Liberalism in an Illiberal Region


Liberalism in the Arab World

By Justin Kempf

A review of Quest for Democracy: Liberalism in the Modern Arab World by Line Khatib

Liberalism in the Modern Arab World

On July 25th, 2021 Tunisian President Kaïs Saïed suspended parliament and dismissed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi. It marked the collapse of the last remaining democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring. The Arab World was never viewed as hospitable for liberal democracy. However, the Arab Spring raised the hopes of many. Nonetheless, the failures have left some observers even more pessimistic than before hand. Still, the region is not devoid of liberal voices or democratic sentiments. Indeed, the region has a surprisingly rich history of liberal ideas and democratic movements.

A new book from Line Khatib, Quest for Democracy, documents the intellectual history of liberalism in Syria and Egypt. She identifies a wide range of scholars and movements beginning in the nineteenth century and extending beyond the Arab Spring. Her work is truly imaginative as it shows how liberal movements evolved across generations. Along the way liberals won gains, but also suffered setbacks. Moreover, she makes clear liberal political thought has not disappeared from the region. At the same time, she notes, “Arab liberalism is different from Western liberalism….” Its circumstances and history have shaped its development onto an alternate trajectory from the West.

Most Western readers will find the names and movements Khatib documents as unfamiliar. While the region is know for illiberalism, most Western intellectuals know about Arab liberalism. However, few know much more than they have a political presence. Khatib removes the veil through a detailed history. Still, Quest for Democracy can feel dense at times as it catalogues names and movements. Khatib does not always tie the movements back to overarching historical events for the nonspecialist to easily understand. Of course, Khatib likely wrote the book for specialists rather than a broader public. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting read for those wanting to better understand democratic movements outside the West.

Justin Kempf manages this blog and hosts the podcast Democracy Paradox. He lives with his family in Carmel, Indiana.

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