The Public Sphere in the Arab World and the Will of the Future

Written by Azzedine Azzimani*
Translated by Anouar M’zoudi

There are many writings that question the possibility of the existence of the public sphere in the Arabo-Islamic deliberative context similar to the one in the West, which Habermas expounded on in his referential thesis entitled The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere – An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. The events that have been taking place in the Arab world and their deep transformative nature makes it important to intellectually and referentially trace the roots of the expression “the Arab public sphere.” From the point of view of political theory, the updates integrated by Habermas into his referential theory might be helpful, especially his thoughts on the post-bourgeois public sphere and the post-secular society.

The dilemma of self-realization
The Arab World, before the liberation of some of its countries’ potential due to the Arab Spring, was not any different from the no-state societies – the type of societies that are ruled by an authority that dominates the state. The state under this kind of authoritarianism loses its significance as symbolic and material capital that represents the will of the people and the interests of citizens. The colonial model or the “imported state” (Bertrand Badie) continued to reproduce its self-contradictions in a new context. Due to the failure of this new institution to provide “assets” for civilization in our historical context, the “state” reflected the roles of the authoritarian and dictatorial system of rule which dominated its history and its “political” slogans. The state distanced itself from its real roles and continually engaged in employing slogans, such as “liberation,” “development,” “authenticity” and others, in the hope of reproducing its lost legitimacy.

Civil society represents an advanced stage in the development of the public sphere, in the sense that civil society has a political vision and ambitions or the “political public sphere” as labeled by Habermas. However, civil society within the “imported state” was not a product of society but a product of the state itself. This eliminated one of the most important conditions for the realization of the public sphere, that is, having independent will and maintaining a critical distance from power.

Local facts and the spontaneous inclination toward values
The situation in the Arab context was not going to remain the way it was because of the dynamics between internal and external challenges. The transformations caused by the globalization era played a role in “rebuilding” the will and the civil capacities of Arab societies and caused them to embrace the values of modern political thought once again. The state’s argument of the need for “absolute sovereignty” was no longer capable of closing the public sphere in the face of the people’s spontaneous inclination toward the values of intellectual liberty, political freedom and human dignity.

In this context three major directions have emerged as a reaction to the “globalization” of politics: the state’s absolute sovereignty direction, particularity and identity direction, and the universality and human rights direction. These directions differentiated and so the values that they preached rigorously contradicted one another. These directions in the Arab world represented the philosophy of the “sovereign elite” while “society,” which normally is supposed to be represented by the elite, was left out of the picture. The elite failed to establish real awareness within society, which has been going through a transformation of its values and witnessed a rise in the demand for the values of liberty and dignity, especially among young people, the oppressed and social movements. The latter, generally speaking, are in fact the actors within society who have been independent of the “capitalist authoritarian system” (Herbert Marcuse, Reason and Revolution).

Thanks to the new mediums of communication and the use of new media techniques more outlets for expression and freedom of opinion have been created. These new means helped social actors to overcome two types of despotism: the despotism of the post-capitalist model and the despotism of the “imported state.” This process is not complete yet and it is heading toward its climax as popular uprisings and their repercussions continue to unfold across the Arab world. The social actors were able to creatively take advantage of the contradictions between the three directions mentioned above. They reconstructed the relationship between identity, sovereignty and citizenship. The creative reconstruction of the relationship between these dimensions will subsequently lay the foundations for the phase of rupture between the concept of absolute sovereignty which brought about despotism, the concept of particularity that often justified absolute rule, either consciously or unconsciously, and the concept of universality that depended on external reform and, in some cases, without the awareness of its cost to the Arab world.

As a natural outcome, the social reconstruction mentioned above caused the emergence of the public sphere and this was not just a “reproduction” of the philosophical concepts adopted by the different new directions within the globalization era including the directions within new means of media (blogs, Facebook, Tweeter,….) and satellite channels. It is naïve to keep repeating the expression “ Facebook revolution”, that was coined in part by both the authoritarian and capitalist regimes in the aftermath of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. The new means of media played a role in the creation of new mechanisms for communication and coordination that social movements didn’t have in the past. However, the “philosophical spirit” and “social stagnation” were the decisive elements in translating themselves into social and value-related calls for change. In this respect, it is worth to mention the saying of the Greek philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis “ History is a form of innovation that has unlimited potential”.

We understand the public sphere here as a “radical” socially imagined product of revolution; not the revolution as a result of class struggle, but as a moment of self-realization by society. In this context, the emergence of the public sphere is inspired by the integration of the media and the internet , and it isn’t an exclusive indication of a forced form of democratization, nor it is a pure product of the high quality imported foreign media structure. In fact, it is a reflection of the development of society within a local framework and based on a real social and political vision that encompasses a unique mix between the desire for liberty, the identity component and citizenship. However, the Arab world will still have to overcome a set of other complex issues, such as the question of modernity versus authenticity, the question of domination versus marginalization, and the question of the relationship between the local and the universal. The initial manifestations of these challenges are already in display.

Azzedine Azzimani is a Moroccan writer. He is a PhD candidate in Political Science, Cadi Ayyad University, Marrakech, Morocco. He is currently writing his dissertation on “Public Sphere in the Muslim world: Turkish case.” Azzedine is also an MA candidate in Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations at The Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, USA. He received a research fellowship from the International Institute of Islamic Thought (2010-2011). Azzedine Holds an MA in Political Science from the University Cadi Ayyad, Marrakech (2007) and he taught Philosophy at the high school level and worked as a research assistant at the Center for Human & Social Studies and Research in Oujda, Morocco.

The original article in Arabic:

The article from the website of Morocco World News: