The Arab Wave

By Rogan, Eugene | The National Interest, May-June 2011 | Go to article overview

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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Arab Wave
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.