Forget the first anniversary of the Arab Spring

The question is not which countries have and haven’t seen dictators fall, but whether the world is entering a new epoch.

Revolutions are fought against regimes, but revolutionary moments of a global scale are the real game changers [GALLO/GETTY]

Amherst, MA – The anniversaries of Arab revolutions mark significant moments of reflection and assessment: Which dictators have fallen? What will the new systems look like? Why did some leaders fall quickly while others’ conflicts are bloody and protracted? As scholars weigh the success or failure of their favourite political theories, citizens in the Arab world continue to struggle, even in the cases of relative success. 

Most of the commentary on the anniversary of the remarkable Arab uprisings has focused on the successes and failures of individual cases. I do not aim to diminish the accomplishments of the people of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain – all of which have seen significant loss of life in their struggles to realise a different future.  Nor is it to suggest that anniversaries are an inappropriate time to reflect on the fruits of those accomplishments. In Tunisia and Egypt, citizens are continuing to struggle for their futures, against a range of forces that imagine new political realities that may prove to be as repressive as those that came before.

But a greater question about the earth’s latest trip around the sun is whether these and other events of 2011 have collectively rocked the prevailing global political status quote enough to have pushed humankind into a new epoch. Big words: a new epoch for humankind. But before you finish rolling your eyes, let’s stop and consider the impact of revolutions – even seemingly failed ones. 

Real game changers

Revolutions are fought against regimes, but revolutionary moments of a global scale are the real game changers, the real threat to those terrified of a shift in the status quo, whether politically, socially or economically. Without such a shift, “safe” regimes can continue politics as usual, seemingly isolated from events in other countries, other parts of the world. And without such a shift, countries like the United States can continue the fantasy that they are merely observers of profound change elsewhere rather than connected to a seismic shift that affects everything.

Revolution Through Arab Eyes – The Factory

In this regard, the real question is whether the global wave of protests that started in the Middle East and spread to much of the world will prove to be a watershed moment in which citizens globally mobilise not only to bring down repressive regimes, but to insist that political elites everywhere respond to their demands and concerns. They are demanding basic rights and insisting on a new political reality that prioritises human life over profit, progressive change over traditional centres of power. Have they been – or will they eventually – be successful? 

Such moments are sadly but not surprisingly uncommon, nor do they tend to play out in the neat confines of a calendar year. Revolutions on a national scale are also rare and their accomplishments are hardly insignificant. But global revolutionary moments are what really rock the status quo, and we may be in the midst of a major one that will reverberate for decades.

In 1789, the French Revolution brought a sea-change to Europe that even Napoleon Bonaparte could only temporarily contain. True, France saw decades of advances and reversals, but no one doubts that the storming of the Bastille was a watershed moment. The Haitian Revolution of the 1790s, inspired only in party by news of the French revolution, saw a beaten-down slave population revolt to demand and eventually win freedom from European domination and an end to the institution of slavery – an institution that even at that time held 75 per cent of the world’s population in bondage.  Haiti’s ensuing years would continue to prove bloody, but again there was no going back.

Such moments have come and gone. The mid-19th century; the early 20th century; the 1960s. Much of the 20th century felt like an unending wave of wars against colonial powers for independence, wars against foreign intervention, revolts against domestic repression. And then came 1968: the year in which massive protests around the globe all seemed to come into focus. For the first time in decades, it seemed like the very foundations of the status quo and the privileged were being shaken.

Acts of repression

Citizens on every continent took to the streets and demanded their voices be heard. Many were crushed, such as the protests of students and unionists in France and the Prague Spring. Others were taken apart gradually, such as the anti-war movement and the Black Panthers in the United States. These unlawful acts of repression took place in democracies and authoritarian states alike, and even today their histories are not as widely known as they ought to be.

But if these moments were so easily repressed, why should we be optimistic about the possibilities of 2011? Because only a series of such moments will significantly threaten the status quo in ways that will substantively challenge the prevailing political order of privilege and exclusion, inequality and injustice.   

So was 2011 such a year? We cannot yet know, but there is indeed reason for hope.  For one thing, the Tahrir protesters inspired those in Madison, Wisconsin and later, in the Occupy Wall Street movements. Protesters in Tahrir “spoke” back, with signs declaring that “Tahrir stands with Madison” and Occupy Wall Street – images that circulate freely on the internet in ways that were unimaginable as recently as the Battle of Seattle protests of 1999. 

And space is a significant issue. The Indignados movement in Spain and elsewhere stands in solidarity with other occupy movements, the first of which might be aptly called Occupy Boulevard Bourguiba (in Tunisia) and Occupy Tahrir (in Egypt). The retaking of public spaces, and the insistence that such belong to the public, is an extraordinarily radical movement in exposing obviousness of the injustices at work. And to the extent that the outrage has spread globally, it is a profoundly important revolutionary moment. 

We won’t really be able to assess the impact of these occupations for some years, perhaps decades. If history tells us anything, however, it is that we should anticipate a strong and probably bloody backlash, one that will see a tired public retreat from the streets and hope for a little more stability, prosperity and yes, order. But hearts aren’t changed as easily, and tastes of freedom and empowerment can be utterly intoxicating. 

Empire – Egypt: The promise and perils of revolution

So while some may be skeptical of the broader impact of these events – to reduce them to a chart in which countries are filed under the “success” column to the “failure” column – we ought not be so quick to dismiss. Indeed, the vociferousness with which the Occupy movement has been condemned as pot-heads and slackers by some of the political elite in the United States echoes the bloody repression of the Syrian government against its own protesters. The repression is hardly comparable, but in both cases, the response is loud and extreme precisely because the voices are so loud that they cannot any longer be easily dispatched. 

So perhaps the “tide” is receding and the elite can exhale that the worst has passed, while the majorities are placated that the status quo is preferable to some unknown future. But perhaps not. References to the 99 per cent pepper political debate in the US from President Obama’s State of the Union Address to the Republican primaries. If the leaders of both major parties were not just a bit nervous, the political elite would not be so eager to reframe the debate and portray the activists of the movement as a radical fringe. 

Question of change

Nor should the autocratic regimes of Jordan, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates – to name just a few – be deluded to think that they have weathered this storm. If history tells us anything, it is that once people realise that it is they who really hold the power, the question is not if change will come, but when.

Of course, it may well be possible, even probable, that the powers favouring the status quo will get ahead of the moment and distract much of the public with alternative narratives, stepping up to “protect” them against other evils and thus distract them with a slight of hand. But such tricks will not work in the long run. Once you learn that there is a man behind the curtain, the illusion can never work in quite the same way (even for those who long for that earlier naïve time).

In this revolutionary moment, the greatest power will be for people to recognise and remember that the instruments of repression fight back the hardest precisely at the moments that they feel most threatened. This is as true of Assad’s Syria as it is of US corporatism. Keep pushing, dear fellow citizens of the world. The world and the future belong to you.

Jillian Schwedler is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author of Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen (Cambridge 2006).