‘Revolution by the people, for the people’

The Arab Spring is very much alive despite attempts to sabotage it.

The new iconography of the Arab Spring includes the rabi'a in Egypt and black banners of Salafis in Tunisia [AFP]

In their first anniversary, Arab revolutions looked set to create the much vaunted rupture to radically transform polity, economy, society and ideology. They seemed to be on track, evincing the kind of dynamics to effect change from below.

Elections were either held or planned. Discursively, the language used to write and speak, after decades in political wilderness, disclosed the new elites’ aspirations for good government, forming a constitution, rule of law, gender equality, alternation of power, and inclusive and competitive politics. The newly unshackled “public”, by contrast, wanted more: revolutionary politics and deeds to match it, in order to realise hurriyyah (freedom) and karamah (dignity).

By year two, polarisation across the board (ideological, sectarian and socio-economic) was visible. It gained momentum and worked in tandem with unfolding electoral processes (Egypt and Libya), and drafting a constitution (Tunisia). Bahrain’s protests hit a cul-de-sac. Syria’s revolt degenerated into a civil war in which sectarian loyalties were, and continue to be, deployed internally and externally. And impasse marked Yemen’s search for political answers after the ouster of President Ali Abdallah Salih.

The third anniversary has not dimmed the original optimism even when the surroundings are largely pessimistic, with the qualified exception of Tunisia. The public squares of protest still draw crowds even if numbers continue to dwindle. However, fearlessness has not faded, especially in the sites of resistance, against the return of the remnants of ousted regimes such as in Egypt. The anti-revolutionaries have, in varying degrees, stemmed the revolutionary tide. The results are a mixed bag. In Egypt, the army has restored its stranglehold on the levers of power. In Tunisia, revolutionaries and anti-revolutionaries are neck-and-neck, sparring for the hearts and minds of a confused and increasingly disaffected public.

Above all else, the ‘moral’ agenda and mantra of Arab revolts to unhinge authoritarianism through the pursuit of the twin goals of freedom and dignity are yet to be delivered.

Bahrain’s protests have shifted tactics focusing mostly on human rights abuses, calls for the release of peaceful dissidents, and justice against torturers. Spatially, protests are pushed to the confines of Shia neighbourhoods away from the public eye.

Syria is a tragedy of local and external making. Local agency stumbles upon global structural realities, the power calculus of which favours neither strategies nor outcomes agreed upon by a factionalised polity and a weakened, but still emboldened, regime.

The trends

Eight main trends are visible:

1- A new iconography has emerged, competing for presence and following: the black banners of Salafis, as in Tunisia; the rabi’a (four) recognisable four fingers sign, signifying the stand in the Rabi’a al-Adawiyya square, the bastion of Morsi supporters’ stand against the coup, and the site of the junta’s first massacre after the overthrow.

2- The language of resistance against old authoritarian habits, agents, media and morality continues. However, today “security” and “economy” seem to define the hottest items on the agenda of existing local political orders, including new elites, and of international stakeholders, especially the US and the EU.

3- Intervention by outsiders, through the provision of weapons, creates realities on the ground, stifling both popular revolts and democratic reconstruction. Demobilisation has not followed the ouster of former Prime Minister Muammar Gaddafi in Libya: the militias’ influence comes from guns. The violent route to revolution leaves scars and acrimonies, which are not easily surmountable: the enmity between Misrata and Warfalla illustrates a broader trend of societal fracturing in Libya. Syria’s democratic reconstruction, whenever that may be, is bound to face similar challenges. 

4- Islamists are looking increasingly to be on the defensive, and Tunisia, with the Ennahda Party still able to pull strings, is the only site of struggle against a hodgepodge of remnants from the old regime emerging as serious contenders for power.

5- Arab youth led and made the revolutions, yet across the board, ailing and old figures (Beji Caid Essebsi in Tunisia, Hazem Beblawi in Egypt) and parties are reaping the political benefits, ascending to the helm and clinging to power at all cost (President Marzouki in Tunisia).

6- Arab revolutions are now kept in check by conservative regional powers. In this context, the role by regional powers in endorsing and supporting the ouster of an elected president – as in Egypt – or preventing the fall of another – as in Syria – illustrates the point. Intervention in Bahrain may be re-read, with the benefit of hindsight, more or less like a trial-run of the kind of political conservatism that threatens bottom-up democratic change in the wider Arab world. The Tunisians are, for the first time, watching their backs against outside (eg: al-Qaida franchise groups, and states that openly abetted or endorsed the coup in Egypt) machinations targeting their own revolution.

