Reflections on the Revolution in the Arab World

By James Le Grice

The media has homogenised the popular revolts that spread across North Africa and the Middle East this year as “The Arab Spring”. It is not too much of a generalisation to refer to these revolts as a singular revolution; they share certain similarities of intent, organisation, and character. And now that the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt have run the full course from demonstrations to regime change, to political party formation, to elections, and to the emergence of winners, we have case studies with which to make predictions about the wider “Spring”.

There is much cause to be sceptical. The fact that popular revolts have overthrown dictators and initiated elections is not in and of itself reason to believe that an era of freedom and democracy is imminent in the Arab world. Spring has sprung many times before in this region, most notably in 1916-1918 when Bedouin tribesmen rose up against the Ottoman Empire and ended centuries of Turkish rule over Arabs, and in the late 1940s-early ‘60s, when the Arab Nationalist Movement inspired uprisings against the French and won independence for Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.

Then as is the case now, the revolts were accompanied by much rhetoric of liberty, equality, and fraternity, and descriptions of the revolutionaries as young generations of liberals and progressives.Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence “of Arabia”, vividly describes this atmosphere in the Arab revolt against the Turks, and British play-write Robin Maughan’s 1947 travelogue, North African Notebook, gives similar insight about the Arab Nationalist Movement.

Both make fascinating reads in the present circumstances, and shed light on why the revolutions they describe were incapable of producing liberty and why the present revolts are unlikely to as well. The issue is unity. The protestors in Tunis, Tahrir Square, Homs, Benghazi, Sana’a and other focal points of the Arab Spring are united by what they stand against, but not what they stand for. They stand against the respective dictators of each country. But it is hard to say what they stand for without over generalising or resorting to vague abstractions like “freedom” and “justice”.

Take Tahrir Square for example. Diverse groups with diverse visions stood in famous scenes of solidarity against President Hosni Mubarak. Amongst them were bloggers and intellectuals who want a Western-style democracy. There were feminists, including the heavyweight champion Nawal El Saadawi, fighting for equality between the sexes.

There were Coptic Christians, demanding to be treated as equals to their Muslim countrymen and for a government that will defend them from persecution. And there were fundamentalist Muslims, who envision a society based on Sharia.

One cannot simply say, “The protestors in Tahrir Square stand for Western democracy, women’s equality, Christian equality, and Sharia”; the whole does not equal the sum of its parts, and many of the parts are mutually incompatible. Those calling for a more overtly Islamic society are obviously at opposite ends with the liberals. But liberals are a divided group too. When feminist blogger Aliaa Mahdy posted a nude photograph of herself online, making a statement about women controlling their own bodies, she received hostility and outrage from both the liberal and conservative elements of the revolution.

The problem with unity based on being mutually against something rather than for something is that you end up with a divided revolution once the element that all are against is removed. T.E. Lawrence devoted many pages in Seven Pillars of Wisdom describing the rivalries between the tribes and clans that made up the rag-tag army of his “Arab Spring”.

These traditional enemies put their age-old feuds behind them and stood as comrades against the Turks. When the Turks fell, tribal politics returned with an even more divisive nature, as there were now power vacuums to fill. Likewise, the various acronymed groups leading resistance against the French in the 1950s differed starkly over the mechanics of the independent states they sought to create, and detested each other only marginally less than they mutually detested French colonialism.

This was parodied wonderfully in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Various negative scenarios can arise from a divided revolution; one is that an entity from outside of the revolution takes advantage of its weak divided state to gain power. This was how the 1916-1918 Arab Spring ended. The British and French Empires signed agreements behind the backs of the Arabs to divide the former Ottoman Empire between them, and drew the modern map of the Middle East.

This is the scenario that has replayed itself in Tunisia and Egypt. Rashid Al-Ghannushi’s Ennahda Party has sought power in Tunisia since the 1980s, and was a thorn in President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s side. They did not start the popular revolt in Tunisia, but they were the faction with the clout and resources to become its winner, gaining 40% of the vote in October’s elections.

Likewise, the Muslim Brotherhood has sought power in Egypt since 1928, and their Freedom and Justice Party, formed in the wake of Mubarak’s fall, looks set to win a majority in the ongoing Egyptian Parliamentary elections.

Other power-seeking entities include Iran, which seeks regional hegemony by exporting its Islamic Revolution. The Iranian regime’s international propaganda mouthpiece, Press TV, is already referring to the Arab Spring as “The Islamic Awakening” and arguing that Iran’s 1979 revolution was the inspiration. Iran has a long held wish to annex Bahrain, and if the island nation’s popular revolts overthrow the monarchy, Iran may well be able to fulfil its wish.

Then there is al Qaeda, whose dreams of a caliphate depended on mass popular uprisings the terrorist organisation was never able to inspire. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is already firmly entrenched in Yemen, where this year’s popular revolts have forced President Ali Abdullah Saleh to end his 33 year reign. AQAP has recently rebranded itself as “Ansar al Sharia”, a PR move suggesting that it plans to win power in Yemen once Saleh steps down in February.

Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) might follow their example in regards to Libya. There have been reports of arms dealing between Libyans and AQIM after Gaddafi’s fall. It seems that Lawrence’s lament, “When we achieved and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took our victory to re-make in the likeness of the former world they knew,” will be as applicable to this Arab Spring as it was to his own. Does this necessitate a relapse to authoritarianism?

It is certainly more likely than not that those who have lusted for power for some time, upon gaining it, will be hesitant to relinquish it. But it is the nature of divided revolution itself that makes a relapse highly likely. As long as the spirit of resistance and “power to the people” is in the air, the winning parties have every reason to be paranoid about their ideological rivals.

Consider the case of Tunisia and Algeria during the Arab Nationalist Movement. Once the revolts had won independence and initiated elections, the winning parties of those elections established single party dictatorships. This would be harder to do in Tunisia at present, Ennahda did not win an outright majority, and in Egypt it does not look as though the Muslim Brotherhood will have complete domination either. But the awkward moment when those brought to power by popular revolt must stifle popular revolt looms over the formation of new constitutions in the upcoming months.

The victors of the revolts will need a distraction to divert the attention of the revolutionaries; something that can unite everybody. There is one thing that has been proven time and time again to do this, and that is the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, the great “Opium of the Masses” in the Arab world. Many of the most authoritarian regimes in the region have followed this formula: keep the people passionately angry at Israel, send money and weapons to Palestinian militants to ensure there always be a conflict to exploit, then solidify control over the populace while they’re not paying attention. It’s a pure Orwellian tactic, “the war is not meant to be won, it is meant to be continuous”, and evidence suggests that it is a tactic that Ennahda and the Muslim Brotherhood intend to use.

Ennahda’s deputy leader, Hamadi Jbeli, proclaimed to a cheering crowd in November, “we shall set forth with God’s help to conquer Jerusalem, if Allah wills”, and The Muslim Brotherhood has stirred up widespread popular protests against Israel in the wake of the 9th September attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo.

Despite all the signs that this year’s Arab Spring will be part of a cycle of authoritarianism rather than the end of it, there is still much to be optimistic about. With the notable exceptions of Libya and Syria, these revolts have been non-violent, a sharp contrast to the “Springs” of yesteryear, and could set a precedent for non-violent resistance in the future.

Also, they have had significant participation by women, gaining much needed new ground for Arab feminists. But most importantly, they have been high speed, accomplishing within a year what took previous uprisings of a similar scale several years. This speed suggests that it will not take as long before spring appears once again.


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