Reflections on the Arab Revolution
Toufic Haddad - 30/03/2011
Years from now, not a few academics and policy wonks will still be studying the events of the Arab winter/spring of 2011. Indicators will have been identified, graphs drawn, and tipping-point factors quantified and determined. For understanding when a situation explodes is considered to be very important information for some. But after everything has been written and the strategic assessments made, will the image drawn be able to reflect what we have witnessed and experienced?
The events taking place across the Middle East and North Africa have indeed shaken the old world order. Call it 1789, 1968 or 1989 – it’s really none of these. 2011 is a whole other creature. I don’t mean to say that it is any more or less superior to these momentous occasions, all of which any true progressive holds dear to his/her heart. But there is a difference between what you learn in high school textbooks, and what you see taking place before your eyes. There is even more of a difference when you know faces in the crowds, and have witnessed their trajectory years before their ‘15 minutes of fame’.
To the Western establishment, the Arab world was always the ultimate ‘powder keg’. One spark, and the whole thing goes off. Indeed when Mohammed Bouazizi took his lighter and flicked the flint, it wasn’t just his soul which ignited.
The problem with the ‘powder keg’ analogy however is that it has always been too closely associated with those concerned with containing or averting the explosion to begin with, while not addressing its causes. Arabs, and especially Arab youth, are so often accused of strapping explosives to their body that it’s unnecessary to give incendiary analogies any undue mileage.
It’s not true either. There were plenty of ‘sparks’ that went off before this – the Palestinian Intifadas, the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Israeli attack on Lebanon or Gaza. These weren’t just sparks. These were full-fledged bombs going off in Arab living rooms. But they did not detonate the Arab world in the way we see the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions have today.
For those who could see the situation in the Arab world beyond their bottom lines, Bouazizi’s eternal act of self- immolation felt actually more like a levee breaking. For behind the dam was a sea of uncounted statistics to do with everyday humiliation, rage, and frustration of what it means to be an Arab today.
Instead of poverty levels, inequality or rising inflation rates – all of which have their place - why have I never seen a statistic about the combined hours of torture that political dissidents experienced in Arab jails? Why has no one ever counted the number of cigarettes put out on human flesh, or the number of hours of sleep family members have lost as their sons and husbands were in prison?
It is true that we used to hear about the weapon supplies Arab governments received from friends in Western capitals. And we knew all along that it was considered good business for the stock exchange, GDP, and national employment. But something always felt missing from that equation. Indeed something was.
Of course it isn’t all about ugly, brute force. There was ‘beauty’ too. The beauty of royal palaces and fancy cars, high-class prostitutes and the best designer clothing and jewelry. Take a stroll one day down Edgeware road in London, and you’ll see where not a little of the Arab world’s stolen wealth is being smoked and gambled away. Why do we only come to know the personal wealth of dictators and their cronies after they fall? Why are they never included on the Forbes list of the world’s 400 richest? Did anyone tell Carlos Selim and Bill Gates, ‘guys, you aren’t actually the richest people on earth, but just keep it between ourselves’?
And why is interaction within these circles by western elites always so unquestioned before the fall? I swear it wasn’t that long ago when I saw Obama in Cairo as Mubarak’s guest, making lofty speeches about improving relations with Arabs? He even made references to passages in the Qura’n – amazing, how cultured of him! So why did he remove the picture of himself and his Egyptian friends, sitting on a camel at the pyramids from his Facebook page so fast?
In the Arab world, the question was never really ‘why’ revolt, but much more to do with ‘how’. This is the uprising’s unique contribution. Struggle and resistance had always existed, but the means for doing so were in the favor of ruling elites. The tactics of popular repression are well known and have been disseminated across the Arab world, often after considerable study in western military academies. Rulers were particularly adept at trumping up pre-existent - often pre-modern - identities to divide and rule in a relentless abuse of tribal, patrimonial and nepotistic alliances. While the name of the oppositional forces evolved - communist, nationalist, Islamist – the objective remained the same. Western governments played a crucial role in providing the diplomatic cover for the farce to continue, and the weapons and training to make sure Arab democracy never took hold.
