From the Editor - March 2011

Paul Lay introduces the March issue of our 61st volume. 

Younger readers may find it hard to believe that there was ever a period in history when Britain bullied China. But Robert Bickers’ article this month (page 29) paints a vivid portrait of the humiliation suffered by the now burgeoning superpower at the hands of European imperialists, especially Britain, during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The episode remains a source of deep resentment.

Humiliation can become a spur to action. Loss of dignity – hogra in Arabic – is now bearing bitter fruit in the Arab world: in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan,Yemen and Algeria, strikingly young, disaffected populations, with little economic, political or cultural stake in their society, are facing down armed police to register dissatisfaction with their lot.

Commentators in the West have asked if this moment in Arab history is an ‘89’ or a ‘79’: the first, a path approved by the West, refers to the events of 1989, when the peoples of the former Soviet Bloc sought and won the political and economic liberties enjoyed by their western European neighbours; ‘79’ alludes to the Iranian revolution a decade earlier, welcomed at first by progressives, which ultimately saw the replacement of one tyranny, the Shah, by another, the theocratic rule of the ayatollahs.

Of course historians, cautious of either/or scenarios, realise that the current turmoil may result in something altogether different, a positive outcome, but one rooted in Arab culture. The old glue of Pan-Arabism has disappeared along with its official historical narrative – of Nasser and the Suez Crisis, of the Algerian Civil War and other victories over the colonial powers of France and Britain. It looks like secondhand history to the young dissenters, one manipulated nostalgically by ageing regimes as a diversion from the here and now. Of course there is a religious dimension to the unrest; the mosque is one place where people can operate largely free from the hand of the repressive state. Yet there has been a notable absence of Islamism in Tunisia and Algeria; the latter’s population appears too scarred by the horrors of its recent past to embrace fundamentalism.

But the postwar historical pattern gives reason enough for the ‘Arab street’ to mistrust the West. While preaching the cause of democracy, the United States and its western allies have supported one despotic Arab regime after another, most expensively in Egypt. Surely the time is long overdue for a faltering West to learn to live in a more pluralistic world, one in which the Arab peoples, the heirs to great civilisations, should be given the chance to decide their future for themselves. The West should concern itself instead with encouraging their material prosperity. That, after all, is the Chinese way; investment in developing countries – and there has been a rapid increase in Chinese investment in the Arab world – with ‘no questions asked’. The pragmatic foreign policy of China, a country that knows all about humiliation, may well prove to be a greater force for Arab self-determination than the self-regarding and hypocritical moralising of the West.

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