Nameer Galal/NurPhoto/Corbis

Demonstrators with a portrait of General Abdel Fatah el-Sisi—now Egypt’s president—at a rally in Tahrir Square, Cairo, January 2014

In 1938 George Antonius, an Egyptian Christian of Lebanese origin living in Jerusalem, published The Arab Awakening: The Story of the Arab National Movement. In his path-breaking book Antonius, who had been educated at Cambridge, charted the Arab national idea from its ethnic and linguistic beginnings in the early Islamic conquests, through the intellectual renaissance in nineteenth-century Syria, and to the grassroots—and eventually armed—political movement that overthrew Ottoman rule in Arabia, Iraq, and Syria—in alliance with Britain—during World War I.

In his indictment of British policy Antonius demonstrated that promises made by Britain to the ruler of Mecca, Sharif Hussein, whose sons Faisal and Abdullah led the Arab revolt against Ottoman Turkey, contradicted commitments Britain had made to its allies France and Russia under the secret 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement and to the Zionist leaders who were promised a Jewish homeland in Palestine under the terms of the November 1917 Balfour Declaration. Though Antonius, who died in 1942, did not witness the triumph, and debacle, of Arabism in Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser, The Arab Awakening powerfully set the stage for its trajectory.

Taking his cue from Antonius, Marwan Muasher, a Jordanian diplomat and former foreign minister now working at the Carnegie Endowment, argues that what some have called the “Arab Spring”—and others the “Arab inferno”—should really be seen as a “second Arab Awakening.” The liberal promise of the “first Awakening” was aborted at the end of the colonial period, he writes, “when foreign despots were replaced by homegrown ones, who went on to rule the region for more than fifty years.” The fatal flaw of these post-independence governments was, at heart, constitutional: none of the regimes,

whether monarchist or “republican,”…paid much attention to developing pluralist systems of government, building systems of checks and balances on executive power, or promoting the rich diversity of their populations. Instead, the legitimacy gained during independence struggles hardened into diverse forms of autocratic rule.

In short the inadequacy of the first Awakening made the second Awakening—the wave of uprisings beginning in the winter of 2010–2011—inevitable. But that failure also conveys a warning:

Toppling despotic rulers alone is no guarantee of a healthy political development. A constructive vision for future polities must be hammered out and must be founded on an unshakable commitment to pluralism—leading to systems of protections and inclusiveness that enable what may be the Arab world’s greatest asset: its ethnic, cultural, religious and intellectual diversity.

In most of the countries he visits in the course of preparing his book Muasher finds that a pluralistic approach embodying a respect for differences of values, religions, and ethnicities is conspicuously absent. His book was already being printed when Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s only president to have come to power through a transparent electoral process, was removed from office by the military. But he cannot have been greatly surprised, having noted that many of the secular leaders to whom he spoke were prepared to “accept the military’s undemocratic practice of appropriating legislative and executive powers if that would check the growing influence of the Islamists.” A post-coup note added to the book reinforces his argument

that the Islamist and secular forces in the Arab world, both before and after Arab uprisings, have shown no solid commitment to pluralistic and democratic norms. Each side has denied the right of the other to operate and has often ignored the popular will.

While he does not provide details of the events that followed the coup, when some nine hundred protesters were killed in a confrontation with the army and police—in which armed Brotherhood activists may well have fired first—he sees the Islamist and secular forces as equally intransigent. He blames the Islamists for pushing through a partisan constitution without adequate protections for religious and other minorities, when the very purpose of a constitution must be “to achieve consensus among the various forces in society.” He criticizes the secular side for continuing

to act as if the elections in Egypt meant nothing, refusing to cooperate with the Islamists, until they finally sided with the armed forces in deposing a democratically elected president. Thus they practiced the same power-monopolizing behavior of which they accuse the Islamists.

Muasher’s critique of the secular forces, including the judiciary, gains further credibility from recent events. In December 2013 Egypt’s military-backed government designated the Brotherhood a terrorist organization. This was followed in March by the death sentence imposed by Judge Saeed Youssef on 529 protesters in the southern city of Minya for the killing of a single policeman. In April, Judge Youssef sentenced an additional 683 Muslim Brotherhood supporters to death, including Mohamed Badie, its “supreme guide” or spiritual leader. He upheld thirty-seven of the 529 death sentences passed in March, commuting the rest to life in prison.


