Can the Arab revolutions survive Syria and Egypt?

The hopeful wave of uprisings that started in Tunisia seems to have given way to despair and violence.

The continued carnage in Syria has given rise to staggering numbers of people dead and displaced [AFP]

As we mark the commencement of Year Four of the Arab revolutions, a quick glance around the Arab world may leave much to be desired from the initial promise of the crescendo of events that warranted the term “Arab Spring”.

Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation on December 17, 2010, his death on January 4, 2011, and the subsequent uprising in Tunisia that resulted in the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on January 14, 2011, triggered a series of uprisings all the way from Oman and Yemen, to Egypt, Syria, and Morocco. Now more than three tumultuous and ground-breaking years later, things seem to be different – the Arab Spring seems to have come to a premature Arab Winter. 

In Egypt, the democratically elected president was toppled by a military coup, and what is even more unsettling is the fact that leading Egyptian intellectuals seem to be cheering along the side-lines. In Tunisia, mass demonstrations demanding the resignation of the Islamist-led government continue. In Libya, private and public sectors have staged a general strike demanding the government confront the armed militias. In Yemen, the shady shape of “al-Qaeda” seems to have staged a comeback. In Bahrain, all signs of resistance to the ruling regime seem to have been uprooted, to the point that even an art exhibition depicting the Bahrain uprising is not tolerated. Any sign of protest in Saudi Arabia is brutally suppressed, Moroccan constitutional reform now seems bogus, Iraq still reels under sectarian violence, and Kuwait and Jordan are dormant.

The case of Syria

All these events, however, pale in comparison with the continued carnage in Syria. The numbers are staggering. According to The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, from an estimated population of 22.4 million, more than 100,000 people have been killed; 9.3 million people are in dire need of help inside Syria, while some 6.3 million people have been internally displaced. Syria as a country, for all intents and purposes, has disintegrated, while Bashar Assad stands morbidly still and entirely unfazed.     

A quick look at the composition of the external forces now turning Syria into a proxy war clearly shows that all of them have one single and common purpose: To put an end to the momentum of the Arab revolutions. They have successfully changed the discourse away from the democratic will of the Syrian people and degraded it into one of civil war. That narrative transmutation of “revolution” into “civil waris by far the most dangerous threat facing the Arab revolutions today. 

Revolutions are destabilising. The United States, as an imperial project with vast material and strategic interests in the Arab world is not happy with these revolutions that destabilise the region, endanger its allies, and potentially embolden its adversaries. Israel has even more at stake to thwart this revolutionary tide. For the entire duration of its colonial project, Israel has relied on corrupt Arab potentates like the ones the Arab revolutionaries are overthrowing. The apartheid state prefers a tyrant like Assad over messy unfolding democratic movements like the ones in Egypt and Tunisia.  

Saudi Arabia is a staunch ally of the US and Israel in this opposition to the uprisings. As a retrograde monarchy with no democratic institutions ever allowed disrupting its tribal rule, it is naturally opposed to any mass revolution that ipso facto exposes its political obscurantism. Iran is a strange bedfellow with Saudi Arabia in this endeavour. Having swallowed a vastly cosmopolitan political culture, and eliminating all its ideological rivals in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution of 1977-1979, the custodians of the Islamic Republic are not happy with a tsunami of revolutions that returns to the global stage what they are doing their best to repress. Initially they branded these revolutions as “Islamic Awakening”, and when Egyptians revolted against the Muslim Brotherhood, they learned their lesson and let a moderate like Hassan Rouhani become president and began negotiating a better deal for their future with “the Great Satan”.

Is Turkey next?

The “deep state”, successfully hiding behind the democratic facade in Turkey, has a singular mission in its political DNA to be a major player in the region, for its own interests – and that interest has no principles: They collaborate with Israel, deny the Armenian genocide, suppress Kurdish demands for autonomy, squarely partake in NATO’s military projects in the Mediterranean, and in every turmoil see and seek their own immediate and distant interests. A potential success of the Arab revolutions, as we saw in the course of the Gezi Park uprising, can be a model of revolt for Turks as well. 

Russia and China, in two different but complementary ways, are strategic allies in opportunism, one primarily in political and the other in patently economic terms. They are no allies of any revolutionary cause. Russia and China only haggle and negotiate with the US for a bigger share of the pie they see in every conflict and chaos. 

Tunisia marks third anniversary of uprising

Though these players may appear at odds with each other, in fact, they are united in doing all they can to divert these revolutions. The combined interests of all these forces have successfully turned a popular democratic uprising in Syria into a civil war in which there are obviously two sides that are to be separated and adjudicated.

As Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah help Assad; the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are aiding and abetting an entire army of mercenary fighters who sport and brandish one Islamist brand or another. They are all categorically mercenaries and no amount of branding them lslamist should detract from that fact. The fabrication of a Sunni-Shia fight is an entirely bogus claim. This is a fight between Saudi Arabia and Iran – one supported by Russia and the other by the US/Israel – a fake fight to divert attention from the real issue:  the Arab revolutions. 

From the very beginning there were two kinds of reactions to the Arab revolutions: The distrustful nay-sayers who thought the whole thing was a passing fever, or else manipulated and “kidnapped” by the US; and those who were deeply invested in these revolutions, never blinded to the tumultuous road ahead, and yet unflinchingly hopeful.

We did not inherit the postcolonial world of 2011 overnight. It took the combined calamity of domestic tyrannies and European imperialism of some 200 years or more to bring us to where we were when Bouazizi set himself on fire. It will not take another 200 years to set things right; nor will the counterrevolutionary forces from Washington DC, Tel Aviv, Riyadh, or Tehran just pack up their interests and disappear into thin air overnight.

Buy into civil structures

Resistance to these regional and global counterrevolutionary forces must be local – domestic to the Syrian people themselves – and their peaceful desire for a transition to democracy. This, therefore, is the time for the formation of voluntary associations, labour unions, women’s rights organisations and student assemblies.

In Syria, as elsewhere, the brutes that are gathered around Assad or the mercenary thugs among those who are fighting him are categorically incapable of governing a civilised society. Syrians, as the rest of Arabs and Muslims, must be busy translating the civilised will of their democratic uprising into institutions of resistance to tyranny – right now, as those who know nothing but the language of violence are busy discrediting and destroying each other. 

The question of the Kurds is also critical here. The Syrian Kurds now have an historic opportunity to provide a template for democratic change if they put an end to the abuse by every major and minor player that takes advantage of their aspirations for a unified Kurdistan. If they abandon that dream and channel its legitimate aspirations into the democratic will of Kurdish people now scattered in Iran, Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, they can in fact become a game changer. 

The Syrian debacle has put a damper on the Arab revolutions and beyond. Every country from Afghanistan to Iran to Morocco now points to Syria as a justification that all these revolutions were in vain, that the ruling regimes and all their atrocities are better than this carnage. This is a bogus binary. The choice has never been between the carnage we witness in Syria and the corrupt elite and the deep states that rule from Morocco to Turkey, from Afghanistan through Iran to Saudi Arabia. The choice is between the will of the people and their revolutionary uprisings and the conspiracy of counterrevolutionary forces to put an end to these aspirations. 

In between these two forces what has irreversibly changed is the calculus of the democratic will of the people at large, 422 million Arabs and 1.3 billion Muslims. That calculus of liberation is the major momentum of our contemporary history – and it will not be reversed.  

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. The Arabic translation of his Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism is scheduled for publication in 2014.