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The Arab Spring in History: Taking the Long View

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Beneath the white marble dome of Cairo's opera house, tucked into the quiet and secluded district of Zamalek, around 50 young Egyptian university students, many with hair pulled back under modest and brightly colored hijab, shuffle into the small auditorium to take their seats. They have come today to celebrate the Arabic-language launch of The Arabs: A History. But, more importantly, they have come to hear it's author, Oxford University professor Eugene Rogan, speak on revolution and democracy in the Middle East.

That is hardly an uncommon topic these days. Yet, as he introduces himself with an easy grin and a sheepish apology for his apparently fluent Arabic, it seems clear that Dr Rogan is no ordinary conduit. First introduced to the Middle East as a 10-year-old in Beirut, Rogan spent the better part of his formative years experiencing a region in flux. While his father slung F5 fighter jets across the Arab and North African world for the giant aeronautics manufacturer, Northrop, a young Dr Rogan found the months before his 13th birthday marked by renewed war with Israel in 1973. Later, when civil war in Lebanon compelled his family to move to Cairo, his dubious luck would continue with the bread riots of 1977 and the historic drama of Egypt's peace with Israel. After that, says Rogan, "nothing seemed as interesting to me as the Middle East. The history we'd lived through and watched unroll firsthand... it was absolutely seductive and compelling."

This unique dualism of a Middle Eastern childhood, and an American identity, is something Dr Rogan strives to incorporate in his writing. Yet it is his perspective on Arab history that serves most to surprise. While he allows that "the events of 2011 have decisively undermined the Western notion that Arabs aren't ready for, or don't want, democracy", he stresses that this is nothing new in Arab society. "What most people don't realise is that the events of 2011 have deep historical roots." Following those revolutionary roots as far back as 1834, and the observations on French constitutional government published by Egyptian Imam, Rifa'a el-Tahtawi. Rogan notes that, just as today, "it was Egypt and Tunisia who led the way" with thinkers like Khayr al-Din Pasha in Tunisia, whose tireless work produced the country's first constitution in 1861.

The efforts of these earliest pioneers were, he admits, ultimately to fail but the concepts they introduced could not be so easily contained. In Iran, popular pressure would eventually force the Shah to accept the establishment of a constitutional government in 1906 - one that would last until the rule of Reza Shah in 1925. While, in Turkey, similarly inspired reformers would push Sultan Abdul Hamid to restore the 1877 constitution during their 'Young Turks Revolution' of 1908. These examples are but a few in a rich historical tapestry and, as Rogan walks these trends through history, he sketches a timeline in which vibrant intellectual currents produced deep political, social, and economic transformation throughout the Arab and non-Arab Middle East. Painting an age of almost constant resistance, reform, and revolution, Professor Rogan quietly shatters that classical view of a perpetually stagnant and apathetic region, which has so dominated Western, and even Arab, thought.

Indeed, it was only after Egyptian army officer Ahmad Ourabi first brought military force to bear against the foreign-backed Khedive in 1881 that the army truly entered political life. In the fight against an authoritarian government supported by European colonial powers, Egypt's political reformers recognised a powerful ally in military leaders. Ourabi's challenge to the Khedive did not succeed, but the army would remain a dominant and widely popular force in anti-regime struggles. An entrance into public life that marked the beginning of what Rogan calls, "the very pernicious role of the military in politics." Understandably hailed as strong decisive technocrats in the '50s and '60's, military men provided an attractive alternative to weak, factionalized parliamentary figures. As a result, their rise to power during that period was accompanied by a "great honeymoon period, in which Arabs were willing to overlook all the failings of their military dictators."

However, those failings were many, and the culture of military rule is one fundamentally at odds with accountability in government. When their "honeymoon period" wore off, these regimes operated on fear, and it was their reign that spawned sixty years of illiberal and immovable autocracy in Egypt and the Arab World. A period of darkness, during which the Arab peoples were, professor Rogan laments, "repressed by their governments, denied their basic freedoms, and driven to the lowest level of human development." Those six decades convinced many, both outside the Middle East and among Arabs themselves, that the light of reform had been successfully quashed in their region. However, the Arab Spring has questioned that conclusion and, for Rogan, "the year 2011 marks the beginning of the end of autocracy." From which, "no Arab state will be immune."

This assertion may seem naïve to some. Syria still suffers under the ever more violent rule of Bashar al Assad, Egypt still struggles to complete it's transition to civilian rule, and the future of revolutionary movements in Libya and Yemen remain murky at best. Still, Dr. Rogan remains confident. He knows better than anyone that the Arab world has seen more than its fair share of failed revolution and, had this movement remained isolated in Tunisia, "we might have seen a return to business as usual." Instead, we saw the call taken up like wildfire across the region, a message spoken "everywhere in the same language, not Arabic but the language of accountable government." We have, Rogan believes, entered a turning point. One which may reveal these past six decades as an historical hiccup. Nothing "but a period of setback in two centuries of popular pressure for constitutional and citizen's rights." Naïve or no, that is a beguiling thought.

Quotations and biographical information taken from Dr Rogan's talk and from personal interviews. Dr Rogan is currently a lecturer on the modern history of the Middle East and a fellow of St. Antony's college in Oxford University. His book, 'The Arabs: A History', is a history of the modern Arab world released in April of 2011. The Arabic-language launch was held in the Supreme Council of Culture at the Cairo Opera House and organized by the American University in Cairo in conjunction with Arabic publisher Kalimat Arabiya.