While none of these sentences are final, and all can be appealed, the repression is much more severe than under the Mubarak regime, when Brotherhood deputies were permitted to stand as independents in the national parliament. According to a recent report from Amnesty International, dozens of civilians have been arrested and held for months at a military camp outside Cairo, where they’ve been tortured with electric shocks and other illegal treatment, in order to make them confess to crimes or implicate others.1

The Egyptian Brotherhood, or part of it, may now be expected to abandon the democratic path to power and take up a jihadist position toward the regime and its foreign protectors. Yet as Muasher points out, Islamism is far from monolithic: apart from the Muslim Brotherhood itself, there are significant differences between movements that are “violent and exclusionary” such as al-Qaeda; those such as Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon that are committed to liberating territories they regard as being under foreign occupation; and some “salafists” who live by a strict puritanical code while advocating “total obedience to the ruler.”

These types can shift according to the obstacles they meet. In Syria, the regime began shooting and torturing peaceful protesters. When activists started arming themselves in response, they were denounced as takfiris—a label attached to militants who anathematize their opponents as infidels. In time the official rhetoric became self-fulfilling. The Syrian opposition is now dominated by takfiris, some from outside Syria, some cynically helped by the regime in order to undermine the opposition’s appeal and its legitimacy with outside supporters, including Western governments. In Egypt, as in Syria, authoritarian, military-backed regimes have found the threat of political Islam a highly “convenient excuse for keeping their political systems closed.”

In Muasher’s view the threat of Islamist rule has been exaggerated by secular groups in the Arab world and beyond who harbor the suspicion that whatever gesture Islamists make toward pluralism and democracy is just a tactic for grabbing power. According to this theory Islamists will tolerate just “one man, one vote, one time.” The warning issued by former US Assistant Secretary of State Edward Djerjian in 1992 reflects a widespread concern among minorities as well as the advocates of secular government.

Muasher thinks this fear to be greatly overstated and he produces a number of arguments and survey figures with a view to allaying it. He cites at length a 2011 declaration by al-Azhar, Egypt’s foremost institution of Islamic learning and widely regarded the leading academy in the Sunni world, stating that democracy “represents the modern formula to achieve the Islamic precepts of shura (consultation),” and that “Islamic precepts include pluralism, rotation of power,…freedom of thought…with a full respect of human, women and children’s rights,…multi-pluralism…and…citizenship as the basis of responsibility in the society.” Muasher claims support for this view from his talks with a number of senior Islamic figures, including the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Egypt’s highest religious authority, Imad El Din Abdel Ghaffour, the leader of the Salafist al-Nour party, and Khairat al-Shatir, the FJP’s chief strategist, who told him that for the next five to ten years “Egypt must be ruled by a broad coalition” of forces.

Such arguments, of course, cut no ice with the military. Al-Shatir is now in jail along with the ousted President Morsi, who is accused of treason. Muasher deploys these interviews, and other materials including survey data, to illustrate his general thesis that the problems of Arab states derive more from the structure of power than from ideology. In Muasher’s view the religious question is much less divisive than practical issues of governance and particularly of economic management.

To support his argument Muasher cites a Gallup survey taken in three countries—Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco—in the spring of 2012 after mass protests had ended decades of one-party rule. Some 94 percent of the respondents in Egypt, 95 percent in Tunisia, and 75 percent in Morocco agreed that all citizens should be allowed to express their opinions on political, social, and economic issues.

However, the figures in favor of freedom of religion were somewhat lower, with 70 percent of Egyptians, 84 percent of Tunisians, and 49 percent of Moroccans agreeing that citizens should be free to observe and practice any religion of their choice (the lower figure for Morocco is partly accounted for by a high percentage of “don’t knows”). Muasher concludes that

while they support these freedoms, most Arabs also want some role for sharia as a basis for legislation. To many Muslims, the term sharia means not necessarily a specific code but rather general principles. The percentage of those who prefer no role for Islamic references is in the single digits in the three countries.

But it is clear that many more Egyptians (47 percent) favor sharia as the “only source” of law than Tunisians (17 percent).


In Egypt the survey found that 46 percent thought sharia should be a source of law, but not the only one. The difference between those who think sharia should be the source as distinct from a source can hardly have been sufficient to take the country to the brink of civil war, as appeared to be happening before the military overthrew Morsi’s government in July 2013.