The fact of the matter is that much of the previous means of organizing were party-centric. While great things were contributed by many an Arab party towards advancing progressive political and social causes, there is no question that the track record of the past 40 years - and especially the past 20 years - is pretty miserable. The Arab political party had essentially collapsed.
I am not one who believes that parties in and of themselves, are to blame. But the political ideas which activate these parties – this is another matter. Here there was nothing really but a long dark tunnel of intellectual bankruptcy. The left was deep in obscure political comatose or had already reinvented itself as new capitalist demagogues. Religious parties had entered the fray, but in the end could offer little way out except promises of an afterlife, and patience in this life. Practically nothing existed or remained to cushion the impact between on the one hand, overly-armed dictatorial playboy regimes, fully engaged in casino capitalism with their national economies, and on the other, the wretched of the earth, expected to bow their heads in acceptance of their subhuman status – not only amongst nations, but also within them.
Forget about it. In the end, the youth of Tunisia and Egypt caught up to the game, their numbers reaching a critical mass. No longer organized around centralized lines, they formed a massive swarm that buzzed its way through public spaces, reclaiming their dreams, that yes, indeed, humanity was possible, but only if we all join in. Empowered by advanced forms of communication, the regimes had no particular leader to arrest or assassinate. How do you assassinate a swarm? The reclamation of one’s humanity from the yolk of humiliation was what Al Jazeera was really showing on the faces in Tahrir Square.
Libya and Bahrain are now showing us that the ancien regimes are indeed determined to find ways to reverse history. Each regime has a god that put them in place, and the masses have no right to question their gods. The success of the Arab revolutions now stands in the balance.
Despite this, something can never be put back together the way it was, not only for the Arabs, but also for those watching the revolutions. For the Arab youth of the Middle East and North Africa, it is the fear and the intimidation which is gone, replaced by self-reliance, perseverance, ingenuity and unity in action. For those who observe what Arabs do, it is that they no longer fit into the convenient stereotypes of rich playboys, or walking time bombs. A different voice and persona is now seen and heard.
This is important, and we must consciously work to deepen this cross-cultural, cross-political understanding. Because the character of the previous interaction was too skewed. Arab and Western youth too rarely communicated with one another in meaningful ways: as tourists and waiters in Sharem Al Sheikh or Djerba; or inversely, as traders and purchasers of hashish, in some picturesque European city. Of course it wasn’t always this way, and productive interactions have always existed. But there is no questioning that the legacy of imperial/ colonial relations between the West and the Arab world, both historically and in the present, spilled into contemporary relations in unhealthy degrading ways, for both sides.
The time to abandon the distorted nature of these interactions has now come. We have much to learn from one another, and much to gain. Quite importantly, the Arab revolutions very clearly need the support of people in the West to build solidarity and consciousness for their just cause. Enormous political questions and lessons are standing in the balance –a balance that not only affects the Arab future, but also that of Europe and the United States.
Here I’m not referring to the skewed media trope of Arab immigrants taking European jobs, or worse yet, getting involved in planning the downfall of Western civilization. I’m referring to the fact that the ‘Arab street’ today is standing up for a set of values which are the very same values which Western governments have used to assert their moral superiority over the rest of the world for generations – democracy, human rights, civil rights and freedom. While these governments were always cynical in their interpretations and application of these values – certainly abroad, but also at home – they meant and mean a lot to folks in the Western states today. This is not only for the purposes of maintaining the advances made in Western standards of living, but moreso because it was average Europeans and Americans who earned these rights in the first place, fighting against their own elites at one stage in history.
For that reason, we all have a vested interest in preserving and expanding these values, and moreover, reclaiming them from the cynical clutches of politicians and media dogs who serve exploitative power structures at home and abroad.
Here lies the message of the Arab revolution today. From Tahrir Square to Trafalgar, and from Sidibouzid to Saint Denis: we have a world to win, and can win if we put our minds arms and hearts together. Why accept anything less? Are you really so happy, working as a barista with your college degree?
March 16, 2011