Storm from the East: Is the Arab Revolution Here to Stay or Just a Passing Thing?
It seems to me difficult to answer such questions as the revolutions of the past were a cumulative experience of ‘revolutionary zeal’, dashed hopes, and unfulfilled expectations. Furthermore, it isn’t easy to have an accurate reading of the current upheavals, including their social and cultural ramifications, as the process is still unfolding.
The slogan of the demonstrations and protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Algeria, Sudan, and other Arab countries has been ‘The People Demand the Downfall of the Regime’, while the ‘lite’ version – ‘The People Demand Regime Reform’ – has prevailed in the monarchies of Bahrain, the Sultanate of Oman, Jordan and Morocco.
Upon closer examination, this slogan provides pointers to uncovering the reality of the Arab regimes whose overthrow is being demanded, and also offers a glimpse of what the alternative might be.
Libya: The ‘no-regime’ regime
Early in the Libyan crisis, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi stated that he was not Libya’s president, that he did not run the country, and that he was therefore bewildered by Libyan demands that he relinquish power. In so doing, he cast himself in an even brighter light than that associated with a king or president. More hallowed than either, he was – in his own words – the splendour of Libya (al-majd), its strongman and leader, the guide of the revolution, a world-class revolutionary figure and the King of Kings in Africa. Defying all political classification, within any broadly accepted legal or constitutional sense of the term, Gaddafi was thus ‘above’ the state, with the very notion of statehood becoming euphemistic, as evidenced by the country’s official name: The Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (a neologism coined by Gaddafi, whose closest English rendering is ‘state of the masses’, or ‘government by the masses’).
Setting aside the fact that the man making such claims considers that he is ‘above ruling’ and that his regime is one where ‘power is wielded by the masses’, such statements are belied by the following:
Firstly, Gaddafi has always been the country’s ‘prime mover’ whose opinions and positions cannot be superseded or questioned except by his son, Saif al-Islam – and since he too holds no office, anything Saif says that is directed at the people is clearly just an echo of his father’s position.
Secondly, Gaddafi has sole control of the country’s wealth. He is in charge of oil revenues and neither their volume nor the bank accounts they are deposited in may be questioned. The funds are deemed to be Libya’s since they are either in the name of the father or of the son, who are considered not mere representatives of the country, but the country itself. To speak of Libya, as the colonel once famously said, is to speak of Gaddafi.
Thus, he is both object and subject, not an element OF the state but its originator, and as such he is beyond the ambit of the state. And while the country’s wealth IS part of the state, it begins and ends in the originator, who bestows it upon whomever he chooses in whatever manner he sees fit.
While this picture is not an exact representation of the situation in Egypt under Hosni Mubarak, of Yemen under Ali Abdullah Saleh or of Tunisia under Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the differences are more a matter of form than of substance. For since the middle of the twentieth century Arab regimes have all been afflicted by the same condition, with only slight variations in their ‘symptoms’ – headed by unaccountable and unimpeachable rulers, who are the be-all and end-all of the regime.
Sources of legitimacy
Legitimacy has been found in either leading a revolution, like Gamal Abdel Nasser and Muammar Gaddafi, or wresting independence from a colonial power, like Habib Bourguiba, or inheriting a throne, as is the case with the absolute monarchies in the Gulf states, Jordan, and Morocco. In some instances, legitimacy derives from a strongman’s ‘corrective movement’ to the original revolution or independence struggle – for example, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Hafiz al-Assad in Syria, or Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali who took over in Tunisia after Bourguiba declared himself president for life; in the cases of Egypt and Algeria, strongmen stepped in to ‘consolidate’ the regime – Hosni Mubarak took over after Sadat’s assassination at the hands of Islamists, to ensure the state’s ‘security and stability’, while Bouteflika was ushered in by the army following a serious assault on power by Algerian Islamists. There has also been the paradigm of the coup d’état to ‘save’ and protect the unity of the state – Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, for example, or Yemen’s Ali Abdallah Saleh who, in the name of ‘national unity’, dissolved the multi-party system, snuffed out the democratic experiment, and then single-handedly launched a war in the summer of 1994 to ‘unify’ the country – thereby transforming his southern counterparts in the Yemeni Socialist Party from ‘unionists’ into separatists!
It is clear that in all of these instances, legitimacy has not been derived from the constitutionality of power since constitutions have either been ignored or, as in Libya’s case, simply don’t exist. The pattern has been that the ruler construes the constitution however he wishes, be it to expand his powers, to extend his term until his demise, or to preclude anyone from vying for his office other than his own son.
Sometimes, legitimacy has been conferred by elections or referenda supervised and monitored by international bodies which declare them to be fair and transparent, despite criticism. What exercises me is not so much whether such elections have been fair, but the abject subjugation of people who are citizens only in the most nominal sense of the term, and for whom a decent life (both in the sense of earning a living and in the literal sense of having enough bread to eat) rests on their surrender to a tyrannical and brutal system.