Nevertheless the differences between Egypt and Tunisia are instructive. Under Morsi, constitutional delegates from the Brotherhood, the al-Nour party, and other Islamist movements insisted on drafting a document that amplified the religious language of the existing 1971 constitution and omitted mechanisms for protecting politically vulnerable constituencies such as Christians, women, and journalists. In mid-November 2012, before the finished draft was published, representatives from the Coptic Church, whose followers number around 7 percent of Egypt’s population, withdrew from the assembly in protest. More than forty churches were attacked and a number of Christians were killed. With the military takeover, however, Copts are now said to feel safer—though their situation remains precarious.

In contrast to the disputed efforts toward producing a new Egyptian constitution (with two elected constitutional assemblies dissolved by judges, followed by a commission of experts chosen by the military), the Tunisian process has been impressive in its effort to be inclusive. The Constituent Assembly elected to draft the new constitution reflected a broad consensus. Unlike Egypt, where the army remains the foundation of the old guard and has a huge stake in the economy, the small Tunisian army is neutral and removed from politics. Tunisia’s electoral law makes it difficult for any one party to gain an absolute majority. The Islamist Ennahda party, the biggest winner in the 2011 elections with 89 out of 217 parliamentary seats, formed a coalition with two secular parties before stepping down for a nonpolitical, technocratic government that will serve until elections are held under the new constitution later this year.

Although the party’s leader, Rached Ghannouchi, is strongly committed to consensus politics and has been one of the leading intellectuals making the Islamist case for equal rights and citizenship, Ennahda was slow to identify and punish the Salafist groups or individuals who violently attacked activists and intellectuals. The new constitution, which took all of two years to complete, wrestles with the problem of harmonizing Islam and the state. It recognizes Islam as the official state religion but, crucially, makes no reference to sharia as a source of law. Article 6 guaranteeing freedom of belief also bans the religious anathemas that are now part of the currency of Arab politics:

The State is the guardian of religion. It guarantees liberty of conscience and of belief, the free exercise of religious worship and the neutrality of the mosques and of the places of worship from all partisan instrumentalization.

The State commits itself to the dissemination of the values of moderation and tolerance and to the protection of the sacred and the prohibition of any offense thereto. It commits itself, equally, to the prohibition of, and the fight against, appeals to Takfir [charges of apostasy] and incitement to violence and hatred.

There is no guarantee, of course, that the constitution will resolve the abrasive struggle (including attacks on unveiled women and the assassination of two lawmakers) between Islamist and secular-minded Tunisians that followed the departure of the dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011. As Amna Guellali of Human Rights Watch points out, the article forces together two irreconcilable visions for the future in a complicated formula that is disturbingly vague:

The clauses allow for the most repressive of interpretations in the name of offense against the sacred. Citing the constitution, lawyers, judges and politicians could interpret Article 6 however they see fit. This ambivalence could hold grave consequences for the country.2

Compared with Egypt, however, where the military has reinstalled itself with considerable public support after experimenting with democracy for less than a year, the outlook for pluralism in Tunisia seems more promising.

The Tunisian model has yet to be replicated elsewhere. Muasher’s former employer, the king of Jordan, receives praise for good intentions but no more, as Jordan “conspicuously failed to muster the political will” to lead its governing class away “from a rentier system, which offered privileges in exchange for blind loyalty, and toward a merit-based system that would have threatened those privileges.”

Like many other observers, Muasher sees the “rentier system” as central to the Arab world’s problems. A state that is dependent on oil revenues or earnings from other extraction industries, such as gas or phosphates, rather than taxation, avoids the basic social contract between a government and its citizens. As Muasher puts it:

The region’s large oil reserves, and the Arab countries’ influence over the price of oil since the 1970s, have proved as much a curse as a blessing…. In oil-rich countries, the government made use of its oil income to act as a general provider for its people. Rather than encourage a culture of self-reliance or private sector–led growth, oil state governments fostered a culture of dependency. Citizens came to depend on their rulers to deliver jobs, services, and favors without supplying in return the productivity necessary to develop the economy. Even worse, as governments did not need to raise taxes from their citizens for income, their authoritarianism was more difficult to challenge. The political culture they developed was one of “no taxation, no representation.”

