It felt like a dream come true: people asserting their power to defeat the tyrants of the Arab world. There would be no more fear, no more subservience, they said.
But now, five years on, it feels more like a nightmare – and one that refuses to end.
The revolutions were real, and so too were the sacrifices. But maybe it was too good to be true. We were certainly premature in celebrating victory against the entrenched forces of the deep state.
For peeling off the upper layers of power and downing the dictators and authoritarian leaders did not uproot their oppressive systems. It merely sent them into retreat, from where they were able to bounce back with a ferocity that crushed our incomplete revolutions and shattered our dreams.
The generation of defeat
Five years on from the day the Tunisian vegetable vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight, igniting the anger and agony of the marginalised and oppressed across the Arab world, the forces of the counter-revolution are once again on top – and asserting their cruel vengeance.
For many people from my generation – influenced by the anti-colonialist struggle, the Palestinian revolution, Pan-Arabism and the ethos of social justice – the Arab revolutions were a vindication of our aspirations and of the sacrifices of tens of thousands who languished in jails or had perished resisting repressive regimes.
Most of all, the revolutions, we believed, marked the end of the inherited stigma of the generation of defeat – those post-Palestinian Nakba Arabs who were haunted by the loss of Palestine, along with other Arab territories, to Israel in the 1967 war.
The armed Palestinian revolution that began on New Year’s Eve, 1965, and came to prominence in 1969 when it took over the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was long considered “the saviour” that could turn Arab defeats into victory by challenging not only Israel but also the subservient pro-Western Arab governments.
During the decades that followed, there were glimmers of hope that the Arab people would rise up against both domestic and foreign oppression and injustice – sparked by the “bread protests” in Tunisia in 1984, Egypt in 1987, Algiers in 1988 and Jordan in 1989, along with first and second Palestinian Intifadas in 1987 and 2000.
Healing our damaged Arab psyche
But the US invasion of Iraq and that country’s consequent descent into sectarian violence didn’t only weaken the Arab world and its people, it damaged the collective Arab psyche.
When they came, the Arab revolutions didn’t seek to free Palestine or to save Iraq, but to liberate Arabs from the grip of the security services and the indifference of the ruling classes to the plight of the poor and downtrodden.
The seemingly quick triumphs in Tunisia and Egypt restored the spirit of hope and faith in a new form of Pan-Arabism – a collective act of defiance against the forces that stifled the Arab will.
After all, how could Arabs successfully support Palestine or Iraq, or anywhere else for that matter, when they were themselves frozen by fear of the hypocritical regimes that silenced them while paying lip service to the Palestinian or Iraqi cause?
To my generation, it was the cries of the middle-aged Tunisian – captured on Al Jazeera and beamed into living rooms around the world – that most aptly conveyed the sentiments of millions of Arabs.
“We have aged hoping and waiting for this historic moment,” he said with tears rolling down his cheeks as he ran his hands over his greying hair.
Finally, we thought, the moment for which we had grown old waiting had arrived.
A new, fearless generation was confronting the security apparatus with marches and songs – and it was winning the battle for all of us. Decades of struggle had not gone in vain, we told ourselves.
On the night of January 14, 2011 – when the Tunisian people chased out President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali – activists across the Arab world grew empowered, while wary Arab regimes assured themselves that Tunisia was the exception and not the new rule.
Our hearts in Tahrir
There was a sense of anticipation and concern: anticipation that the revolution would spread and concern that other regimes, aware of what might be coming, would crush it before it could bloom.
It wasn’t until January 25, when thousands of Egyptians took to Tahrir Square, that euphoria started to grip the Arab masses. This, they knew, would be a crucial test for the other Arab regimes.
It was Friday, January 28, when Jordanians, emboldened by the events unfolding in Egypt, joined what had until then been much smaller protests in downtown Amman. I was among their ranks, watching as older opposition activists happily allowed themselves to be led by the new, young faces.
Our bodies were in Amman but our hearts were in Tahrir Square, aware that the future of the Arab world hinged largely on what happened in Egypt.
For this was a country that had long been considered the leader of the Arab world, and the evolution of its revolution – and later its counter-revolution – would do much to shape the Arab psyche and the course of the other nascent uprisings.
Coming of age under martial law
During those weeks in January, I found myself remembering my late father’s tales of struggle against injustice and revisiting his belief that freedom from tyranny was part of a continuous struggle. I recalled the arguments – about the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s challenge to the West and his curbs on dissent – that filled our home.
