[This Essential Readings belongs to ASI and MESPI’s year-long effort to mark, interrogate, and reflect on the Arab uprisings by producing resources for educators, researchers, students, and journalists to understand the last decade of political upheaval historically and in the lived present. To check out other publications and events from the Ten Years On project visit The Arab Uprisings Project and MESPI.]


The quest for an empowered sense of self and the failure of the post-independence state

The quest for a sense of self dominated much of contemporary Arab thought in general and contemporary Arab philosophy in particular. The search for a thought of one’s own that positions the self vis-à-vis the dominating West had become a major preoccupation in the second half of the nineteenth century and remained so until after the wave of independence that began in the 1940s. Progress, development, emancipation, empowerment, and independence were important notions of that quest. Measuring up to the West and/or distinguishing oneself from it persisted in efforts to conceptualize Western and/or universal modernity, including capitalist and colonial expansion, as well as particularist capabilities of renaissance and growth. The quest for a sense of self solicited different approaches and proposals and got inflected by the dramatic historical turns that marked the twentieth century in the Arab region.

By the mid-twentieth century, authoritarian governments that stood in the way of democratic and socioeconomic developments began to shake the hopes and promises of independence in many Arab countries. The disappointments and disillusionment of the post-independence era were to be exacerbated throughout the second half of the twentieth century by military defeats by Israel, inter-Arab war, internal civil wars, brutal dictatorships, and disastrous economic policies. By the late twentieth century the post-independence state and its failure in most Arab countries became the dominant theme of contemporary Arab thought. In certain Arab intellectual circles this theme prompted the urge to radically critique and articulate the human cost of that failure. Radical critique and the recuperation of political agency became the major responses to the pervasive destruction of human life, dignity, and freedom. The writings that expressed those responses echoed the demands of the massive Arab revolts from 2010 onward. This was one line of response to post-independence disenchantment. The other line of response was an insistence on identity, authenticity, and tradition: the return to the medieval philosophical movement in an effort to show that the local tradition of rationalism could stand as an alternative to Western rationalism, taken to be the hallmark of Western modernity and success. Arabo-Islamic tradition in general was to serve as an alternative reference and the basis of a modernity of one’s own that could rival if not surpass Western supremacy. In the eyes of many Arab critics, the movement that focused on identity and past affirmations of a particular-self, seemed to  accommodate the status quo as it did not challenge issues of social and political injustice. For some others, it entertained a “will-to-power” that could compensate for the feelings of defeat and weakness without really offering tools of true empowerment. Past glories and cultural conservatism could not, in their opinion, present constructive responses to the needs of the present and the future. This was confirmed by the vast popular movements of the 2010s that prioritized political participation, good governance, economic fairness, and the rule of law over matters of identity and cultural conservatism. This indicated for some Arab observers the gap between much of contemporary Arab intellectual production and actual popular concerns. It laid bare the varied landscape of contemporary Arab thought and philosophy between circles closely connected to lived realities and others quite disconnected from them.

One of the most frequent questions that appeared in the writings that accompanied the uprisings since their onset was that of the presence/absence and role of Arab intellectuals. It was raised often by Arab journalists and writers and sometimes also by non-Arabs (Perhaps the most famous was Robert F. Worth, “The Arab Intellectuals Who Didn’t Roar,” The New York Times, October 29, 2011). A good analysis of the question and a useful literature review of it in the early days of the revolutionary uprising can be found in José Vericat, “In Light of the Intellectuals: The Role of Novelists in the Arab Uprisings, New York: International Peace Institute, September 2014. It is based on a series of talks on the subject by Arab novelists at the International Peace Institute in 2011 entitled the Arab Intellectuals Series.

The question assumed that it was expected for intellectuals to participate in, and even lead, such uprisings. Yet, a number of Arab intellectuals, including those from the left, had already abandoned the role of an avant-garde having to “enlighten” and to lead the masses in the 1990s, and instead started to see the need to engage people in their concerns and priorities instead of pontificating to them. Yet, elitism remained the characteristic of many intellectuals (see my Contemporary Arab Thought: Cultural Critique in Comparative Perspective. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).

Obviously, the Arab uprisings of 2010-2011 were not led by intellectuals nor were people expecting them to do so. However, Arab intellectuals were there, writing and conceptualizing, before, during, and after the uprisings, interacting with the lived realities they were experiencing with their fellow countrymen and women. They were accompanying the development of events in their own way (see my “The Arab Quest for Freedom and Dignity: Have Arab Thinkers Been Part of it?” Middle East – Topics & Arguments, (2013): 26-34, https://doi.org/10.17192/meta.2013.1.1038).

For many, the uprisings indicated a historical turn, the advent of a new time, and a new generation of Arabs and Arab thinkers (see my “Critics and Rebels: Older Arab Intellectuals Reflect on the Uprisings,” in a special issue of the British Journal of Middle East Studies devoted to “Intellectuals in the Middle East,” 41, no. 1 (2014), 1-20). It was a time in which concerns, struggles, and forms of resistance were revealed in an unprecedented way and to which words and ideas could suddenly relate in a concrete fashion: the positions and conversations of professional thinkers became immediately inseparable from the popular politics occurring in front of them.