This is evidently true, but the reality to which it alludes is much harsher than explained by Muasher. Not only does the rentier system underpin authoritarianism by allowing tribes or coteries to monopolize a country’s wealth. It also fosters the region’s enormous inequalities. To take just one example: the Arabian Peninsula contains two sovereign countries, Qatar and Yemen. With a GDP per capita of $93,825 in 2012, Qatar ranks with Monaco, Liechtenstein, Bermuda, and Luxembourg as one of the states with the world’s highest per capita national income. Yemen, with a per capita GDP of $1,498 in 2012, is near the bottom of the table of MENA (Middle East and North Africa) countries listed in World Bank statistics. The proportion of people living in extreme poverty, based on the World Bank poverty line of $1.25 per day, may be less in MENA than in other developing regions, including Latin America, South Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. But as Gilbert Achcar reminds us in The People Want—a more detailed and searching account of the “Arab Spring” than Muasher’s—“poverty is even harder for the poor to accept when it affects a minority, which must daily be confronted with the sight of overconsumption and ostentatious luxury.”

So long as opportunities are seen as inclusive, a capitalist culture in which financial success is considered a reward for diligence or risk-taking may accommodate disparities of wealth around common ideas of citizenship. The Middle East, however, is a region of conflicting religions and ethnicities, where the state has mostly been captured by tribal systems or privileged coteries. Power, and the rewards of wealth that go with it, tend to be appropriated by minorities or clans who hold it by means of military and police coercion.

Arab citizens of the oil-rich countries may benefit from the cradle-to-grave welfare system provided by their government. Citizenship, however, is not just ethnically circumscribed but largely restricted to the tribal networks out of which the state was formed. Of Qatar’s population of 2.1 million, 85 percent are listed as “foreign residents.” Many of these are construction workers from South Asia who work under poor conditions and suffer high casualty rates. According to Andrew Ross of New York University, almost a thousand of these migrant workers have died while building the infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup—the subject of a financial scandal, following claims that the choice of Qatar was secured by bribes.

The situation is no better in Abu Dhabi and Dubai where, as in Qatar, migrant workers are subject to the kafala system of sponsorship, where typically the “sponsoring employer takes their passports, houses the workers in substandard labor camps, pays much less than they were promised and enforces a punishing regimen under the desert sun.”3 The scandal of labor abuse in the Gulf has now reached the US after The New York Times’s exposé of conditions faced by workers constructing the NYU campus in Abu Dhabi. Since they can be expelled on a boss’s or a bureaucrat’s whim, their condition is even more precarious than that of the indentured laborers who worked on the plantations or railways of the British Empire.

Citizenship in the Gulf region is an artificial construct. The states to which citizens belong are mostly entities created by treaties the British signed with tribal leaders in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. According to the rhetoric of Arab nationalism, local citizenship is subsumed within the broader idea of an Arab nation, while Islamists may claim emotional allegiance to the umma—the world Islamic community. Yet faced with the bureaucratic power of the modern state, such Arab and Muslim solidarities can be meaningless. After Saddam Hussein’s attempt to annex Kuwait in 1990 was repelled by Operation Desert Storm, some 400,000 Palestinian workers were expelled from Kuwait, and around a million Yemenis from Saudi Arabia. These actions were taken because of opposition to the US-led coalition voiced by the PLO and by the Yemeni government.

The Gulf monarchies then realized that the inclusive message of Arab nationalism as proclaimed by Saddam Hussein endangered their rule because of the sympathies it evoked among Arab migrant workers. Their solution was to shift from reliance on Arab labor to importing workers from South and Southeast Asia, who were much less threatening politically. Between 1985 and 2004 the proportion of Arabs among migrant workers fell from 79 to 33 percent in the Saudi kingdom, from 69 to 30 percent in Kuwait, and in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries overall (comprising Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates) from 56 to 32 percent. The majority of these mostly unskilled workers, who numbered more than 12 million in 2004, are from the Indian subcontinent, followed by the Philippines, Indonesia, and, more recently, Vietnam.

In the oil-producing regions of the Gulf, oil is treated as private family property, rather than a communal resource. Despite rhetorical gestures toward Islamic or Arab solidarity, wealthy Arabs avoid sharing it with the wider Arab societies, or indeed with their fellow Muslims. According to Achcar it is Western rather than Arab countries that are the principal beneficiaries of Arab wealth. Of the $530 billion spent by the GCC countries between 2002 and 2006, $300 billion was invested in the US and $100 billion in Europe, compared with $60 billion in MENA. Between 2002 and 2009 amounts put into foreign assets tripled to more than $1 trillion. Slightly more than half of this sum is invested in sovereign wealth funds based in the West. After China and Japan, the group of mainly Arab oil exporters is the largest holder of US treasury bonds.

