The rise of the cosmopolitan traditionalists: From the Arab Spring to a global countermovement?

Published date01 September 2015
Date01 September 2015
Subject MatterArticles
International Political Science Review
2015, Vol. 36(4) 425 –440
© The Author(s) 2014
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DOI: 10.1177/0192512113516901
The rise of the cosmopolitan
traditionalists: From the Arab
Spring to a global
Adam K. Webb
Johns Hopkins University (SAIS)–Hopkins-Nanjing Centre, China
The revolutions of the Arab Spring, in contrast to the liberal third wave of the 1970s to 1990s, rest on a
more popular and traditionalist base. Critics often depict these currents as insular and even xenophobic in
outlook. This article engages the literature on democratisation, framing, and social movement globalisation,
and challenges that assumption. It draws on in-depth interviews conducted with Islamists and other activists
in Cairo during April and May 2012. It argues that the pressures of globalisation and the opportunities
of democratic transition are forcing traditionalists on to more cosmopolitan terrain. These cosmopolitan
traditionalist activists draw on inspiration from other parts of the world and express solidarity with
revolutionary movements elsewhere. Unlike liberal cosmopolitans, however, they ground their mode of
tolerance and cooperation on substantive traditional values. While the pressures of globalisation may limit
the ability of post-revolutionary regimes to deliver on social aspirations, this shift of ideological framing
may pave the way for new traditionalist networks that cut across borders. As global political opportunity
structures emerge and frustrations build up within nation-states, this cosmopolitan traditionalist bloc is likely
to have the numbers and influence to reshape world order.
democratisation, cosmopolitanism, globalisation, Arab Spring, fourth wave, social movements, civil society
The long-term outcome of the Arab Spring remains uncertain. As a wave of democratisation, it
may rival the last wave that remade Latin America and Eastern Europe in the 1980s and 1990s. If
it spreads beyond the Arab world to Africa and Asia, it could increase markedly the 60 per cent or
so of the world’s population living in democracies.
Corresponding author:
Adam K Webb, Resident Professor of Political Science, Johns Hopkins University (SAIS)–Hopkins-Nanjing Centre,
Nanjing, China.
516901IPS0010.1177/0192512113516901International Political Science ReviewWebb
426 International Political Science Review 36(4)
The novelty of this wave goes beyond its scale into its social and cultural alignments. These
are the first major democratic ruptures to occur in the Arab world, which is more distant cultur-
ally from the West than were Latin America and Eastern Europe. The success of Islamist politi-
cal movements also lends an ideological colouring very different from earlier waves. This
contrast leads many in the western establishment (for example, Ehrenfeld, 2011; Muravchik,
2011; Trager, 2011) to lament the illiberal ‘toxicity of Arab political culture’. They suggest that
the Muslim Brotherhood’s embrace of democracy, for example, is mere ‘chameleonlike’ insin-
cerity, concealing a ‘bloody history and declared goals of imposing shariah across the globe’.
Journalistic coverage of the Egyptian revolution (for example, McGrath, 2011) has tended to
play up sectarian conflict, including periodic flare-ups of violence against the 10–15 per cent
Coptic Christian minority. The steady growth of influence by Islamists such as the Muslim
Brotherhood and conservative Salafis since the 1980s is seen by many as a cause of sectarian
strife. This discourse occurs against the backdrop of many years during which the regime of
Hosni Mubarak, including in official media coverage, tarred Islamists of all stripes with the
sectarian and ‘extremist’ brush (Iskander, 2012). Such has also been the discourse of the junta
after the July 2013 coup.
Huntington (1997) is representative of many who doubt the democratic potential of traditional-
ist currents within the Muslim world. He argued that new electoral democracies often suffer from
pandering to sectarian sentiment. These transitions might end in majoritarian imposition, the
oppression of religious minorities, and xenophobic insularity. Yet growing evidence suggests oth-
erwise. For several years before the Arab Spring, Islamist movements had allied with Christians
and leftists against authoritarian regimes (Abdelrahman, 2009; Clark, 2010; Furman, 2000;
Schwedler, 2007; Stilt, 2010; Wickham, 2004). This pattern recurred in Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen.
Diverse views exist on whether such alliances moderate, or ‘tame’, Islamist movements. Boukhars
(2011) and Roy (2012) argue that they are less ideologically monistic than they are often portrayed
to be. More fine-grained accounts (Glain, 2011; Sawhney, 2008) of internal divisions within
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood confirm that younger members have a more pluralistic vision of
Islamic democracy. Indeed, the protests that toppled Mubarak in 2011 included a diverse coalition
of Islamists and non-Islamists.
What these ad hoc alliances and ideological adaptations mean remains to be seen, given the
recent vicissitudes of democracy in the region. But when we move beyond the nation-state as a unit
of analysis, a bigger question arises. The misgivings of many onlookers about this social base rest
on an assumption that it is predisposed to intolerance and insularity. In other words, traditionalists
such as the Islamists are seen as being at odds with globalisation and cosmopolitanism. This view
has a long genealogy. The global liberal narrative has treated the Islamic world as a stubborn hold-
out since the end of the cold war (Falk, 1997). More broadly, the purported clash between insular
traditionalists and globally minded individualists has been highlighted. Franck (2001), for exam-
ple, drew ‘battle lines between the forces of communitarian conformity and the growing network
of free-thinking, autonomy-asserting individualists everywhere’.
In this article, I shall use the term ‘traditionalists’ to denote those who frame their political and
social aspirations with reference to an enduring ethical tradition. In the Arab Spring, Islam has
occupied a central position, but traditionalism in general (and the critical depiction of it in liberal
discourse) recurs across civilisations. I want to call into question this alleged tension between cos-
mopolitanism and politically assertive traditionalism. Among some of the Arab Spring activists, I
find evidence of a new kind of cosmopolitan traditionalism linked to opportunities opened up by
the democratic transition.
First, I suggest that this wave of revolutions represents the global rise of new social forces
for which cosmopolitan traditionalism is likely to be particularly relevant. Second, I elaborate

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