The Making of the Modern Arab World: Episode 4

The fourth and final episode of Tarek Osman’s Making of the Modern Arab World covered the 10 years leading up to the events of the Arab Spring in 2011. Osman drew out three strands that he felt were important in that decade. One of these is the growing population of the Arab countries. Osman said he’s 38, and in his lifetime the population of Egypt has doubled. Two thirds of the country is under the age of 25. The available jobs and opportunities for these young people haven’t kept up with the growth of the population, and that has had a large impact on the way people see the future (both their own and the country’s). Osman talked to an activist who said she felt that Egyptian society was stuck, like being stuck in a traffic jam.

Another strand of events leading up to the Arab Spring was that the authoritarian leaders of these nominally democratic republics were all getting old. And instead of these being a point where the people could hope for change, it became clear that they were grooming their sons to lead after their deaths. Osman said that when Hafez Al-Assad’s son took power in 2000 at first the general population thought this might bring change – Bashar Al-Assad being young and educated in Britain, perhaps he would be less authoritarian. But it quickly became clear this was not the case, and that meant people in other countries in the region didn’t even have hope that things would change when their own leaders passed away. And this added to the sense of almost insult at the overt handing down of power to sons rather than any pretence at democracy.

Information, and access to it, was the final strand of this narrative. This has two facets – the first of these is that the regimes lost control of the information that their citizens could access. The rise of the internet, and with it the rise of globally accessible media, meant that the general populace was much more aware of what was going on in other countries. And that people could communicate, and organise, much more effectively. Osman talked to an activist who would organise protests on facebook, with 70,000 people who followed his facebook page – you can’t get that sort of reach with more conventional organisation.

The other facet of this strand is the lack of information that the regime had. Osman talked about how Mubarak and the other leaders over time became more set in their ways, and more isolated from the general populace. They weren’t concerned with what the general public thought – dismissing them as unimportant. Osman didn’t say this outright, but I think he was saying that the centre of these regimes didn’t even know they’d lost control of what information their people were seeing. A couple of different civil servants from the Mubarak regime talked about how Mubarak wasn’t interested in change nor was he interested in planning ahead. One said that he had tried to suggest change in the education system to keep up with the demands of modern global society, but that Mubarak wasn’t interested. Another anecdote was that when talking about trying to fix future problems Mubarak’s attitude was that there was enough to do to fix the problems of today, so why add more problems. Whereas the civil servant felt that if you looked at tomorrow as well you might solve today’s problems a different way.

These strands all came together in the actual events of the Arab Spring – where one man’s suicidal protest in Tunisia was seen by other disaffected young people across the whole region, instead of being covered up by the regime. And once seen they could react, and act. The results of the Tunisian uprising then inspired other country’s in turn. Osman ended the programme on a bittersweet note – he talked to a woman who’d taken part in the Egyptian protests that drove out Mubarak. She reminisced about how it felt like they had risen up and become free and made something better. And she hoped perhaps one day her country would manage to sustain that.

The series as a whole has been interesting. However, for all it says in the title it’s a history of the whole of the modern Arab world the focus is firmly on Egypt. Not that surprising, as that’s Osman’s country. It was definitely interesting hearing the history from an Egyptian perspective, rather than an outsider perspective.