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Looking East: The “Arab Spring” and the Relevance of East Asia
by Hassan Mneimneh
While the broader Middle East has been entangled in conflict and has seen many opportunities for development and prosperity pass by, East Asia has made considerable progress along the paths of political and economic development. In these times of historic change affecting the Arab world, the moment may be opportune for the two regions to upgrade their engagement, bringing to the fore models of evolution and achievement that may benefit the new political and social order bound to emerge in the aftermath of the uprisings. In confirming the global character of issues and approaches facing states and societies in the 21st century, such engagement would allow for fresh productive thinking, and would also diffuse the “civilizational” tension that posits the West as the nemesis of the Arab world. It would furthermore allow local activists to stress that positive values — democratic, secular, liberal, progressive — are common human notions, and not the Western imports claimed by nativist ideologues. The East Asian presence in the Middle East and North Africa suffers from an obvious dissonance between its material aspect, with East Asian goods dominating major segments of the consumer market, and an image deficit through which the interest in and concern for East Asian issues at the socio-cultural level remains minimal. East Asia is viewed at best as remote and exotic. In fact, a mirror situation can be said to exist in East Asia itself, where the Arab world is often portrayed through archetypal forms. Only the business communities in the two regions have been able to transition away from dismissive characterizations. Yet, many of the issues at the forefront of the interest of the new generation of activists in the Arab world, and many of the underlying social structures that shape their communities, have identifiable counter-parts in the East Asian experience. Youth groups involved in the Arab uprisings have deliberately sought to learn from the record of Central and Eastern European activists in surmounting the obstacles of fragmentation, dictatorship, and its aftermath. This remains an embryonic process in need of support. Even less explored is the East and Southeast Asian experience. South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines each has considerable experience in overcoming autocracy and patriarchy and progressing
Summary: In these times of historic change affecting the Arab world, the moment may be opportune for the Middle East and East Asia to upgrade their engagement, bringing to the fore models of evolution and achievement that may benefit the new political and social order bound to emerge in the aftermath of the uprisings. The Asian experience of negotiating native authenticity and a modernity originating from the West has itself the potential of resetting the debate affecting the Arab world today.
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Embassies Dialogue on Asia
toward robust democratic systems. Despite social and cultural affinities between the two regions, the respective activist communities have not established meaningful ties. For example, while having succeeded in establishing itself as an international gathering for democracy, the yearly commemoration of the 518 movement in Gwangju, South Korea, has so far included few participants from the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region. Yet, the negotiated model of economic growth and political liberalization that South Korea has undergone may be of particular relevance for activists in the Arab world seeking practical formulations outside the West-centric realm, and thus less subject to the polemical attacks of nativist ideologues. Indeed, the Asian experience of negotiating native authenticity and a modernity originating from the West has itself the potential of resetting the debate and problématique affecting the Arab world today. The “East versus West” Dichotomy Recent events seem to confirm a tumultuous history laden with religiously phrased confrontations and may have pushed many on the Southern and Eastern shores of the Mediterranean — Arabs and others — to understand the burden of their past, as well as the dilemmas of their present and future, as conditioned if not outright determined by the relationship with their Northern and Western neighbors across the sea. Without a doubt, the intra-Mediterranean exchange of ideas, goods, and populations has been the dynamic engine of many waves of change that have affected the region and beyond. However, the dichotomy of an “East versus West” conflict, even when rephrased as a “South versus North” one, has often been used to obfuscate internal cleavages and to thwart the development of local phenomena. Thus, by relegating many of the progressive ideas to the category of “Western import,” both the region’s autocrats and their theocratically inclined rivals sought to preserve a patriarchal order in which the few maintain privileges, while wide segments of society, including women, youth, and minorities, are bound by dependence. The transformations in the Arab world, ushered in by the fall of the long-term Tunisian president, and reverberating over the past months in North Africa and the Middle East, have recast the plight of the region’s societies away from the authenticity/modernity paradigm that had dominated
By relegating many of the progressive ideas to the category of “Western import,” both the region’s autocrats and their theocratically inclined rivals sought to preserve a patriarchal order in which the few maintain privileges, while wide segments of society, including women, youth, and minorities, are bound by dependence.
discourse and analysis, into the demand of progress on a set of concrete issues — governance, development, employment. The efforts of rulers and the ideological opposition to reclaim the center stage for grand narrative concerns (the angst vis-à-vis the West, the alleged “assault” on Islam, the Palestinian question) have so far not been successful in changing the tenor of on-going uprisings. More promising results (for the autocrats and theocrats) seem to be possible in the post-revolutionary phase through the leveraging of the existing imbalance in organization — which disfavors the proponents of positive propositions — and through the disproportionate material and media support provided by regional and international players to “moderate” Islamist factions. Still, as demonstrated in particular in the Libyan case where the military contribution of the West was instrumental in toppling the despotic regime, the “East versus West” rhetoric no longer provides a credible discursive framework.
Embassies Dialogue on Asia
Ideologues in the Arab world, as well as many Western observers and analysts, have expressed their surprise at the distinctly nonideological tone of the demands voiced in the course of the uprisings. Efforts at safeguarding the ideological (and/or interpretive) model have favored the characterization of the phenomenon as incidental, with the presumably more self-evident ideological essence to re-emerge once the utilitarian function of its absence recedes. It ought to be noted that such a statement is more of a prescriptive plan (or wishful thinking) than a descriptive observation. What the ideologues have failed or refused to acknowledge is that the discursive dominance of Islamism prior to the uprisings was not reflective of the underlying cultural reality of Arab societies, but was more an artifact of the restrictions that the patriarchal order imposed on these societies. What many Western analysts have succumbed to is the equation of religiosity — an entrenched aspect of Arab societies — with the ideological program of Islamism, a political movement seeking to transform piety into activism. Much has been stressed about the need to distinguish between the many settings and uprisings in the Arab world. Indeed, the socio-economic composition, as well as the cultural and religious orientations of the many locales that have witnessed the unfolding transformations differ considerably. Yet, the commonality of the dominance of patriarchy, as actual autocracy or promised theocracy, and its need to repress the generational pressure that challenges its authority and question its uses of common resources, explain the synergies that emerged organically between the protest movements across the Arab world. This Arab world — as diffuse and variable as a notion — faces the challenge of accommodating its alienated youth in the next phase, while achieving the so-far elusive goals of human, social, and economic development. In the midst of the plethora of voices that have found a new space for expression with the uprisings, many stress that the Arab world would be better served if intellectual and political formulations are conceived with operational notions of progress, rather than as mere interpretive models blaming its deficiencies on others. Egypt, one activist underlined, was on par with South Korea in the early 1960s, in terms of both GDP and population. South Korea had further suffered from the devastating and socially-dislocating impact of a “world war” on its territory. Half a century later, however, South Korea competes for the top of the list of many global development indicators, while Egypt languishes well below the mean. Looking Forward, Looking East The primordial need facing the Arab world today may be a development policy that addresses the youth bulge, providing the rising generation with opportunities for fulfillment against the reality of disparate natural resources. The autocrats have demonstrably failed; the theocrats conflate prosperity and piety, while being consumed by an alleged conflict between identity and modernity. A new generation of Arab activists is struggling to reject the isolationist drift of the ideologues who limit its quest for ideas to their reductionist understanding of the heritage. These activists understand the constructive values that the ideologues have ascribed to the West as universal. The confirmation of this conviction at the popular culture level might be through further exposure to East Asia. Some have argued that the challenge faced by the autocracy in the Arab world today has been a long time coming, with delays due to both internal and external factors. Some may argue that the success of a new generation of activists, with their positive ideas to overcome the stranglehold of the autocrats and theocrats, on Arab political culture may be premature, since no underlying organization and institutions exist to insure sustainability. Historic events, it seems,
The discursive dominance of Islamism prior to the uprisings was not reflective of the underlying cultural reality of Arab societies, but was more an artifact of the restrictions that the patriarchal order imposed on these societies.
Embassies Dialogue on Asia
Historic events, it seems, do not wait for the most opportune moment.
do not wait for the most opportune moment. Ready or not, the Arab world has entered into a period of transformations, with stakes extending for beyond its elusive borders. Activists in the region have an evident interest in pursuing models and connections in many directions, with East Asia, in particular, providing some worthwhile comparisons. It is also in the interest of the global community, both at the governmental and civil society levels, to reach out to players in the emerging order, seeking partnerships and providing support in areas where their experience and assets are of relevance.
About the Author
Hassan Mneimneh is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC.
About the Embassies Dialogue on Asia
The Embassies Dialogue on Asia was launched by the German Marshall Fund in the fall of 2011. Organized by GMF Transatlantic Fellow Dr. Daniel M. Kliman, it brings together young American experts on Asia, diplomats from Asia-Pacific embassies, and European diplomats in Washington with portfolios encompassing Asia to create a unique venue for informal discussion. The Embassies Dialogue on Asia is part of GMF’s Asia Program, which addresses the implications of Asia’s rise for the West through a combination of convening, writing, strategic grants, study tours, fellowships, and partnerships with other institutions. For more information, see http://www.gmfus.org/asia.
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting better understanding and cooperation between North America and Europe on transatlantic and global issues. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working in the transatlantic sphere, by convening leaders and members of the policy and business communities, by contributing research and analysis on transatlantic topics, and by providing exchange opportunities to foster renewed commitment to the transatlantic relationship. In addition, GMF supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. Founded in 1972 through a gift from Germany as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, Bucharest, and Warsaw. GMF also has smaller representations in Bratislava, Turin, and Stockholm. GMF is grateful for the support of the South Korean Embassy in Washington, DC, which made this brief possible.
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