Sleepwalking Through a Minefield
by Salim Mansur
History is largely paradoxical. Or its the consequences of unintended consequences.
Unravelling it might be viewed as an absurd exercise.
This is how the world likely appeared to Albert Camus (1913-60) as he found refuge in French-Algeria while Europe self-destructed.
I am travelling along the same coast as Camus did, and I cannot shake off his sense of the absurd as I watch and hear the people around me.
In The Myth of the Sisyphus, Camus wrote about the futility, or absurdity, of the endless toil of man to roll the boulder of life upwards towards some peak of imagined contentment that proves to be out of his reach.
Camus was perhaps hearing voices similar to ones I hear complaining of present misery, or speaking nostalgically about the past when things were presumably better.
A recent issue of The Economist devotes 14 pages to the Arab world's current realities under the front-cover heading: "Waking from its sleep." I have a copy at hand, and I ask some people around me what their opinion is.
Most shrug their shoulders dismissively. One venerable elder, having seen much, offers the view that France provided the best years of North African history, and that what followed was and is plunder and misrule of the powerful over the weak.
The lack of democracy across the Arab world means a culture functioning without accountability. It also means people are adept in blaming others for their circumstances, and living a life of denial as the means for coping with the absurdity of their situation.
Here in North Africa, the civilizational breeze from Europe provides for a thin facade of modernity over the drab reality of a dysfunctional political economy. Here Islamism, or political Islam, is the nostalgic expression of many Arabs, undone by false pride and fanaticism.
But embracing modernity and democracy whole-heartedly will require fundamentally reforming Islam, as Europe did with Christianity.
This is a subject that tears at the heart of Arabs collectively, for whom Islam is more than a religion, it is the essence of their cultural identity.
The Economist has it wrong. The Arab world is not waking, rather it prefers sleep-walking as a means of avoiding excruciating decisions necessary for the fundamental reform of its culture.
In Algeria and Morocco taken together, Arabs are an ethnic minority, but they rule over the Amazigh -- more generally known as the Berber.
The amity between the two people is racked by suspicion, and the hostility between the two countries gives lie to the propaganda of Arab unity.
The more things change, the more unchanging is human affairs. The quarrels between the Amazigh and the Arabs preceded the fall of Moorish power in Spain, and the expulsion by Catholic rulers of Muslims and Jews from the Iberian peninsula more than 500 years ago.
It is the same ethnic quarrels that provide the excuse for contemporary authoritarian rule in North Africa. The elite fear that democracy will sharpen disunity, with the probable breakdown of colonially-demarcated states.
The sun beats down from a remorseless summer sky, and the beaches are crowded with people escaping from mind-numbing heat. The scene before me is an apt metaphor for the restless young, wanting exit from their present situation.