Georgios Chatzoudis | 31.03.2011 | 27532 Aufrufe | Interviews

What's going on in Arabia?

Interview with Dr. Allen Fromherz

Dr. Allen Fromherz is Assistant Professor for Medieval North African, Middle Eastern and Islamic History at the Georgia State University in Atlanta, USA, since 2008.

His current research project: "Constructing Medieval Myths of the Nation in the Modern Middle East", funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation.


Dr. Allen Fromherz, Assistant Professor for Medieval North African, Middle Eastern and Islamic History at the Georgia State University in Atlanta, USA

L.I.S.A.: What is going on in the Arabian countries? How would you describe the situation there? Demonstration, upheaval, civil war or revolution? Why?

Dr. Fromherz: Rebellion? Revolution? Upheaval? Civil War? Terminology is important. It is terminology that is often at the forefront of any propaganda effort. Qadhafi has called those who oppose him “terrorists” despite a great deal evidence to the contrary. Use of the word “rebellion” suggests an unlawful act against a legitimate state. Upheaval may be more accurate since it seems that many of these movements are leaderless - in many respects they are an outpouring of popular anger like water rushing out of a crack in a dam. Yet in many respects these are true revolutions - the changes in Egypt, Tunisia and the rest of the Arabic speaking world are too profound to be called merely upheavals. They have caused the world to “turn anew.” There have been similar revolutionary periods in European and German history. Many pundits have said that the 1848 revolutions may best approximate the current situation in the Middle East.

In the year 1848 Europe experienced a sudden upwelling of revolutionary fervor propelled by new telegraph technologies. Food shortages, economic instability and a population restless for change succeeded in changing some regimes temporarily. An important legacy of these revolutions was an increased sense of nationalism and national identity. The March Revolutionaries in Germany called for a unified German nation and parliament. Similarly, the 2010-11 revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa are propelled by new technologies (Social networking sites) and fed by food shortages and economic instability. There are also increased calls for Arab national unity - the support given to Libyans fleeing Qadhafi by already Tunisians attests to this as do the extraordinary calls for air strikes against Qadhafi’s air force by the Arab League. Nevertheless, there are crucial differences between the recent revolutions in the Middle East and those of 1848. First, although there are calls for unity across nation-states, loyalty to the nation state itself by protesters still seems fundamentally sound. Egyptians came out into Tahrir Square as Egyptians, not as Arab nationalists wanting first and foremost to unify the Arabic speaking world or as Islamic nationalists wishing to establish an Islamic Caliphate. Indeed, if the protestors’ most important demands are met - transparency, true democracy, fair taxation, economic development, etc. - these revolutions may actually end up strengthening the nation state. This does not mean that pan-Arab nationalism will not in some ways strengthen, or that revolutions within nation state will be the only focus of revolutionary rhetoric. The popularity of Amr Moussa, the former Secretary General of the Arab League, as a presidental candidate in Egypt may partially attest to the continuing appeal of Arab nationalism. The rhetoric and feelings of Arab nationalism have mobilized support for revolutions within a growing, imagined community of international satellite viewers.

It was extrordinary for me to watch the demonstrations at Tahrir Square on Al-Jazeera in coffee shops and public places in Marrakech, Rabat, and Tangier, Morocco while doing research for the Gerda Henkel Stiftung. Although there were small demonstrations in support of the revolutionaries in Tahrir, the most potent sign, I think was that people were actively congratulating the Egyptians and Tunisians at the overthrow of their strongmen. There was a “WANTED” poster with the face of Ben Ali, the cover of the popular Le Temps Magazine, posted everywhere I saw a news stand.  Several times I saw Tunisians being congratulated in the streets or in the trains with handshakes and even a high five or two. Nevertheless, most Moroccans were careful to mute their celebration at the demise of Mubarak with loyalty to the King Muhammad VI who took a very different path in Morocco.  The example of Tunisia and Egypt did spill over into other Arabic speaking countries but each nation state has its own particular circumstances. The situation would be remarkably different if Morocco were still under the control of the hard-handed Hassan II, father of the current, reform-minded King Muhammad VI.

L.I.S.A.: Let's have a look at the political demands of the opposition. Do people on the streets refer to any historical example, a national myth or national figure?