The uprisings of the second Arab Awakening have multiple causes. To economic factors—such as sudden rises in food prices caused in part by desertification and drought—must be added the impact of satellite television and the high levels of youth unemployment, enhanced by the ever-growing access of youth to social media. Since it first appeared in 1996 the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera twenty-four-hour news channel has defied taboos on the public criticism of governments—with the obvious exception of Qatar itself. Social media have further contributed to the uprisings, by publicizing information about police brutality or industrial protests, including strikes by Tunisian phosphate miners and Egyptian textile workers.

Far from addressing the economic issues, however, the revolutions are making them worse. In Egypt, tourism, a vital source of foreign currency, has collapsed. In Tunisia, phosphate production, afflicted by strikes and blockades since 2008, has slumped to a third of its prerevolution volume, with a loss of $2 billion in revenue, while youth unemployment stands at 30 percent, even higher than Egypt’s 25 percent. Certainly the explosions of the second Arab Awakening were facilitated by the fact that there were nearly 30 million Facebook users in Arab countries (with the numbers rising exponentially), 75 percent of them between the ages of fifteen and twenty-nine. A much more difficult question is how these revolutions may work out in the long run.

Unlike the “classic” revolutions of France and Russia, where popular protests were channeled through preexisting institutions such as the Estates General, political clubs, or the soviets, with organized forces determining the outcome, the “Facebook revolution” appears to have little grounding outside the social media’s spontaneous networks. This accounts for the initial political successes of the relatively well-organized Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia following the uprisings, as well as for the crackdown by the better-organized security forces in Egypt, with whom Morsi had tried, but failed, to align his government.

In Egypt the relative weakness of internal civilian structures—apart from the Brotherhood—resulting from six decades of military rule combined with a collapsing economy to leave the country as open to foreign manipulation now as in 1882, when it was deeply in debt and taken over by the British. Today it is the Saudis who are calling the shots, having endorsed the crackdown masterminded by General Abdel Fatah el-Sisi and bailing out the Egyptian treasury. Sisi, a former military attaché in Riyadh, is now Egypt’s president, after being elected by a claimed majority of 96 percent. The alleged turnout of 45 percent was achieved only by keeping polls open for an extra day.

With accusations of official ballot-stuffing and police “persuasion,” Sisi’s mandate is less convincing than Morsi’s, who achieved a 51.7 percent victory on a 52 percent turnout. Though formerly the Brotherhood’s leading protectors, Saudi Arabia’s tribal gerontocracy is terrified that the glimmer of democratic legitimacy represented by Morsi could weaken its hold on power. Local rivalries in the Gulf are also at play. The gas-rich Qataris, rivals to the Saudis, have been the Brotherhood’s main sponsors, as well as funders of the Tunisian Ennahda party.

Muasher concludes with a powerful plea for improvements in education that alone, in his view, can guarantee the pluralistic changes he advocates: “Appreciating differences is a taught behavior. It must be fostered by the community, particularly at school.”

It is difficult to see this happening while Salafism, underpinned by petrodollars, holds sway in the region. In the Islamic world the prospects for embracing diversity are especially difficult, since the Salafist emphasis on tawhid (unity) is so emphatic in its stress on a God who tolerates no partners. Hinduism, which incorporates diversity into its vision, may prove less antithetical to democratic pluralism. Achcar’s conclusion is scarcely more hopeful than Muasher’s, stating that “it is impossible to consolidate democracy without a major redistribution of property and income.” This seems improbable so long as oil and modern weapons systems are available to buttress the tribal oligarchies that still dominate the region’s wealthiest states.

More plausible openings for pluralism are likely to issue from within religious conflict itself, as appears to be happening in the larger regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, as well as between ultra-conservative Saudi Wahhabis and their neighbors in Qatar (also Wahhabis, though of a different hue) who have used Al Jazeera to make a niche for themselves in the Arab political world. Enlightenment in the Middle East will come of age, as it did in the West, only when the dogmatism of one system of faith finds itself challenged by others.