Can the Arab world ever fix its politics?
With its endless wars, crises, massacres, and turmoil, the Middle East is seen as hopeless geography today. It was much better than this throughout the 20th century, but it had never been so hopeless, exhausted, and desperate. There is no more new ideas, projects, or emotions that motivate and energize Arab street around itself. Instead, the region expects a solution from outside, some from the West some from Russia. But this is not always the case. Despite its massive problems and failures, Arab politics was much more dynamic, active and ambitious in the last century until the Arab Spring.
After World War I, when Arab states popped up following the dissolution of Ottoman Empire, Arab politics developed two main ideologies able to transcend all "artificial" borders, with the potential to unite all Arabs against Western colonialism: Arab nationalism and political Islamism. These two ideologies were promising solutions to Arabs' problems like weakness, under-development, instability, and legitimacy.
In the 1920s and 1930s, within a short period of time, Arab nationalism had became the region's dominant ideology as a reaction to European colonial rule. The goal was to gain full independence and to unite all Arabs by removing the borders artificially drawn by Europeans. Later, the Israel-Palestinian crisis, which is a challenge to all values defended by Arab nationalism, further fueled the idea. If Arabs could be united, they would defend themselves against all outside interventions and thereby get rid of all obstacles keeping them under-developed. The idea, as a source of legitimacy, was embraced by the governing elite. However, Arab leaders were reluctant to give up their own sovereignty for a united Arab state, and humiliating defeats inflicted by the Israeli army helped paralyze the idea.
The demise of Arab nationalism set the stage for its religious rival. Like nationalism, political Islamism was the result of a struggle to find solutions to Arabs' weaknesses and under-development. It showed up around the same time as Arab nationalism, offering a return to religion as a solution to every problem and crisis Arabs were suffering from.
Nevertheless, Islamism could not gain acceptance easily from secular Arab elites. Therefore, until recently, as an opposition force, Islamism could not find an opportunity to carry out its ideas. Having said that, the failure of Arab nationalism opened maneuvering room for political Islamism even under regimes like Iraq, Syria, and Egypt.
When Arabs rose up against their regimes from Libya to Syria in 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood, the main Islamist faction, was seen as a natural democratic ally by demonstrators. After all, the Turkish model had showed that an Islamist party could be a democratic and pluralist player. This mood of optimism about the Brotherhood did not last long. The escalating violence in Libya, Syria, and Yemen boosted those nations' Islamist character rather than democratic side while in Egypt, the army put an end to the Brotherhood's rule.
What was most destructive for Islamists was radical organizations like ISIS and al-Qaeda, which are proclaiming themselves the true representatives of Islam. Their barbaric violence in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen was charged to Islamism in general. It is claimed that it was the Islamist ideology that gave birth to the religious terrorism of al-Qaeda and ISIS. On top of that, these groups' links with some figures and groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey's Islamist AKP government have raised concerns around Islamism's democratic credentials.
Islamist AKP rule in Turkey was another deadly blow for the ideology itself in the Arab world. A democratically elected Islamist party's authoritarianism and its practices leveling up to dictatorship have ruined political Islamism's credibility. Today, the AKP has imprisoned hundreds of thousands of its opponents, silenced all dissident voices, and more importantly clung to power against its democratically elected rival in Istanbul. Considering that this party was the model for all Islamist groups in the region, the AKP experience in Turkey had brought Islamism's end.
Although declaring the end of political Islamism would be mistaken, it is possible to say it was badly bruised in Egypt and Syria. It has lost the Gulf's support and sympathy, except Qatar. What is worse, the Islamists now fear being expelled from Turkey, too. Sometimes, Ankara gives hints of its readiness to abandon them if there is a good offer.
The Middle East disappointed with both Arab nationalism and political Islam. The failure of its two main dynamics has paralyzed Arab politics. Arab intellectuals cannot develop a new set of ideas and values to reinvigorate politics, revive intellectual life, and unite all Arabs. Instead, Arab states are looking for local solutions to the region's complicated problems or expecting solutions from superpowers, therefore every small issue in the region is turning into an international crisis and subject to superpower rivalries — a vicious circle that further complicates the situation.
M. Hasim Tekines is a former Turkish diplomat.