7- A more or less permanent “revolutionary” ethos is visible, and the fearlessness to protest and contest politics and politicians informally and from below, continue to accompany top-down formal and systemic processes.

8- Secular-Islamist parity of organisation, following and credibility is the secret to compromise and durable democratic reconstruction, as in Tunisia where the Arab Spring first emerged and is now being revived. The recent agreement between Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda should inspire “bargain politics” as the way forward for Egyptians, Libyans, Syrians, and Yemenis. The age of political singularity has passed.

Even in the midst of uncertainty, violence, trepidation, confusion and delays, the Arab Spring is very much alive – even if its detractors incessantly and arrogantly await a winter metamorphosis.

Revolutions without revolutionaries

Thus far, the measures introduced to transform countries that had clear ousters have focused on elections, constitutions (Egypt, Libya, Tunisia) and national dialogue (Tunisia, Yemen). However, old systems and their modes of doing politics have not, as yet, been turned into irretrievable relics. Ideological divisions and squabbles from the 1970s and 1980s pitting Islamists against secularists, continue in both Egypt and Tunisia. The questions of “identity” and Islam’s role in it inform debates about democratic reconstruction.

Fear of Islamists have not faded; it has – in fact- returned to public debate as Salafi groups take advantage of the new freedoms and occupy public space. Illiberal attitudes prevail with artistic and intellectual expression still curtailed in both Egypt and Tunisia. Egypt’s deep state remains intact, and in Tunisia, the interior ministry’s dark past is yet to be investigated. 

The new elites across the board, Islamist and secular, have failed to introduce revolutionary political agendas animated by revolution-like reimagining of community, polity, ideology, and economy. The IMF still grinds the axe of loan-attached conditionality. Islamists, in particular, rushed to the old metropolitan capitals seeking approval. Note the French have not so far received any of the Tunisian Islamist PMs – they preferred to deal with President Marzouki.  

Above all else, the “moral” agenda and mantra of Arab revolts to unhinge authoritarianism through the pursuit of the twin goals of freedom and dignity are yet to be delivered. Specifically, no single truth and reconciliation-type process has been activated. Tunisia has only recently passed legislation for such a process after procrastination by the powers-that-be, to the consternation of the civil society groups involved in its framing. The practice remains to be seen and as all other things in Tunisia, it will be subject to delay, owing to legitimate democratic contests.

There are yet to be revolution-like processes of transitional justice given to the huge number of victims of past and present injustices across the vast Arab Spring geography. As for distributive justice, nothing has yet changed for people living on the margins. Lack of equal opportunity and pollution (eg, phosphate basin in Tunisia) has not affirmatively signalled change.

Thus elections and constitutions, undeniably important institutions, may not constitute for the have-nots the first steps of the “revolutionary” ladder of change and mobility away from misery and marginalisation. Yet, the quest for electoral democracy has been the route to upward mobility for the new elites whose quest for “existence” and self-affirmation may have distracted them from the main objectives that led the Arab youth to reject corrupt and dynastic systems.   

In transition and revolution

Bouazizi’s act of self-immolation in December 2010, inspired Arab youth and the resulting meme today, manifests itself through all kinds of revolutionary ideas, practices and symbolisms for freedom across a vast human and geographical Arab Spring space and founded a manifesto for dissidence by ordinary citizens.

To paraphrase the great Vaclav Havel, within those citizens’ powerlessness reside the very triggers and ingredients of power. By coming together across diverse geographies, political, socio-economic and cultural realities, Arab youths set the region ablaze to affirm one thing: the rejection of living “a big lie” (Havel’s words) as constructed in the official transcripts of the ousted regimes.

Even in the midst of uncertainty, violence, trepidation, confusion and delays, the Arab Spring is very much alive – even if its detractors incessantly and arrogantly await a winter metamorphosis. Arabs will never settle to live “a big lie”, by any account, secularist or Islamist. Truly, Arabs have for three years entered a new dawn: They are peoples in the midst of unstoppable revolution and transition.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a specialist in Arab democratisation, revolution and transitions, and has been an academic at Australian National University, Exeter University, Westminster University and Qatar University.