|The heart of the Arab revolutions was made up of young people deemed invisible by dictators [GALLO/GETTY]|
Christopher Dickey from Newsweek and The Daily Beast said, “Marwan Bishara’s The Invisible Arab is the single most perceptive and accessible book I’ve read about the roots of revolt in the Middle East and the brave, chaotic, exciting and frightening new world they have begun to create.”
The following is the first of a series of excerpts that Al Jazeera will be publishing from The Invisible Arab: The promise and peril of the Arab revolutions.
In much of the world’s media, the narrative goes like this: An oppressed people who have suffered passively suddenly decide that enough is enough and, thanks to Western technology and inspiration, spontaneously rise up to reclaim their freedom, inspiring what is called the Arab Spring.
Like most revolutions, however, this one was a long time coming. The historic takeover of Tunis’s November 7 Square, Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and Manama’s Pearl Square, among others, were the culmination of a long social and political struggle – countless sit-ins, strikes, pickets, and demonstrations by people who risked and suffered intimidation, torture, and imprisonment.
What started as a desperate act of self-immolation by Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor, soon became a viral event on the internet, one that led angry Tunisians to pour into the streets by the thousands. Demonstrations turned into national upheaval and culminated in a full-fledged revolution that toppled the Tunisian dictatorship and spread east to other countries to kindle the greatest Arab transformation in memory. Never had the region witnessed such collective vigour and yearning for change.
Within a few weeks, millions of Arabs filled their streets and squares, giving new meaning to Mark Twain’s claim that there’s power in numbers. The silent majority finally spoke, breaking the psychological barrier of fear erected by regimes through decades of oppression, and discovering in record time that, as the fairy tale foretold, the emperor had no clothes.
If we are to do justice to the immense courage of those who stood up to – and in some cases brought down – their regimes, we need to not only recognise their determination, but also listen to what they have said and are saying about how to bring justice and democracy to the Middle East. We also need to back their efforts in every way possible. They have earned the right – with their blood and, in many cases, lives – to be respected and supported.
This story begins with the young Arabs whose networking and organisation brought the people out into the streets. The youth, who make up 60 per cent of all Arabs, have been looked upon as a “demographic bomb”, an “economic burden”, or as a “reservoir for extremism”. However, unlike previous generations, this group heralded change.
The young Arabs were not alone, though. Their “awakening” has been inspired by political, community, labour, and national leaders who offered countless sacrifices in years past. They have been influenced by the experiences and successes of others around the world who have suffered from similar challenges arising from globalisation, while at the same time taking advantage of its byproducts: The information revolution and the popularisation of technology. Important as these technological advances are, however, sensationalising the role of Facebook or Twitter and crediting them with the revolution is like crediting the inventor of portable cassettes – the Dutch conglomerate Phillips – with the Islamic revolution in Iran, which relied heavily on mass circulation of the Ayatollah’s recorded messages. There is no doubt new media played an important role in the Arab uprising, but the heart of the revolution was made up of people who had long been deemed invisible by dictators as well as by their international sponsors.
For centuries these Arab citizens and their social and political movements have been either unfairly demonised or totally ignored in the West – by both its leaders and the media – who saw the region through the prisms of Israel, oil, terrorism, or radical Islamism. But today’s Arabs are presenting a stark contrast to the distortion, disinformation, and outright humiliation heaped upon them. Characterised as unreceptive to democracy and freedom, they are now giving the world a lesson in both.
Marwan Bishara is Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst and a former professor of international relations at the American University of Paris. The above excerpt is from his latest book, The Invisible Arab: The promise and peril of the Arab revolutions, out in bookstores now.
Follow him on Twitter: @MarwanBishara