To every ruler belongs his own party, tribe, and/or religious sect. From the party are selected ‘technocrats’ who conduct the business of government, lining their pockets in the process; from the tribe or clan, relatives are picked for positions of power, with the sons usually groomed to inherit both the regime and its riches; and finally, the ‘third circle’ of beneficiaries from the regime’s largesse are brothers, nephews, sons-in-law and other close kin. No government administration or commerce is possible without them, and nothing can be achieved without their ‘good offices,’ exorbitant though the price may be in terms of an individual’s humiliation.
It is not very different in the principalities and monarchies of the region, where absolute rulers reign without constitutional basis and ruling families appropriate the country’s riches, both above-ground and under-ground. Sectarianism is a common feature of all these regimes, and religious divisiveness and discrimination fuel their authoritarian and despotic systems, as well as widespread government corruption and financial malfeasance.
Ordinary people on the whole face downward economic mobility, increasing poverty, joblessness and a near-total absence of social security or healthcare. Equal citizenship is impossible where family, tribal and religious loyalties predominate, and where no government services are available without the payment of bribes; this is not to mention a backward education system, and a monolithic cultural climate that is inimical to rationalism, devalues broad-mindedness, and selectively resorts to the invocation of religious tradition whenever it is expedient.
Initially, the absence of freedom of expression was met with forbearance, but as frustration grew so did the rumblings of discontent until, unable to contain themselves any longer, people’s voices rose in protest, becoming a generalised scream and then all-out rage that finally culminated in the revolution, or something like it.
Is it possible for such a situation to have a peaceable and non-violent outcome, one that more closely resembles democracy than it reproduces the practices of the autocrats and their power structures?
Decades have passed since Marxists abandoned social determinism, and since the unifying demands of Arab nationalists became realised in the ubiquity of regimes with national parties dedicated to propping up autocrats, their tribes and clans. Even Islamists have understood that their ‘Islam is the solution’ slogan will never be realised if they don’t adopt more modern approaches and strategies.
For ordinary people, if it wasn’t one slogan it was another: pan-Arabism, first; the Homeland, first; Unity, first; and, of course, Palestine, first. Like so many decorative motifs, these ideological slogans were both blinding and misleading: the lofty nationalist and pan-Arab ideals they expressed admitted of no enquiry, and the mere suggestion that they might be discussed or examined was tantamount to treason. It was a betrayal of every sacrosanct thing – God, homeland, the people – and as the loyal guardian of these immutable principles, it fell to the nation’s father, and people’s leader and saviour, to determine who the traitors were and mete out the appropriate punishment.
Eventually, it became clear that a dialogue was needed between some of the major political forces, and whether in Tunisia, Sudan, Yemen, Egypt or Morocco, a number of broad alliances were forged. In Egypt, for example, there was the Kifayah (‘Enough’) Movement that brought together a large number of people with a diverse range of outlooks and political allegiances; in Yemen, the opposition coalition that goes by the English name of Joint Meeting Parties brought together left-wing nationalist and Marxist parties on the one hand with Islamist parties, both Sunni and Shiite, on the other.
All that can be said with confidence is that the overthrow of the Arab regime was the one demand around which social and political forces coalesced. There were really no other clear goals, besides the very general objective of fashioning an alternative regime. As a result, the Islamists are still dreaming of the Caliphate, and the Arab nationalists of Arab unity, the liberals of democracy, and the socialists of social justice, while all of them know that the revolution will not fulfil their particular aspiration to the exclusion of the others’, for no revolution is possible without the others.
The Face-people’s revolution
The recent and ongoing protest movements have been widely described as Facebook revolutions because they are seen as primarily youth-led. They have also been called information and digital revolutions; critics have even qualified them as Islamic revolts. Looking at it more closely, a somewhat different impression is formed, as there were opposition parties everywhere long before Facebook and Twitter, and while their voices have been suppressed and political expression and freedoms suspended, these voices have never been silenced.
Still, the spread of electronic and digital media has greatly favoured the dissemination of these voices, starting with satellite TV channels, which broadcast different points of view and thus provided a wider and more democratic vision. This was followed by the growth of citizen journalism and its plethora of websites, discussion forums and blogs. And finally, there was the arrival of Facebook and other social media, which instantly linked activists across wide networks; in addition, user-friendly web and mobile-based audio-visual information technologies have enabled ordinary people to produce detailed documentary evidence which protesters could instantly access to expose violations and other abuses of power, both overt and subtle.
The Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi, who immolated himself in protest against the regime, would not have set off the waves of anger and rage that followed were it not for images of his act going viral after being captured on a mobile camera by another potential Bouazizi.
Similarly with the Egyptian revolution, which came into its full expression after images were disseminated showing the torture and killing of peaceful protestors demonstrating against such abuses. The Facebook page We Are All Khaled Said was one aspect of the widespread unrest that galvanised tens of thousands of people.
