It’s often overlooked that the encroachment on public space and stultification of mass-politics has damned us to an anaemic existence in political terms. The inability to participate in a meaningful fashion in the realm of organised politics has left people without any means of identification, participation and association at the political level. Religious fundamentalism fills the breach when there are no meaningful forms of political organisation and participation to involve oneself.It seems significant that the politics of fear came to the forefront of American foreign policy in the early 21st Century. The space which was once filled by Communism was now a slot occupied by Islamism. It became the new enemy we must vanquish in the name of freedom. This closed down the End of History narrative which began with the fall of the Berlin Wall. The old question of whether the future will be socialist, fascist or capitalist could be put aside. It was the triumph of liberal democratic capitalism, the only system left and the world was now beyond politics.
As Slavoj Žižek notes Kansas was once the bedrock of American leftism, after the triumphs of Reaganomics and the subsequent stultification of US politics Kansas has become another centre of Christian fundamentalism. The same can be said of Afghanistan, which was once a moderate Westward looking monarchy before the Communist coup and subsequent Russian invasion to which the primary resistance came from radicalised Muslim groups supported by the US. It was the US that founded the Mujahideen in 1978 and later financed the Taliban to secure plans for an oil pipeline from the Caspian Sea through Afghanistan to Pakistan. In Pakistan the US supported the military dictatorship of General Zia ul-Haq which carried out an extensive radicalisation of Pakistani society in the 1980s. The military junta was conceived in a coup that unseated the comparatively liberal Bhutto government. The US actually went as far as to produce Jihadist manuals, printed at the University of Nebraska, to be distributed in Pakistan.
It is no coincidence that the rise of radical Islamism in the Middle East coincides with the failures and decline of Arab nationalism combined with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In part this came down to the deliberate destruction of nationalist alternative to secure the hold on the oil spigot through the theocracies on the Arab peninsula. The involuntary euthanasia of Arab nationalism also served to defend Israeli expansionism and insulate rejectionists from meaningful negotiations for a peaceful settlement and the international consensus which supports it. The radical Islamists were empowered by this decline as the Arabs turned from one identity-marker to another. The only form of association and identification became religious rather than national in what was left of the political realm. In the Middle East it has been the major form of the politics of resistance to American and Israeli military power in the region for far too long. It took the place of left-wing and nationalist movements often with the blessing of Washington.
Hope in Democracy.
Everywhere you look in the Middle East there were currents of secular nationalism that have been destroyed. In Iran the nationalist government of Mossadegh was overthrown in 1953 to install the Shah which acted as a bulwark to the various forces in the country until 1979 when radical Shi’ite Islamists seized the state in the midst of revolution.Hezbollah came out of the Amal movement on the other side of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which disarmed the Lebanese Left and the PLO. The Amal movement was a Shi’ite communalist movement, not fundamentalist, until it underwent radicalisation with Hezbollah as a splintered off-shoot with the sponsorship of the Iranian state. The Israeli government even supported Hamas in its early years to undermine the secular Left and particularly Arafat. Similarly in Egypt Sadat supported the emergence of radical Islamic groups to undermine the more left-wing Nasserites. It backfired and Sadat was killed by Islamists in 1981 for the peace treaty he signed with the Israelis.
After 30 years of Mubarak the Egyptian brand of nationalism has discredited itself fully and the halcyon days of Nasser remains a distant memory. Mubarak stuffed his family’s accounts with an estimated $70 billion while the majority of Egyptians have had to survive on less than $2 a day.The lowest moment came at the height of the Tahrir protests Mubarak got down on his knees and begged Netanyahu to invade Egypt so that he could hold onto his position as a ‘heroic Arab leader’. What he didn’t know was that the generals were listening in on his phone calls and Mubarak was soon dethroned. Ultimately the democratic uprising of 2011 that dethroned Mubarak gave birth to a neutered Islamic administration with a coterie of generals around it. It seems significant that the democratic nationalist Sabahi was knocked out of the race quickly, leaving the Egyptian people to choose between a felool and a fanatic. The nationalist alternative was dirtied far too much to be revived even in a dissident form.
The Arab Spring is an opportunity for the people of the Middle East to re-politicize. This does not mean a return to 'proper politics'. In the original Greek sense polis means more than a community as Mike Marqusee notes "It was a self-conscious unit of self-administration (independent of empires) and from the start was made up of separate, contending social classes." He goes further to note that Athenian democracy was itself the product of a class struggle and class compromise between aristocrats and artisants who had become 'free citizens'. Politics emerged as a distinct activity concerned with the affairs of the polis in separation from any tribal loyalties. The polis was not to be conflated with the oikos, the economy was a private realm from the radical democratic polis. Depoliticization can open up greater space for capital's rule. The future of the Middle East is not in the anti-politics of theoconservatism, rather it is in the democratic opening which will give room for greater organisation at the grass-roots. This is only the beginning of a long process.