I grew up on stories of family friends and relatives – mostly Jordanian communists and Pan-Arabists – who disappeared behind bars. Their names were etched on to my memory; their frequent spells of imprisonment a normal part of our lives.
I came of age under martial law in Jordan, and while the Hashemite kingdom does not compare with some of the other regimes in the region, free speech and political activism were suppressed, breeding a political culture of “allegiance” and forced consent.
When I became a reporter, I often found myself banned from working, interrogated by the intelligence services, barred from travelling and publicly accused of lying, and even of treason, for not toeing the government’s line.
But there were many others who were much worse off – as Jordanian officials were often at pains to remind me, I was “lucky to be in Jordan” and not Syria or Iraq, where I would most likely have “disappeared”.
While that was downright extortion, it was also an accurate assessment of the Arab world.
But there were glimmers of hope – sprinkled here and there, few and far between. In Jordan, our glimmer came in the form of the 1987 uprising that prompted the late king to restore the parliament, to allow political parties and to annul martial law.
But no sooner would an Arab country experience an easing of restrictions than governments would find a new excuse to restore them. Stifling dissent was always considered necessary – whether to enforce unpopular policies or to impose economic measures, such as those stipulated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that led to a widening of the region’s already deep social gaps.
The combination of economic liberalisation, including the privatisation of previously state-run industries, repression and a lack of transparency led to rampant corruption in different Arab countries, eventually alienating large sections of the population, who felt betrayed and abandoned by the state.
Repression was usually imposed in the name of ‘protecting national security’ – a pretext that meant different things from one country to another.
A warning to the tyrants of the world
On the night of February 11, 2001, celebration erupted in Tahrir Square and beyond, signalling a warning to all the tyrants of the Arab world: alliances with the West would no longer protect oppressors from their own people.
Uprisings followed in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. In Bahrain and Syria, they sought to nip them in the bud before they bloomed into full revolutions. In Libya, intervention by NATO cast doubts over the organic nature of the Spring.
The Syrian regime reacted to the first protests in Deraa with brute force, dismissing the protesters as “saboteurs” who were part of a “foreign conspiracy”. Its well-equipped army engaged in a ruthless crackdown that ultimately dragged the country into civil war.
The government of Bashar al-Assad seemed to believe that its anti-Israel rhetoric would shield and exonerate it from decades of crimes against its own people.
In the case of Bahrain, authorities demolished the Lulu (Pearl) roundabout to prevent it from being transformed into another Tahrir Square, thus eliminating both the space for a revolution and a potential symbol of it.
In some countries, there were uprisings that never evolved into full revolutions; in others there were revolutions that were not allowed to reach their natural conclusion.
In all countries, state security and the ruling elite asserted control over the main institutions of power. This was nowhere more evident than in Egypt, where the deep state was at work and the leadership of the army proved itself to be far from neutral. For those forces, President Hosni Mubarak could be sacrificed, but never their own hold on power.
In Tunisia, while a society in transition looked to be heading towards democracy and pluralism, the old guard remained alive and kicking – as proved by the victory of Beji Caid Essebsi, a symbol of the ancien regime, in the second post-revolution parliamentary elections last year.
Both Egypt and Tunisia held successful parliamentary and presidential elections, complete with (sometimes debatable) reformulations of constitutions and laws. But elections are not necessary a vehicle for fundamental change to the structure of the very systems the uprisings attempted to bring down.
“Down with the regime” – the slogan that reverberated through demonstrations and rallies required more than mass gatherings on streets and in squares.
As it transpired, there was no unified leadership or clear strategy for any of the uprisings, which was partly the result of decades of repression that had prevented people from joining political parties or organising in any structured fashion.
The only movements that were even remotely ready to put themselves forward and which already had a sufficiently broad power base were the Islamist ones, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood. For while it had also been subjected to some persecution, it had been largely tolerated and even used by governments to counter the leftist and Pan-Arabist opposition.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s campaign was not based on a specific political programme, but on the all-encompassing if vague notion that “Islam is the solution” – thus extending its appeal to many religious people who may have held alternative political views.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s victory in Egypt and – and to a lesser extent Ennahda’s win in Tunisia – sent shock waves through those in the Arab world who had no desire to have their countries or lives ruled by Islamists.
