Looking back, looking forward: inheriting the revolutions of the ‘Arab Spring’

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There are few things as powerful as ordinary working-class people overcoming all the odds and shaking the very foundation of the status quo | Image by Fourate Chahal El Rekaby

To mark the tenth anniversary of the ‘Arab Spring’, the Transnational Institute has produced a dossier documenting and reflecting on a decade of struggle

Around a year ago we were reminiscing about how a decade had passed since the mass protests in Alexandria, Egypt in June 2010 against the police murder of a young Egyptian, Khaled Mohamed Saeed, and since the start of the Third Sahrawi Intifada in Gdeim Izik, a protest camp in occupied Western Sahara, in October 2010. We talked about how for us that marked the beginning of a life-changing epoch.

In the year that followed, a wave of revolt spread throughout the whole Middle East and North Africa region, in what came to be called the ‘Arab Spring’. These uprisings were acknowledged as world-shaking events. The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions ignited historic upheavals in North Africa and beyond. People there celebrated the toppling of the dictators, Ben Ali and Mubarak, and looked ahead towards meaningful change in their lives. These uprisings, like most revolutionary situations, released enormous energy – a collective effervescence, an unparalleled sense of renewal and a shift in political consciousness.

Shattering stereotypes

The peoples of the region are all too familiar with the racist stereotype and contemptuous cliché embodied in the facile falsehood that ‘Arabs and Muslims are not fit for democracy and they are incapable of governing themselves’. The imperial and colonial dominance over the region has led to it being seen in some quarters as a homogeneous entity that can be systematically reduced through negative tropes.

Seen through this distorting lens, the region evokes images of conflict and wars, ruthless dictators and passive populations, terrorism and extremism, as well as rich oil reserves and expansive deserts. This orientalist imaginary and the rigid representation of ‘the other’, as well as having the power to ‘block narratives’, are hallmarks of a political and geographical violence that is produced by imperialism.

The uprisings shattered many of these stereotypes and debunked many myths. The wind of revolution that began to blow in 2011 spread from Tunisia to Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco and Oman, among other places. The emancipatory experience was contagious, inspiring people all over the world: activists in Madrid, London and New York, whether calling themselves the Occupy Movement or the Indignados, were all proud to ‘walk like an Egyptian’.

Although the last three to four decades have seen various attempts to delegitimise meaningful and radical change through revolution, following the shortcomings and defeat of decolonisation efforts in various parts of the global South, and although counter-revolutionary onslaughts will always seek to crush the will of the people – the events of 2011 showed that revolutions and uprisings for emancipation continue (and will continue).

The revolutionary experience

For both of us, as for many activists, the pride and hope that these events generated remains deeply personal and political. Our career paths, activism and world views were shaped by this formative political experience. We participated in conferences and round tables celebrating and analysing these historical events, we marched with our peoples in protests, and we were involved in various solidarity initiatives. We discussed, debated and disagreed with friends and comrades. Sometimes we felt hopeful, at others sad and dispirited. Above all, we learnt a great deal: engaging with revolutionary praxis offers a unique source of knowledge.

Nevertheless, we cannot deny that what started as inspiring uprisings against authoritarianism and oppressive socioeconomic conditions – demanding bread, justice and dignity – morphed into violence and chaos, profound polarisations, counter-revolution and foreign intervention.

The various people’s movements in the region found themselves pitted against entrenched authoritarian and counter-revolutionary forces bent on suppressing them. All were met with resistance from the state, often in conjunction with global capital and foreign interference.

The military coup in Egypt ended up restoring a much more ruthless and repressive form of dictatorship. The brutal descent into civil wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen, and the series of crackdowns in Gulf countries like Bahrain, provide examples of the cruel logic of proxy war so reminiscent of the colonial schemes with which the region and its people are all too familiar.

Tunisia, which had seemed to be the exception amid this gloom and doom, is now in a very fragile position. Moreover, the deep polarisations – for example, Islamists versus secularists – imposed on the masses have distracted them from the key socioeconomic issues that were at the heart of the uprisings in the first place.

A long-term view

Some mainstream commentators have argued that the ‘Arab Spring’ gave way to an ‘Islamist winter’, as Islamist forces came to power in some countries. Some progressive voices have been less pessimistic and have presented a more historically nuanced perspective, arguing that these events should be seen as part of a long-term revolutionary process, with ups and downs, periods of radicalisation, and periods of setback and counter-revolution.

This latter view received some vindication when, eight years after the 2010/11 events, an escalation of the revolutionary process took place, in the form of a second wave of uprisings in Sudan, Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon (2018–21), alongside the return to the spotlight in 2021 of the unending and heroic struggle of the Palestinians – all of which reveals people’s determination to continue fighting for their rights and sovereignty.

All of these momentous events between 2010 and 2021 have opened new horizons for people to express their discontent and demand radical change and reforms, forcing almost every government in the region to concede on issues – both political and economic.

Challenging misconceptions

When we embarked on a project to commemorate this decade of struggle in the region, our guiding principle was the important role of memory in our movements for justice and freedom, and the crucial task of maintaining an archive. Our political memory is not an automatic process, like muscle memory; rather, it is shaped by the political and economic conditions in which we exist.

The nurturing of political affinity and the maintenance of radical kinship does not occur in a vacuum – it must be fed to be kept alive. It must be archived and reflected upon. Anniversaries provide one occasion for such activities, and that is what this project represents. The project includes webinars and podcasts, together with a dossier of articles, all of which can help us to look at the concrete within what are sometimes too-abstract debates, and to engage with some less visible cases.

