)
    foreign aid (28)
    foreign embassy in the Netherlands (2)
    foreign policy (56)
    gender (17)
    global (270)
    globalization (5)
    health (95)
    history (19)
    homosexuality (4)
    human rights (309)
    hunger & food (20)
    immigration (3)
    infrastructure (28)
    intelligence (7)
    interview (26)
    Latin America (214)
    list (5)
    media (64)
    Middle East (358)
    Millennium Development Goals (21)
    minorities (41)
    movement (38)
    multilateral organizations (40)
    narration (5)
    natural disasters (9)
    Netherlands (31)
    NGO (20)
    NL-Aid (8)
    Northern Africa (187)
    Northern America (130)
    nuclear (4)
    opinion (37)
    Pacific (2)
    peacekeeping (1)
    politics (129)
    poverty (27)
    racism (2)
    raw material (30)
    reconstruction (1)
    refugees (20)
    religion (23)
    remembrance (3)
    research (11)
    revolt (186)
    Royal Dutch Embassy (1)
    sanitation (16)
    slums (2)
    South Asia (451)
    South-east Asia (112)
    study (19)
    Sub-Saharan Africa (446)
    technology (14)
    terrorism (90)
    tourism (6)
    trade (11)
    transport (6)
    Updaid (1)
    war & conflicts (145)
    war crimes (36)
    water (40)
    whistleblower (8)
    women (54)

    WP Cumulus Flash tag cloud by Roy Tanck requires Flash Player 9 or better.

Page 1 of 11