The Polarization of Political Dialogue in the Arab World

The Arab world has been plagued with a series of corrupt governments for much of recent history. Beginning in late 2010, growing discontent led to a series of popular uprisings known as the Arab Spring. In the streets, the schools, the cafés, the places of worship, there was no refuge from political debate. From Marrakech to Manama, the winds of revolution swept through the region as the people’s frustrations proved to be uncontainable. The mesmerizing changes of the political landscape held the world’s attention, but it is the changes at the societal level that have irreversibly left their mark on the Middle East.

The developments in Egypt proved to be particularly captivating for both the regional and global audience. The sense of accomplishment was palpable—in less than three weeks, the people had toppled an oppressive regime that had stood firm for three decades. It was a new beginning, and the optimism that flowed through the country promised a glorious future.

The revolution sparked a public interest in politics like never before. Everyone in Egypt was speaking about politics, to the exclusion of everything else. The eagerly anticipated presidential elections, however, ended in a rather divisive conclusion. The final runoff was comprised of  two disparate candidates: Ahmed Shafiq and Mohammed Morsi. On one hand was a candidate that received the support of the previous regime’s loyalists, while the other managed to rally the support of the Islamists, with the majority of the population isolated between them. No matter who won, it was clear at this point what the true outcome of this election would be.

The 2012 Egyptian election  would instigate a polarization of the Egyptian public sphere’s political dialogue that has yet to show any signs of wavering. A new government has come to power in Egypt in the years since, shifting the angles of the conversations but with the persistent gap in collaboration only increasing. Large segments of the population view expressing outright support for the current government as a matter of patriotism and national duty. They have accused those who oppose the government of treason.   The same logic holds for many of those on the opposite side of the argument, who believe that supporting the existing oppressive government is treasonous.

The government’s policies of zero tolerance for its opposition, and restriction of  speech has only inhibited the development of an understanding between the people. The common ground is gradually shrinking, and more people find themselves being pushed further towards the extreme ends of the debate. All sorts of labels and accusations for “the other” have arisen in the midst of this charged atmosphere, and those attempting to reconcile find themselves increasingly marginalized. Arriving at a consensus on a political issue has become a very  rare occurrence, and the source of a political statement has grown to become more important than the statement itself. The sense of national unity that filled every Egyptian street during the revolution has dwindled, and now finds itself seemingly on its last legs.

This phenomenon is far from limited to Egypt. The political climate in many Arab countries in the aftermath of the Arab Spring has offered  ample opportunity for  polarization to thrive. The revolutions—which, at the height of their glory, demonstrated an unprecedented level of national solidarity—have unfortunately failed to sustain these ideals in the face of overwhelming challenges.

In Libya, for example, the ongoing power struggle between the GNA and the Council of Deputies is inching towards the formation of new social identities, superseding the national one. A similar case has been observed in Yemen, between the backers of the Hadi government and those of the insurgent Houthis, as well as  in Algeria, with its divisive political system.

This polarization is not just one-dimensional. The conflict in Syria has grown increasingly complicated over the years. The demonstrations against the Assad regime began in earnest on the heels of the successful Egyptian revolution. Naturally, this led to Assad supporters becoming more vocal in what was a rather clearly-defined situation. Events in Syria  soon spiraled out of control, however, due to a number of factors, and today we are faced with a complex web of allegiances that has galvanized the political dialogue to the point of hostility.

The ripples of these changes have also made an impact beyond the Arab shores. The recent constitutional referendum in Turkey is the latest chapter in an ongoing saga that has rocked the country’s stability since last summer. In a highly divided population, the actual terms of the referendum were rendered inconsequential for most voters. Instead, it was approached as a question of support for President Erdoğan. A prime example of the effect of polarization, the referendum proposal was evaluated solely on the identity of the proposer and not for its own merits or shortcomings.

This isn’t an issue of partisanship—any society that offers its members a degree of freedom is bound to develop varying and conflicting opinions  within itself. A functioning democracy requires a diverse array of voices in order to reach its true potential. Yet even this inclusive political system cannot mend what lies beneath the surface. Tensions between the people are slowly mounting, and stricter  government stifling of political expression can only lead to the escalation of the distrust.

This is not to say that all hope is lost. The Arab Spring remains a testament to the people’s resolve to come together in the face of injustice. The recent cracks threatening this unity are not beyond repair; the people have proven their willingness to overcome their differences for the greater good. The current political environment might lack the kind of leadership it is desperately in need of (a force which pulls them together rather than pushes them apart), but it is undeniable that the days of social and political ignorance have passed.

The influential role of the media cannot be understated. It is frightening to see the power of social media in unifying the people to either kick-start regional revolutions, or to act as  a battleground for the clashes of nonnegotiable stances; social media now fosters people’s divisions more  than connecting them. After decades of Arab state-controlled media filtering out voices of dissent, the arrival of social media led to an explosion of nationwide activism. The people had finally found an outlet for their suppressed opinions.

Yet it is also the media, whether social or more traditional forms, that has helped steer political discussions towards the path of enmity. To take a page out of the current American president’s book, the vast majority of the region’s news outlets have sacrificed their neutrality on political matters for the sake of promoting certain viewpoints. In many countries, including Egypt, the media has crept back towards government control as well. This mentality of discarding opposing opinions has consequently managed to settle itself in social media channels as well. Scarcely anyone has not felt the impact the media has had on shaping their views, and its role in polarizing the public opinion is too prominent to be ignored.

It is tough not to draw parallels between these issues and what the American public is experiencing today. The recently concluded presidential elections have been one of the most contentious in modern history, exacerbating the animosity between supporters of each candidate. This can be observed in the increasing polarization across the liberal-conservative spectrum, manifesting itself in the intense conflicts between the Democratic and Republican parties. It is approaching the point where the two sides risk giving up on reaching a mutual understanding on anything for the sake of cooperation, and resign to remain locked in a bitter confrontation for the foreseeable future. The rather controversial administration has, so far, worryingly failed to take steps towards bridging this gap.

The flames of social harmony ignited by the Arab Spring might be flickering, but it is within our grasp to salvage what is slowly withering and rekindle that flame anew. The people will inevitably realize once more that it is their insistence on dividing themselves that is truly holding them back.

About the Author

Ahmed Youseff
Ahmed Youssef (FCRH ’17) is a computer science major from Alexandria, Egypt. His firsthand experience of the Egyptian Revolution has provoked his interest in politics and profoundly shaped his political views. Contact Ahmed at ayoussef3@fordham.edu.