If the Arab world was the set for a realistic Marvel-style superhero movie, it will have a cast full of despicable and maleficent villains: Power-greedy souls glued to their thrones, demons disguised as religious leaders sacrificing the populace in unholy wars, corrupted oligarchs that starve honest citizens while amassing wealth in Swiss banks, and every single other malefactor archetype. The film will also have millions of tormented and persecuted souls yearning for justice, dignity, and a champion to avenge them. Still, the tale will have no hero.
All successful upheavals in history have several key elements in common: A sizable oppressed social class, an organized protest movement, a novel reformist ideology led by respectable intellectuals, and more importantly a charismatic leadership in the Weberian sense. Unfortunately, what all Arab uprisings since the 2011 wave have in common is the staggering absence of the two vital prerequisites for successful revolutions: An ideology that offers radically fresh solutions to popular demands and a unifying and trustworthy hero.
The Age of Influencers and Mediocrity
When I look at our position in history as Arabs, I feel stuck in time as if we constantly try to redeem ourselves from an ancient curse that was bestowed upon our nation and that echoes repetitively “you shall never have a righteous king”. We are the living anomaly of Hegel’s historical theory of dialectical change, as we keep undergoing formidable transformations but never seem to overcome our political and social obstacles nor to achieve any tangible change.
If the Arab world was the set for a realistic Marvel-style superhero movie, its cast will be full of villains: Power-greedy men glued to thrones, demons disguised as religious leaders, corrupt oligarchs starving citizens amassing wealth in Swiss banks
When was the last time Arabs produced an original idea to live by? Probably, the rise of Islam in the 7th century, as a unifying socio-political project, was the last time we came up with a radically novel and organic ideology, prior to that it was the creation of the first empire in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, and before that we invented the wheel. You would argue that I must be mistaken and ask why I pretentiously dismissed our “glorious” thinkers such as Al Jabri, Arkoun, Al Bana, Aflaq, Laroui, Said, Al Tarabishi and company. Sorry to disappoint you, but all of these stars simply produced wishy-washy reactionary ideas that either revisited the Islamic glory days, applied western theories to the Arab context, or worse tried to create a Frankenstein of both.
The traumatized Arab brain, after series of epistemological defeats and a colonial lobotomy that permanently impaired our frontal lobe, became a manufacture of trivial technocrats and nonchalant zombified consumers. Young people are trapped between western neoliberalism, radicalized Islamism, and if they really go rogue, they will become leftists, grow an afro, listen to Marcel Khalifa, and wear a grubby Kufiyah. Meanwhile, the real new elites are a bunch of banal influencers amplified through social media. We blame our outdated and obsolete elites, yet we are the very hatchery that nestles them. We are all accomplices of the reproduction of mediocrity by making stupid people famous and beating around the bush rather than addressing the elephant in the room: Finding a way out of this lethal spiral.
Would the Exalted Savior Ever Come?
Longing for a savior is an innate psychological need for human beings especially in times of great deception and crisis. Thus, messianism remains a persistent idea across different majority and minority doctrines in the Middle East and North Africa. After reaching a desperate level of disenchantment in our current leadership and the futility of our naive demonstrations, a growing number of Arabs are turning to metaphysical beliefs and awaiting an exalted savior to liberate them. This trend can be measured by the prolific apocalyptic channels on YouTube. A very lucrative business tracking every astrological and political move as a sign of the end of times and feeding on followers’ fears and hopes. Many even crossed the line and entrusted their destiny in the hands of charlatan Messiahs in places like Yemen, Iraq, or Egypt.
The modern times references we have in the region are those of mischievous father-figures who seized power through military tanks like Abdul Nasser, Saddam, Assad, Gadhafi and who impoverished their populations
Josef Campbell defines the hero monomyth in his 1949 famous book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, as an extraordinary individual who ventures forth from the world of the common to the supernatural realm, battles legendary beasts, attains atonement, then returns to confer boons on his fellow men. Our Arab traditions are saturated with magnificent hero fables, whether mythological ones like Gilgamesh, Abu Zayd al-Hilali, and Sayf ibn Dhi Yazan, or canonic ones like Moses, Salmon, and Jesus. Even prophet Mohamed had his own epic ascension to the heavens in the Al-Isra' wal-Mi'raj nocturnal journey, where he allegedly rose to the Lote-Tree besides riding a Pegasus.
Evidently, no one in the current political scene can nearly match the hero images impregnated in our subconscious. The modern times references we have in the region are those of mischievous father-figures who seized power through military tanks like Abdul Nasser, Saddam, Assad, Gadhafi and who impoverished their populations and served as marionettes to foreign powers thus magnifying our collective ordeal. Egyptian revolutionary underground group Cairokee summed up very well our governance dilemma in one of their songs released in 2011 that ends up declaring “Leader wanted, never mind his appearance, never mind his age, never mind his doctrine, the only condition is that he is Human”.
After reaching a desperate level of disenchantment in our current leadership and the futility of our naive demonstrations, a growing number of Arabs are turning to metaphysical beliefs and awaiting an exalted savior to liberate them
Young demonstrators in Lebanon, Iraq, and Algeria might provide an answer to my Hollywood superhero movie allegory, as many preferred to surprisingly identify with the anti-hero character “the joker” rather than glamorous American style supermen. Several protestors chose to dress up as the sad clown. A poignant symbol of furious subjugated subalterns and downtrodden Arab populations that decided to stand up for themselves since no hero came to the rescue yet… Beware of the anger of the Jokers.