One could argue that it is this buildup that led to the revolution, and it was a buildup of everything: oppression and resistance, poverty and protest, censorship and information technology, forgery and documentation, cover-ups and scandals.
However, the single most important element behind the eruption of protests everywhere was the call to take to the streets and demonstrate until the demands of the revolution were met. The takeover of the street, combined with breaking the barrier of fear inspired by the security apparatus and armed forces, and the transmission of news and images of the increasing repression and of growing numbers of victims and fatalities, only spurred on that descent to the street.
‘One Arab nation’
Thus, to me, it seems as if the commonalities of the Arab regimes were behind the spread and growth of the revolutions. Nationalist slogans were completely ineffectual insofar as the parties behind them had become narrow, tribal and clan-based institutions, whereas the educational values taught in Arab schools – about the common bonds of language, religion, history and geography underlying the concept of ‘one Arab nation’ – were the catalyst for ‘departure’ movements on the Tunisian model.
Because of the similarity in social and political conditions across the region, it is as if once one country had staged a mass revolt it was incumbent upon the others to follow suit. This is reminiscent of the situation in the middle of the twentieth century when the July 1952 Revolution in Egypt stoked nationalist fervour and ignited revolutionary movements and coups d’état throughout the Arab world.
It must also be noted that the success of the current uprisings is contingent upon the non-interference of outside powers. The majority of Arabs rejected the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime because of the manner of his departure, which came about as a result of foreign intervention and not an internal process. Nationalist sentiment in the Arab world continues to reject foreign intervention because it is widely understood that foreign powers are not only motivated by self-interest but are allied to the very autocratic regimes the people oppose. This is why these uprisings could be considered a ‘corrective’ to the regime-change approach of foreign powers for overthrowing tyrannical regimes, especially since the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq in the wake of 9/11 are deemed to have all but failed, and left nothing but a trail of unsolved problems. Notwithstanding that, I believe that foreign intervention CAN be critical in instances where there is a risk of mass killings at the hands of a brutal tyrant, as in the case of Libya, for example.
Revolutions a passing thing?
Much concern has been voiced about the future of the current revolts, how they will govern, and whether or not, as some fear, they will follow the model of the Iranian Revolution. Personally, I don’t see any reason for such an analogy: the recent revolutions do not subscribe to one particular ideological discourse, nor are they giving voice to a particular party, as was the case with the Iranian Revolution. I don’t think that fears of an Islamist takeover are warranted for the simple reason that the legitimacy of these revolutions is founded in their participants: the transitional authorities have been tasked with drawing up democratic constitutions and holding fair and transparent elections, both parliamentary and presidential, to usher in a new system of governance.
Tunisia’s Islamists provided reassurance to their co-revolutionaries when they announced they had no intention of fielding a candidate in the forthcoming presidential elections, and the Muslim Brotherhood has done the same in Egypt. The Tunisian Nahda Movement has explained its opposition to the banning of the hijab during Ben Ali’s tenure as a position in favour of freedom of choice in dress and not of the imposition of the veil; it has also commented that gender equality enacted in the country’s family law is a matter of individual judgement. In Libya, the Islamists have joined their allies in the chant [which, in Arabic, rhymes – Trans.]: ‘No emirate, no tribalism’ (La qabiliyya, la qabiliyya, la imara islamiyya).
Sensitive to these concerns, activists have not taken an antagonistic stance towards Western countries or the peace process with Israel. The discussion about the activists’ backgrounds and histories with such countries, if any, might suggest that the revolutionary storm sweeping from east to west will actually rectify the balance of power in such a way as to promote greater mutuality of interest – it being understood that discredited regimes do not serve the best interests of their erstwhile allies. And that, in my view, can only mean greater mutual understanding and better integration.
Extremist groups like al-Qaeda would not look favourably upon such a development. The formation of a broad, revolutionary alliance would undermine their impact, and their absence from a transformational movement such as this would isolate them from people. Still, ‘subduing’ them, whether ideologically, politically or socially, will take time and their voice will recede only gradually – perhaps as happened with the Marxists and Muslim Brothers of old, whose refusal to work with others eventually led to their quiescence.
Whether or not these concerns are justified, the expectations are that the struggle for modernisation will not come to an end, or diminish, after the revolutions. If anything, such expectations will gather further momentum, exposing the great need for reason-based knowledge as well as an enquiry into the role of religion and the monolithic discourse which has engendered many of the most despotic and abusive values and policies. There are many other issues that continue to be pressing, including tribalism and sectarianism, women’s rights, freedom of thought and expression and, as in the case of Egypt, the repeal of existing laws sanctioning the persecution of intellectuals.
novelist and poet from Yemen, has published eight books, the latest of which is The Handsome Jew.
Translated by Maia Thabet
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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