All of a sudden, the choice seemed to be between “the old regime and the Brotherhood”, dampening enthusiasm for the revolutions and even merely for change in the Arab world, and exposing the deep differences between the various forces of the uprisings.
And it was this fear of the Islamists that provided the old regimes with the opportunity to launch their counter revolutions.
‘Secularists’ v ‘Islamists’ – and we all lose in the end
Of course, this was most evident in Egypt, where the campaign against the Brotherhood, waged especially forcefully in the media, succeeded in demonising the movement and its elected president, Mohamed Morsi, thus paving the way for the military coup in July 2013.
There may have been many legitimate reasons to oppose Morsi’s policies, but the Egyptian military was able to use the anti-Brotherhood sentiment to woo some young activists, leftists and political parties.
By April 2013, the mood and sentiment in Tahrir was no longer revolutionary. In fact, I was stunned by the ideas I heard in the square and its surrounding streets and alleys. I heard voices from the old regime talking openly about silencing the “unruly masses”.
But the problem was much bigger even than that. Events in Egypt were polarising the Arab world into secularists and Islamists, or at least into pro and anti-Brotherhood camps.
Many people I had considered to be progressives, activists and even revolutionaries in Egypt didn’t only support the coup but justified the military’s massacres – most notably the killing of at least 817 Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters during a sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya square on August 14, 2013.
Those of us who opposed the coup were sometimes attacked, ostracised and accused of pandering to the Muslim Brotherhood, amid the anti-Islamist frenzy that seemed to sweep the Arab world.
And as public opinion split over Egypt, the old regimes further consolidated their positions, helped at times by the money that poured in from some Gulf states.
The division of Arab public opinion between “secularists” and “Islamists” over Egypt further widened the existing rift among the forces that supported the revolutions in the Arab world.
They were already split over Syria, where, from the beginning, many Arab leftists rejected the uprising and echoed the government’s argument that it would undermine the country’s status as an “anti-imperialist state”.
And as Islamists grew in strength there, particularly after the emergence of groups such as the al-Nusra Front and later, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the appeal of the Arab revolutions was yet further eroded.
Those who saw the overthrow of Egypt’s Morsi as a blow to all Islamists were not only wrong in their myopic view, but played directly into the hands of the counter-revolutionary forces.
What the reactions to Syria and Egypt underlined was the dangerous absence of a strong political culture and commitment to pluralism and social justice within the Arab opposition.
For while many members of the Arab intelligentsia and the region’s political parties grew obsessed with the Islamists, governments old and new were able to proceed with economic policies of privatisation and the ending or cutting down of subsidies on staple goods and fuel in line with renewed deals with the IMF – and all without any popular scrutiny or expectations of accountability.
Instead, people consumed the sectarian rhetoric they were fed, particularly with regard to Syria and Yemen, where “the Shia threat” was used as a ruse to deflect attention from the economic and political decisions being made to ensure that the masses would continue to struggle to make ends meet.
From ‘social justice’ to ‘shame’
The Arab people have been betrayed by shameless rulers, most of whom enjoy renewed Western backing, by self-serving political parties and by intellectuals who proved not to be that intellectual after all.
The religious institutions, whether inside or beyond the realms of power, are also guilty – of becoming tools of the authorities and of spreading bigotry and prejudice to ingratiate their own power, thus disrespecting the religion they claim to guard.
What we see today is an Arab world torn by the battle for influence as that battle masquerades as sectarian conflicts or a continuation of the so-called “war on terror”. The latter has become a cover for all crimes – from corruption to mass murder.
We were uplifted by the slogan “bread, freedom and social justice”, immortalised in Rami Issam’s song during the Egyptian Revolution, but today the song that most accurately expresses our current state is the heart-wrenching “Shame” by Samih Shokeir, which laments the Syrian government’s cruelty, impunity and total disrespect for human life.
But we cannot afford to lose hope – the situation is far too grim for that. For the next explosion of anger and agony will not even be about the search for justice, it will merely be about the will to live.
The Arab uprisings expressed that will, but now they are trying to kill it. But to live is exactly what many Arabs chose when they streamed out on to their squares and streets. And it is what they will choose time and again, as the words of Abu al-Qasim al-Shabi tell us:
“If people will to live one day
Then fate must obey
Darkness must dissipate
And must the chain give way.”
Lamis Andoni is an analyst and commentator on Middle Eastern and Palestinian affairs.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.