Dr. Fromherz: Yes and, surprisingly, sometimes no. Historical memory and nationalism is the central theme of my research project with Gerda Henkel Stiftung. However, the relationship between history and revolution is, by nature, somewhat problematic. As historians we see this in our reliance on state and institutional sources for our work - court records, newspapers, government records. These are the written material through which we think we can understand whole societies. Revolutions make the historian’s job much more difficult by upending these institutional expectations. It is for this reason, perhaps, that historians and scholars have been very bad at predicting revolutions, including this one.  Also, history, historical memory and tradition are, in some respects, inherently rejected by the revolutionary process. On Al-Jazeera I saw Egyptians who said “We were ruled by Pharaohs for thousands of years - this is the first time we have overthrown one.” This, of course, was not true. There had been revolutions in Egypt’s past. The Mamluk period saw many a bread riot. However, the point of the revolution right now still seems to be the message of dramatic break from the past and a harnessing of the adrenaline of new possibilities. This phase of celebration and euphoria only lasts so long. If the revolution is successful it must establish institutional permanence and legitimacy. An inevitable ingredient of that legitimacy must be historical memory.  I predict that soon there will be a call to revise and re-evaluate the history of Egypt. To search for new examples of social mobilization and civil society from Ancient times to present in the same way American historians have created a narrative of “inevitability” about the American revolution, so too will Egyptians and Tunisians be looking for teleological roots of their revolutions.

One more thing. There is a difference between history and heritage. The symbolic importance of the Egyptian Museum is key to understanding how national heritage as a symbol of collective pride (as opposed to history and its somewhat more complex abstractions) can be used by both sides of a revolution. Defended by the revolutionaries from looters but also manipulated by the Mubarak regime as “threatened” by the “instability” caused by the protests, the Egyptian Museum became a tense scene as both sides tried to show how the other was threatening Egypt’s magnificent, intangible heritage. The resignation the Zahi Hawass, the Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs, who published a list of what he claimed sites looted across Egypt, was a culmination of this use of heritage as a political tool by the old guard (Hawass) and the protestors. Indeed, ancient heritage is often used as a way of justifying authoritarianism. Although as historians we may be horrified by the looting of ancient monuments, to some in the impoverished classes, these lootings may have been an act of protest as much as an act of desperation.

L.I.S.A.: What is the significance of religion, i.e. the islamic heritage, in that context? Or more general: What about Islam, identity and belief in North Africa?

Dr. Fromherz: I think that religion, like appeals tradition and history, will become more important in the medium to long-term aftermath of these revolutions. The Muslim Brotherhood of Sheikh Qaradawi in Egypt and the Nahda party of Gannouchi in Tunisia were not, in fact, the central players in this revolution. However, as the best organized political blocs they may become more central in the long term. It is largely up to both the Military forces and the will of secular, popular sentiment for change and cultural openness to determine how much of the future of Egypt and Tunisia will be found in a more strict interpretation of religion. Of course, there is a wide difference between Islam as a whole and Islam as practiced or promoted by the Muslim Brotherhood. The most compelling image, I believe, was the rows and rows of praying, faithful protestors of all classes and backgrounds in Tahrir Square. Religion was a unifying force in a time of great crisis and upheaval.  

L.I.S.A.: What is your expectation? How will the Arabic societies in North Africa change? Is there any way for a new political order?

Dr. Fromherz: Most of the revolutions of 1848 were put down after a few years. I do not think that the revolutionary sentiment of 2010-11 will fold so readily. In the long term I think Saudi Arabia will be key. I think that there are extraordinary internal developments right now in Saudi Arabia where force, intimidation and manipulation of religious sentiment are being used. Indeed, if the Saudi monarchy were to fall the consequences for the Arab and Islamic world may be even greater than the fall of Mubarak. I suspect any such revolt would be urban. The young would propel it. It would reject the alliance between monarchy and extremist Wahhabi clerics. It may take some years, however, for the current generation to finally wane from power.  The opening of Saudi Oil and the two holiest Pilgrimage sites of Islam to some sort of democracy would have tremendous and profound reverberations. Al-Qaeda’s main goal has been the overthrow of the Saudi regime. If this was done by Saudis themselves in the name of a more liberal future that would be the final death knell of the traditional dictatorship in the Middle East. Even the richer gulf states (UAE and Qatar and Kuwait) may become vulnerable. Qatar’s Al-Thani monarchy has been supporting Al-Jazeera throughout this crisis; confident in the notion that Qataris are so wealthy they would never revolt. The Al-Thani themselves may soon be forced question their steadfast support for one of the main mouthpieces of revolution.

Dr. Allen Fromherz has answered the questions in writing.

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