One of our aims has been to challenge a number of misconceptions about the region, its people and their revolts and uprisings. One such misconception was the attempt by the global and mainstream media, Western governments, and international financial institutions like the World Bank to portray the uprisings as merely revolts against authoritarianism and as demanding only political freedoms and democracy of the stunted kinds that exist in Western industrial countries.

This framing steers away from any class analysis and tends to dissociate the political from the economic, ignoring the fundamental socioeconomic demands of bread, social justice, dignity and popular sovereignty. But the misreading – or more accurately distortion – did not stop there. The Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings were dubbed by Western mainstream commentators ‘Facebook and Twitter revolutions’, exaggerating the role of social media in fomenting them. Another dominant – but no less superficial – framing was the demographic one, which interpreted the revolts as primarily youth uprisings against the older generation – the product of a ‘youth bulge’ in the affected countries.

Against despair

A decade later, mainstream interpretations commemorating the tenth anniversary of the events have gained little by way of insight. Several media reports and articles talk of ‘failed’ and ‘lost’ revolutions and broken promises. The dominant tone is captured by the title of a Guardian article published in December 2020, referring to Mohamed Bouazizi, the street fruit vendor who set himself on fire, catalysing the uprisings: ‘He ruined us: 10 years on, Tunisians curse man who sparked Arab Spring.’

The narrative advanced is one of despair and hopelessness: the uprising was not worthwhile, better to have remained in chains. Such an interpretation needs to be strongly challenged and deconstructed in order to offer a more nuanced and less idealist (more materialist) reading of revolution and what it entails.

Various progressive activists and researchers have emphasised the importance of acknowledging the complexities of revolutionary dynamics and their inevitable crises, shortcomings and even failings. This necessitates seeing revolutions as being imbued with counter-revolutionary tendencies and encroached upon by reactionary forces. The fact that people in the region are continuing to revolt is testimony to this complexity.

Ultimately, the ideas people hold about revolutions have a critical impact on the outcomes of such events when they actually occur; hence the necessity of reflecting on and learning from past revolutions.

An inclusive approach

Throughout this project we have sought to make space for critical reflection: we prioritised an inclusive approach regarding different disciplinary views and political emphases, and in the process gave a platform to younger, female and local voices from the region – the least we can do.

The hope was to eschew rigid dichotomies, as well as self-righteousness as regards possession of ‘the truth’. This desire stems from our rejection of sectarian and polemical styles and behaviours, which can too easily morph into personal attacks. One outcome of this collaboration has been to learn to disagree and to work respectfully in a comradely fashion, and to continue the discussion in a constructive way.

Anyone who is engaged in the issues presented in this project will be all too aware of how the nefarious effects of entrenched positions (‘campism’) have weakened progressive possibilities for meaningful engagement over the years. So often we have seen debates about Syria or Libya, for example, turn into deeply polarising (and often false) binaries – alienating participants and choking off productive debates regarding revolutionary strategies and international solidarity.

Ultimately, how exactly we can reconcile certain positions, such as anti-authoritarian versus anti-imperialist for example, will be put to the test in our movements, but we should never absolve ourselves of our duty to argue against selective political positions. One case of freedom should be in the service of – not expendable in pursuit of – another. This was powerfully captured during one of our webinars between our Moroccan and Sahrawi participants.

Looking back, looking forward

Anniversaries have a symbolic power and can be good opportunities for taking stock of what has happened, and for reflecting on the positives and negatives. They can also be dynamic moments where we think about how to move forward. Our aim is not to reminisce about the beautiful times that are long gone, or to romanticise these great historical events. Instead, we hope to get closer to the spirit of the revolutions, their creative energy, as well as their contradictions and shortcomings – and their enemies.

Obviously, there will be some lacunas – things that are not addressed. This is partly due to our own limits, in terms of our labour and time, and partly to the limits of a project whose raison d’être is bound to a certain moment in time. In truth, revolutionary processes are always unfinished.

The same goes for political praxis, which includes writing about revolutions. And although we would not pretend, or seek, to be fully comprehensive when discussing such a vast region, we hope we offer an important glimpse, in the voice and the language of its people.

What we have sought to present is a progressive analysis that can contribute to deepening our knowledge about the region – with the hope that this will allow us to learn from past mistakes and continue to push for long-sought change in the prevailing oppressive political and socioeconomic conditions.

Our memories of the incredible events over the last decade have been foundational. We feel privileged to have witnessed people acting with a political stamina and bravery that can only be termed ‘historic’. Our minds have been enlightened and our spirits elevated by the countless ordinary men and women who dared to say “the people want” (al sha’b yourid), and who rose up in unprecedented circumstances.

We inherit their legacy, and the enormous price paid to arrive at a tipping point from which neither the friends nor the enemies of revolution can return. There are few things as powerful as ordinary working-class people overcoming all the odds and shaking the very foundation of the status quo.

‘The personal is political’ proclaims the feminist maxim. ‘Nothing about us without us’ runs the motto of the disability struggle. In the spirit of these two messages we wholeheartedly thank all of the contributors to this project, who bring their perspectives as scholars and activists in and from the region. And we pay tribute to the fallen, the injured, the political prisoners and the ones who continue to struggle. We dedicate this work to them, and to all those who have sacrificed their lives for bread, justice and dignity.

From openDemocracy

  • Revolutions
  • looking Forward
  • Looking back
  • Arab Spring

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