In Translation: Civil wars in the Arab world

In the latest installment of our In Translation series -- brought to us courtesy of the diligent translation professionals of Industry Arabic --  we look at this extremely bleak assessment by a Saudi columnist writing in the Saudi-owned pan-Arab daily Al Sharq Al Awsat. The columnist quotes Thomas Hobbes and presents all attempts at contestation and demand for democracy in the MIddle East today as doomed, because of what he deems the pre-existing frailty of Arab society. The argument raises more questions than it answers, though -- is "society" really non-existent in Arab countries? And if so, why? Is the author referring to his own homeland or to places like Syria where society has been submitted to unbearable, inhuman strain? Is the point that there is no alternative to the authoritarian status quo? 

Civil Wars…and “pre-society”

By Fahad Suleiman al-Shigeran, Al Sharq Al Awsat, March 9

The slogans that have filled squares across the Middle East reflect a variety of concepts. What they have in common is the search for the key to deliverance, for a way to reach the dream of democracy and freedom and lose oneself in its bliss. However, all the current attempts to gain freedom have led to is bloody civil war, or symbolic social warfare between one individual and another. The Spring of Dreams has led to the rallying to ISIS, the rise of Boko Haram, the spread of extremism, the dismantling of the state, proposed partition schemes, economic crises, environmental pollution, overcrowded mass graves, and a sea irrigated with the blood of recently severed heads.

There is nothing strange in the fact that such furious, chaotic events should lead to what we are now witnessing. What is strange is that there are people who are betting – even now – that the revolutionary movement will reach “inevitable victory,” on the basis that what is happening is merely  “dialectic” that will sweep everybody along to a “historical inevitability” in the Hegelian manner.

In our region we are not witnessing civil wars of a conventional kind. Events have superseded the formulation of “war” and have reached a level of brutality that includes images of severed heads, disembowelments, and brutal revenge. We abuse the word “war” when we use it to describe what is going on now. Throughout history, civil wars were the bugbears of theorists, philosophers, and intellectuals, because they are not legitimate wars against a particular enemy – since wars have their particular circumstances and legitimacy; they have an art, as Machiavelli would say. However, the Arab world is sinking into brutality, through its painful unleashing of arbitrary civil wars that have opened up sectarian wounds, shredded the patrimony of minorities, and revived the phenomenon of organized tribal purges. Everyone has retreated into their caves; no one trusts even their own shadow. This absolute breakdown, constant doubt, radical condemnation, and suspicion all makes the lived environment nothing but a massive jungle that contains masses of people that do not compose a society in the scientific sense, but rather a random assemblage of people in a single geographical location, because “society” is what exerts pressure to transition from desire to reason. Among the foundations of this transition is establishing the rule of law and building institutions in preparation to drafting a constitution, and thence to constructing a state and propagating its prestige.

When civil wars take place, the masses live in a “pre-social” state or a “state of nature” according to Thomas Hobbes, who analyzed the English Civil War in the mid-17th century through many books, including Behemoth, which was concerned with the facts of the civil war, and Elements of Law Natural and Politic, which was written about the evil of war. He also wrote De Cive at the peak of the bloodletting; in its introduction he alluded to the destruction engulfing the country because of the outbreak of civil war. One of the concepts often explained by Hobbes is the “state of nature.” It is a pre-social state, and it is the scientific description of the form of society where bloody civil wars take place and the state is absent. It is a situation where all caprices and inclinations are unleashed, where savage repressions burst forth, and the law of the jungle, plunder, and personal whim becomes the sole determinant of action and impulse.

In Leviathan, Hobbes’s most famous book, he explains this concept from Chapters 13 through 15, where he describes the pre-social state in detail: “During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war, and such a war as is of every man against every man. For ‘war’ consisteth not in battle only or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known… Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time or war where every man is enemy to every man, the same is consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength…shall furnish them withal.” Hobbes speaks about the “natural state of man” – before they constitute society – as being constant war, a war of all against all. According to Hobbes, this is a state in which there is no power capable of fusing all wills in order to inspire an “awe” that aims to realize the principles of peace, justice and law. The social basis of the state is then controlled by an authority that imposes a single form of religion and considers any deviation to be heresy. It is only after that the state can be given an institutional and representative basis.

We, the Arabs – before the Arab Spring – had all the conditions and potential for civil war. The ground was full of the necessary tinder just waiting for a spark to set all this latent savagery alight. Every movement was like lighting a match in a room full of gasoline, because the possibilities of regression, the incentives for war, the culture of death, the conditions for killing – all of these exist on the ground, they are present in every nursery, school, pulpit and home. What the region lacks is not freedom, democracy or human dignity – these are all slogans and nothing shows that people in their groupings are striving for them. What the region is missing is a little spark to explode. There is no society that has been shaped to proceed toward its dream; what has been formed is just aggregations coming from small villages to bigger villages, with the same rural or pastoral mentalities.

All the potential and ongoing civil wars indicate that it is almost impossible to form a society that can progress toward its dreams. This is why all calls for freedom turn back against their proponents, and the most violent, brutal and vicious civil wars in history break out.




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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.