In conversation with Michael Binyon, leader-writer and columnist for the The Times, Marwan Muasher surveyed the current political situations across the region, underlining the importance of pluralism, the changing appeal of ideology, the effect of education, and the concept of citizenship.
Asked why he had referred to the unrest which has unfolded around the Arab world since 2011 as a second Arab Awakening, Muasher pointed to the mid-19th century and what he called “the first liberal era in the contemporary Middle East,” when a group of uncoordinated intellectuals first conspired against Ottoman and later colonial rule. This first Arab revolution failed because it stopped after independence, and not one of the Arab countries endeavoured to engender a wholly democratic and pluralist system since gaining their autonomy. “The Arab world has been living in a state of artificial stability, a stability brought about by brute force,” said Muasher, indicating that the unrest seen across the region since 2011 is a manifestation of battles that have long been fought below the surface.
Arguing for the importance of pluralism, Muasher cited Egypt and Tunisia as two contrasting models of transition. While Tunisia adopted an essentially inclusionist strategy, where all society’s forces participate in a coalition and a constitution ensures the right of all parties to contribute, the Egyptian model pits secular forces against religious forces in a winner-takes-all contest, leading to a cycle of exclusionism. The result, Muasher argued, is that after three difficult years, Tunisia enjoys a social contract that respects the rights of all men and women and, as part of an agreement between the secular and Islamic forces, “they are upholding the right to believe or not to believe, for the first time in the Arab world.”
On the appeal of ideology, Muasher indicated that because neither the secularists nor the Islamists had succeeded in delivering economic results, the Arab world has reached a point where ideologies are on the decline. Moving forward, economic planning will be the new determining factor for the strength of emerging political forces in the region. Muasher cited opinion polls taken in Egypt showing that although 90% of citizens identify themselves as conservative and religious, only 2% want their government to worry about ideology, while 70% want their government to worry about the economy. “The message here is clear,” Muasher concluded, “we know how to be Muslims, we do not need the government to tell us how to be Muslims; what we need the government to do is create jobs and improve the economy.”
Answering to questions on the role of education in securing the long-term stability of the region, Muasher lamented the “unwritten agreement” between secular and religious authorities, which is designed to ensure that the next generation do not question their government’s interpretation of the truth. This oppression has produced the opposite effect, and young people have taken to the streets in their frustration. Education will thus be crucial, he argued, in the development of a society that can celebrate diversity. The challenge, Muasher suggested, will be to convince the region’s governments that if they want their country to remain stable, they will have to teach the next generation to question them. Qualifying these ambitions with a sense of the timeframe they will demand, Muasher acknowledged that full education reform could take as long as 45 years to produce results.
On the concept of citizenship, Muasher cited examples from Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon to argue that the Levant countries have failed to champion any notion of a nation’s identity that could unify its pre-existing sub-identities. Thus even if the war ends tomorrow morning, a country like Syria will take a long time to recover, not just because of the economic damage, but because the entire concept of what it means to be a Syrian citizen will have to be rebuilt from the polarisation. Lamenting the authoritarian approach which forcibly unifies diverse societies, Muasher argued that “the whole notion of citizenship in the Arab world will need to be revisited, because most of the countries have treated their citizens as subjects.” Muasher thus called for a reassessment of national identity, built not on singularity but on pluralism.
“The historical record all over the world is overwhelming,” Muasher argued, “prosperous and stable societies cannot develop without diversity.” Acknowledging that evolution will be necessarily gradual, he nevertheless suggested that the West was premature in renaming the process an ‘Arab Winter’ and thereby dooming the region to a dark age of frozen progress. “This is a process that should have started 80 years ago,” Marwan Muasher concluded, “but it has started now—that’s why I called the book The Battle for Pluralism, not because it has been fought, but as a call to arms.”
Read more about The Second Arab Awakening and the Battle for Pluralism here or join the conversation on Twitter at #ArabAwakening2.
This event took place as part of the Legatum Institute's Transitions Forum, a series of projects dedicated to the challenges and possibilities of radical political and economic change.
About the Speaker
Marwan Muasher is Vice President for Studies at Carnegie Endowment, where he oversees research in Washington and Beirut on the Middle East. Muasher served as Foreign Minister (2002-2004) and Deputy Prime Minister (2004-2005) of Jordan, and his career has spanned the areas of diplomacy, development, civil society, and communications.
Muasher began his career as a journalist for the Jordan Times. He then served at the Ministry of Planning, at the Prime Minister's office as Press Adviser, and as Director of the Jordan Information Bureau in Washington.
In 1995, Muasher opened Jordan's first embassy in Israel, and in 1996 he became minister of information and the government spokesperson. From 1997 to 2002, he served in Washington again as ambassador, negotiating the first free-trade agreement between the United States and an Arab nation. He then returned to Jordan to serve as Foreign Minister, where he played a central role in developing the Arab Peace Initiative and the Middle East roadmap.
In 2004, he became Deputy Prime Minister responsible for reform and government performance and led the effort to produce a ten-year plan for political, economic, and social reform. From 2006 to 2007, he was a member of the Jordanian Senate.
From 2007 to 2010, he was senior vice president of external affairs at the World Bank.
He is the author of The Arab Center: The Promise of Moderation (Yale University Press, 2008).
You can read more about Muasher on his Carnegie profile. He tweets at @MarwanMuasher.
About the Chair
Michael Binyon has been a leader-writer, columnist and foreign correspondent for The Times since 1971. For 15 years he was based overseas, reporting for the paper from Moscow, Washington, Bonn and Brussels before returning to London to be diplomatic editor in 1991 and then becoming the chief foreign leader-writer in 2000.
After graduating from Cambridge University with a degree in English and Arabic, he spent a year teaching English for the British Council in Minsk, USSR, in 1967 and in 1968 began as a reporter on The Times Educational Supplement, moving to the BBC Arabic Service in 1970 and becoming a founder reporter on The Times Higher Education Supplement in 1971. He covered the 1973 Middle East war for The Times in Jordan and Egypt.
He speaks French, German, Russian and some Arabic and is a frequent broadcaster on BBC radio and television, and also appears regularly on French, German, Canadian and Middle Eastern radio and television, including Al Jazeera and Al-Arabiya.
A winner of two British journalism prizes, he wrote Life in Russia in 1983, and was awarded an OBE in 2000. He formally retired from The Times in November 2009, but has continued to write regularly for the paper and other publications.
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