Are the Arab revolutions back?

This latest wave of protests in the Middle East shows the revolutionary momentum of 2011 never died out.

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    Protesters use their mobile phones as a structure representing a fist is erected to replace a previous one that was burnt at Martyrs' Square in Beirut on November 22, 2019 [Reuters/Andres Casares]
    Protesters use their mobile phones as a structure representing a fist is erected to replace a previous one that was burnt at Martyrs' Square in Beirut on November 22, 2019 [Reuters/Andres Casares]

    Lebanon has been witnessing unprecedented demonstrations against the government that suggest the country's proverbial sectarianism seems suddenly to have disappeared. 

    Similar demonstrations have been reported from Iraq and Egypt to Sudan, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. Since mid-November, Iran too has witnessed widespread protests.

    A common thread runs through these uprisings: all have much to do with economic collapse, social and political woes, violence, repression and the corruption of incompetent governments.

    So are the revolutions of the Arab world and its neighbourhood back? Or perhaps more accurately - did they go anywhere to begin with? How are we to read these seemingly similar uprisings reminiscent of the glorious days and nights of Tahrir Square writ large?

    Remembrance of things past

    Upon the publication of his pioneering book The Invisible Arab: The Promise and Peril of the Arab Revolutions in 2012, I asked Al Jazeera's political analyst Marwan Bishara, if he thought the Arab world had reached the point of no return, to which his response was a resounding yes.

    Much has happened in the Arab world and beyond since then. Two counter-revolutionary forces have sought to derail the Arab revolutions: the governments of regional authoritarian powers (with the help of the United States and Israel) on one side and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) - the offspring of their geopolitical machinations - on the other.

    These two reactionary forces have wreaked havoc, stifling the spirit of the Arab revolts.

    Over the past few years, it appeared they had succeeded - changing the headlines and the optics, from millions of human beings marching peacefully in the streets and squares of their homelands to violent gangs taking over military strongholds.

    They wrapped the uprisings in the veil of sectarianism. They threw doubt on the aims and desires of the defiant nations who rose up, presenting their protests as foreign plots. They blackmailed the world with scary words like "migration" and "terrorism" to justify violent crackdowns. They maintained that stability can only be achieved with an iron fist.

    But the moral, political and economic facts on the ground have defied all such scheming. It was not long before people came back to the streets across the region and resurrected the resounding slogan of the Egyptian revolution - "bread, freedom, social justice!"

    Is there a larger pattern at work?

    Since this new wave of protests began, various attempts have been made to explain them in the context of global or local trends. 

    Similar demonstrations have taken place around the world and been attributed to the austerity measures of incompetent governments. In Chile, Ecuador, Argentina and elsewhere in Latin America, public anger with economic mismanagement has sent thousands of people on to the streets.

    In an article for the New York Times, Declan Walsh and Max Fisher suggest the turmoil from Chile to Lebanon is related to "wallet issues". They propose: "Pocketbook items have become the catalysts for popular fury across the globe in recent weeks."

    But seeking such facile links between these revolutionary uprisings risks misreading them all. More specific patterns of regional histories need to be taken into account before we turn to more global trends.  

    Here, the insights of those, like journalist Isma'il Kushkush and veteran analyst of Arab revolutions, Gilbert Achcar, who, among others, have closely followed the course of Arab revolutions are more crucial. 

    Still, their necessary and insightful observations are insufficient.

    Open-ended revolutions

    In a book I wrote about the Arab Spring in 2011, I proposed two interrelated ideas as guiding principles for how to read these revolutions: Open-ended (as opposed to total) revolutions, and delayed (as opposed to exhausted) defiance.

    Within what historians call the longue duree frame of reference, the success of counter-revolutionary forces in derailing these uprisings is but a temporary bump.

    The fundamental, structural causes of the Arab (and other world) revolutions remain the same and will outlast the temporary reactionary stratagems designed to disrupt them.

    The idea of open-ended revolution deliberately overcomes the false promises of the postcolonial state formations as the teleological ends of revolutionary mobilisations. These postcolonial states across the Arab and Muslim world, all the way to Asia, Africa and Latin America have lost their raisons d'etre and therefore their legitimacy.

    In 1963, political philosopher Hannah Arendt published On Revolution, a comparison of the American and French revolutions. In it, she offered an enduring insight into revolutions: that uprisings are evidence of the cause of "public happiness". I believe the smiling faces of defiant revolutionaries we see across the Arab world today show that insight endures. 

    The notions of open-ended revolutions and public happiness lead to the idea of delayed defiance. Defiance of abusive state powers and their foreign backers - think of the junta in Egypt and their US and Israeli supporters, or Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian enablers - cannot be suppressed by yet another abusive total state.

    The statism at the heart of old-fashioned total revolutions - that one good state will follow one bad state - has long since lost its relevance and legitimacy. What we are witnessing today is the sustained synergy of delayed defiance, open-ended revolutions, and public happiness that in its revolutionary potential is far more enduring than the false promises a total state can deliver.

    What was clear to both me and Marwan Bishara back in 2012 has indeed been confirmed by the events that followed. The naked brutality of state powers in suppressing the transnational uprisings were clear indications of their absolute and final loss of legitimacy.

    The Arab and Muslim world today is at the epicentre of a new experiment with democratic governance that can no longer be fooled with the phoney fanfare of any state apparatus feigning elections. In its global configuration, that "democratic" spectacle has resulted in the murderous Hindu fanaticism in India ("the largest democracy in the world") and the corrupt and ludicrous reality show of Donald Trump in the US ("the oldest democracy in the world") or else in the boring banality of Brexit in the United Kingdom.

    The world has nothing to learn from these failed historical experiments with democracy. The world must - and in the unfolding Arab revolutions - will witness a whole different take on nations exercising their democratic will. Delayed defiance will systematically and consistently strengthen this national will to sovereignty and in equal measures weaken the murderous apparatus of total states which have now degenerated into nothing more than killing machines.  

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance.


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