Contemporary Arab intellectual history is not a very well-known field. It is still understudied and rarely taught in Arab schools and universities, let alone abroad. But an attentive reading of this history shows that it has been a varied field with different currents and different levels of proximity to the lived and the real. Some Arab intellectual circles produced and reproduced self-contained discourses, both scholastic and polemical, on topics mentioned above such as identity, authenticity, modernity, and tradition, promoted by certain centers of research and publication (such as the Center for Arab Unity Studies), while others, often more marginalized, seemed to have their fingers on the pulse of society; they thought and wrote in close connection with its lived experiences. This is what became quite clear to me in my study of Enlightenment debates that took place in Cairo and Damascus in the two decades that preceded the uprisings. I looked at Egyptian government discourses, Islamist and non-Islamist intellectual discourses as well as those of independent critical thinkers in both countries, noting the specificities of each national context. Those discourses were not academic studies of European or non-European Enlightenment, but they were comments on and analyses of the local and lived social and political realities. For the critical thinkers, the demand for Enlightenment was a demand for a political humanism that would stop the abuse and destruction of “the human” through political participation. I argued that the demand for political humanism, which included the demand for dignity, freedom, and justice, articulated by Egyptian and Syrian critical thinkers throughout the two decades preceding the uprisings, were echoed by the demands of the revolting people in the streets of Cairo and Damascus. I stressed that this did not mean that there was a causal connection between those writings and the uprisings, rather that some thinkers wrote about what was taking place in their lives and in that of their fellows, witnessing thus the devastating impact of the rule of violence (see my Enlightenment on the Eve of Revolution: The Egyptian and Syrian Debates. New York: Columbia University Press, 2019).

Around the same time, in the 1990s and the 2000s, more scholarly works were produced on the Enlightenment by the Center for Arab Unity Studies, in which those lived experiences and realities were not drawn into the discourses. They focused instead on the West and local heritage and called for a non-politicized approach to the subject.

قضايا التنوير والنهضة في الفكر العربي المعاصر. بيروت: مركز دراسات الوحدة العربية، ١٩٩٩ – حصيلة العقلانية والتنوير في الفكر العربي المعاصر. بيروت: مركز دراسات الوحدة العربية،٢٠٠٥

Clearly neither the West nor local heritage, which had intensively preoccupied contemporary Arab thought, were among the concerns voiced by the revolting people, showing the gap between much of contemporary Arab intellectual output focused on identity, tradition, and modernity on the one hand and actual societal preoccupations on the other. See for instance the article by Tunisian scholar Suheyl Hebayyeb “مقدمات في مراجعات الفكر العربي وتجديد طروحاته الإيديولوجية مع منعطف الحراكات العربيّة الرّاهنة


What is Enlightenment? Continuity or Rupture in the Wake of the Arab Uprisings edited by Mohammed D. Cherkaoui (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2016) examines the uprisings through a comparative lens that includes both the European project of Enlightenment and an Arab one under construction. It is more of a political science approach to issues of reform, democracy, gender, and religion in the Arab World with case studies of Syria, Egypt, and the Maghreb. Some of its chapters analyze that Arab project of Enlightenment and assess its chances in consideration of the challenges and setbacks of the uprisings. Philosophically relevant are the following two chapters: Solon J. Simmons, “Organizing Principles for the Arab Enlightenment: Philosophical Reflections on the History of Power” (255-78) and Richard E. Rubenstein, “The ‘Dialectic of Enlightenment’ and the New Arab Awakening” (279-98).

Other observers saw the emergence of new intellectual and philosophical tendencies on the Arab scene, more attentive to the lived, the present, the event, the body, the individual, and individual freedom, already there before the uprisings and being invigorated further by the latter. See for instance Moroccan philosopher Abdelaziz Boumeshouli, “Rethinking Arab Philosophical Experience in the Time of Revolution,” in Culture, Time and Publics in the Arab World. Media, Public Space and Temporality, edited by Tarik Sabry and Joe F. Khalil, (London:  I.B. Tauris, 2019), 181-202. This is a translated summary article of his book in Arabic, in which he conducted interviews with several Arab philosophers from across the Arab world about the transformations of the subjects and approaches in Arab philosophy and the uprisings:

عبد العزيز بومسهولي، الفلسفة والحراك العربي. تجارب فلسفية جديدة في العالم العربي. الدار البيضاء: افريقيا الشرق، ٢٠١٥.

According to Boumeshouli and his interviewees, the protest movements created a new philosophical experience that called for a conceptual reorientation toward the lived, the individual, the bodily, the present, and the event. The link of thought to the “event” and to the event of the uprisings in particular is the focus of Tarik Sabry’s seminal article “Arab Thought and Revolution as Event: “Towards New Affective Registers of Critique,” Javnost –The Public 25, no. 4 (2018), 351-64). This event, primarily ethical in nature, according to Sabry, has marked a generational shift, both epistemic and temporal, and ushered in elements of a new Arab intellectual subject. It has opened the possibility of new registers of critique and made the prevailing projects of critical renewals of heritage obsolete. Instead, it is now the lived, the desired, the body, the present, the plural, and the different that have started to take central stage. The old projects of teleological collective identities have lost their priority and the conception of the intellectual as legislator of truth is severely put in question. These transformations, according to Sabry, are not only the outcome of the 2010-2011 uprisings but the cumulative result of the discrediting of authoritarian regimes that ruled the region for many decades. The consolidation of these transformations, he thinks, requires connecting philosophy with the rest of the humanities and the social sciences.

The uprisings have thus revealed the extent to which contemporary Arab intellectual and philosophical production have related to the lived preoccupations of Arab societies. Some of that production has verbalized—often under harsh conditions of repression and censorship—the pressing needs for human dignity, freedom, and political participation; while the rest has produced and reproduced discourses of identity and tradition that resonated to some extent with aspirations of cultural self-affirmation and a certain will to power but failed to connect with those pressing needs. The uprisings bare in this sense the structure of relevance of contemporary Arab thought and invite a self-reflection that might lead to a reconsideration of its priorities and significance to the concerns of people in their lived realities.