Olivier Roy on Middle East social movements

egyptiansIf you read only one person on the social movements all over the Middle East, then you should read Olivier Roy, who has been writing about political Islam since the 1990s.

In this Rue 89 interview, he offers of a recap of what has been happening and the nature of these social movements. I provide the gist of his statements for those of you who don’t read French.

First of all, what we have seen so far are not revolutions but protest movements involving the same kinds of social actors in the Arab world and beyond: protesters are young, educated, connected (through mobile phones, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) even though Internet penetration rates are still not great in these societies. They are sociologically modern in terms of family structures, education and ideas. They are more individualist, believe in democracy. They are the ones who started these movements, then joined by older generations.

These protests are against old and tired corrupt regimes that have been captured by authoritarian leaders and their families or inner circles, and have stagnated for the past 30 years. So, it is a fed-up generation that rejects what have been the dominant ideologies in the Arab world in the post-War period: Islamism (political Islam), nationalism or Arabic socialism.

These movements are popping up all over the Middle East because of the similarities across countries: authoritarian regimes that have been in place for a long time, without major evolution. Beyond the shallow differences (monarchy in Morocco, authoritarianism in other places and family rule in Morocco, Syria or Jordan where each leader is succeeded by his son), there has been little diversity in governance.

So, politically, there are few differences. Sociologically, this is a different story. In Yemen and Jordan, the tribes still exercise power, whereas they are of little importance in North Africa or Egypt. Structures of power have developed over these sociological differences in order for the rulers to keep themselves in power.

What makes repression worse is when the protest movements in favor of democracy are based on ethnic (Iraq), denominational (Bahrain), or tribal divisions. For example, in Bahrain, the Sunni elite, supported by Saudi Arabia, dominates a numerically larger shiite population. In that case, more brutality from the rulers can be expected as full democracy would probably cost them their regime. But that is why the protesters in Bahrain have emphasized their nationality first, using the national flag, rather than their shia identity (they are not particularly pro-Iran). But that is something that the Sunni elite from the Persian Gulf do not want to hear.

It is not entirely clear why things are exploding now since these regimes have not changed over the past 20 years. There is certainly the global economy but Roy also sees a generational phenomenon. This is the coming of age of a generation born in crisis but who has never considered Islamism as solution to all social problems (as Islamism is seen as one of these discredited ideology). And then, there is population growth. The protesters come from a baby boom, a population peak, with lower fertility levels after them. In this sense, one can draw some comparisons with May 1968 in France.

A great deal has been made regarding the role of the new media. For sure, the rulers (or now former rulers) of these countries perceive these new media as if they were a sort of super Al Jazeera rather than social networking media. And they certainly see them negatively as they challenge the media models that have so far prevailed: if a ruler does not like what is being said on a network, he shuts it down. These rulers completely misunderstood both these new media and the new generation using them. The complete disconnect illustrated by Mubarak televised speech – and their obvious failure – was a dramatic reflection of this.

What this crisis shows is that there is a meaningful entity called “the Arab world” and what is going on is – for now at least – limited to the Arab world. There is an Arab solidarity, in which Al Jazeera plays a reinforcing role. But one cannot call this “pan-Arabism” as this solidarity is not based on a clear political project with ideological underpinnings.

Now, the question that has been tormenting Western leaders: what is the role of religious movements in all this?

For Roy, these movements are secular. The Islamists have been left behind and have been largely absent from these movements. Islamism is finished as a political and ideological solution but the Islamist groups are still around and their future role is still unclear. For Roy, their presence can take two forms:

1. a Muslim version of the European Christian Democrats: very conservative parties that abide by parliamentary rule, or

2. a Muslim version of the Opus Dei, that is, a salafist version, i.e., groups who claim to no care about politics but to care only about religious norms.

What is important to understand when it comes Islamists is that they have become very “bourgeois”: embedded in parliamentarism, wealthier, very conservative but without social projects, and completely absent on the economic and social fronts. And the reality is that Islamists, at this point, have no chance of winning elections  in Egypt or Tunisia (they would roughly score around 20% of the votes). This is nothing like the 1979 Iranian revolution.

However, there is a real risk of political chaos because the authoritarian regimes have devastated their political scene. This is something that will take a while to rebuild, which means that a lot of people might be disappointed as not much actually happens on the social and economic front, especially to resolve the immediate crisis of unemployed, educated youth (hence the current migration to the Lampedusa Island).

But whatever comes out of these protests might not a European-style secularism either. But what this shows is that Western governments got it completely wrong when they argue that these authoritarian regimes have protected us from the Islamist threat. Part of the reason for this failure of analysis is that European governments refused to have open communication channels with opposition movements. So, they completely missed the evolution of Islamism and the generational changes. Paradoxically, academic research had unveiled these changes, but this was not something European politicians wanted to hear.

The other big loser in this is Al Qaeda. Like the authoritarian rulers, Al Qaeda thrived on the ideological construct of a polarized world with pro-Western on the one side and Islam on the other side. Al Qaeda missed the boat as much as Mubarak and Islamist movements. The dichotomy between the near enemy and far enemy has no ideological appeal to these movements. And sociologically, Al Qaeda has no influence in these areas. If Al Qaeda wants to regain the upper hand, it will have to conduct some spectacular attack somewhere, to prove that they still exist and have some relevance.

These movements also illustrate the Clash of Civilizations thesis, which has always been more a fantasm than reality, that neatly fit with the post 9/11 era. Bin Laden is a major Huntingtonian, which is bad news for his organization because that thesis is wrong. After all, not a single American flag was burned during the protests in Egypt. Roy considers this partly to be an “Obama effect”. These movements would not have happened under Bush.

I would add that what we are seeing now, along with the solidarity between Egyptian protesters and Wisconsin teachers, or between Tunisian and Egyptian doctors and Libyan protesters is the result of the deeper penetration of the idea of global civil society. But that’s just me.

  1. 2

    ‘solidarity between Egyptian protesters and Wisconsin teachers’ (laatste alinea).

    Risico lopende Egyptische betogers opgeteld bij egoïstische USA-onderwijzers die via hun meedogenloze vakbonden de staat Wisconsin = zijn belastingbetalers uitmergelen! Hoe verzin je het!
    Deze uitspraak verpest Socprof’s hele artikel. Weer eens.

    ‘Socprof’, een lelijke Komsomol term, maar dan missschien toch wel geschikte als vlag om er sociologie als rancune onder te bedrijven.