The Arab Wave
Rogan, Eugene, The National Interest
For decades, the Arab world has lived under a variety of governments whose only point in common was the degree of autocracy they imposed on their citizens. Some blamed Arab culture, others said that Islam was incompatible with popular rule, but most agreed that the Arabs were bucking a global trend of democratization.
Yet the despair that drove the Tunisian vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi to set himself on fire in protest against an unjust and venal government is an angst shared across the region--and his terrible example inspired others to rise up and demand their political rights from regimes long seen as corrupt, as enriching themselves at the expense of their people.
Indeed, the Arab world is now re-embarking on a journey of reform as old as the European Enlightenment. For contrary to so much commentary--and common wisdom-the search for democratic government is not new in the Middle East. What most people in the West don't realize is that the events of 2011 have deep historical roots stretching back to the early nineteenth century. Arab reformers have debated the merits of constitutional government since the 1830s and have sought to constrain absolutism with elected assemblies since the 1860s. Even in the nineteenth century, it was Egypt and Tunisia that led the reform agenda in the Arab world. Following the examples of Cairo and Tunis, liberal political-reform movements emerged in the broader Middle East, with constitutional revolutions in Iran in 1906 and in the Ottoman Empire in 1908. In the end, the past six decades of autocracy might well be remembered as but a setback in two centuries of popular pressure for constitutional rule and democratic rights.
Ironically, given our present-day doubts about the role of Islam in politics, the person who initiated the discussion of constitutionalism in the Arab world was a young Muslim cleric named Rifa'a Rafi' al-Tahtawi. Al-Tahtawi left Egypt in April 1826 dressed in the robes and turban of a scholar of Cairo's ancient mosque university of al-Azhar. He was bound for France, appointed chaplain to Egypt's first major education mission to Europe. He would not see his native land for another five years. While abroad, he kept a detailed diary in which he recorded his observations about what was to him a strange and exotic place. He wrote up his experiences in a classic book published in Arabic in 1834 and subsequently republished in Turkish translation. It was the best seller of its day and became an enduring classic that is still in print in Arabic and in several foreign languages. (1)
Beyond the fascinating reflections on what, in Egyptian eyes, made France of the 1820s tick, al-Tahtawi's most substantial contribution to political reform was his analysis of constitutional government. He translated all seventy-four articles of the 1814 French constitution, or Charte constitutionnelle, and gave an enthusiastic endorsement of its key points as the secret to French progress in all domains.
This praise for constitutional government was courageous. As al-Tahtawi confessed, most of the principles of the French constitution "cannot be found in the Qur'an nor in the sunna [practices] of the Prophet"--a set of dangerous new ideas with no roots in Islamic tradition. And cheerleading for the foundations of that innovative political order threatened far more than his fellow Muslim clerics. It threatened the ruling order. After all, the constitution applied to the king and his subjects alike, and called for a division of powers between the monarch and an elected legislature. The Egypt of Muhammad Ali, the famous Ottoman army commander who ruled in the first half of the nineteenth century, was a thoroughly autocratic state, and the Ottoman Empire was an absolute monarchy. The very notion of representative government or constraints on the powers of the ruler was an alien--even subversive--idea.
Moreover, al-Tahtawi gave a detailed and sympathetic account of the 1830 revolution in France that overthrew the Bourbon King Charles X--with its implicit endorsement of the people's right to overturn a monarch to preserve their legal rights. …