Arab revolution’s hardest lesson: losing sight of the counterrevolution

The counter-revolution has smashed the dynamics of the democratic uprisings.

The Tunisian General Labour Union helped broker a deal between the Islamist government and the nationalist opposition [AFP]
The Tunisian General Labour Union helped broker a deal between the Islamist government and the nationalist opposition [AFP]

It has now been three years since the sacrifice of Mohamed Bouazizi, in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, sparked a wave of popular protests against the Arab regimes. President Ben Ali was the first one to fall in January 2011, followed the next month by Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. I was then a visiting professor at Columbia University, quite far from my home country and from the Arab world, but not far enough from emotional feedback to this extraordinary development.

My background as a historian soon led me to believe that this was only the beginning of a long-term process, itself rooted in the two-century long and complex period of the Arab renaissance, or Nahda. I was therefore reluctant to use the expression “Arab Spring”, knowing too well that an “Islamist autumn” would eventually replace it in the standardised commentary. I favoured instead “Arab revolution”, not because I thought that revolutions would take place in every Arab country, but because I was convinced that a pan-Arab dynamic was nurturing a regional wave of radical protest.

As early as Spring 2011, I wrote “The Arab revolution, ten lessons about the democratic uprising” to serve not as an academic landmark, but as a basic signpost to keep track of a multi-faceted process that could only become more difficult to interpret and to categorise. Such a leap in the dark was not the attitude a seasoned historian should adopt. But I was hoping Arab historians would benefit from the democratic breakthrough and take a fresh look at their own national narratives. And I believed history was only one of the many social sciences helpful in grasping the global picture of an event of such depth and dimension.

Nearly three years later, I readily confess that my focus on the Arab revolution prevented me from assessing the full potential of the Arab counter-revolution. I thought I had seen it all from Arab despots, their perversity, their brutality, their voracity. But I was still underestimating their ferocity and their readiness to literally burn down their country, in order to cling to absolute power. Bashar al-Assad, by driving one-third of his own population out of their homes, has climbed to the top of this murderous class of Arab tyrants.

But I believe my ten lessons can still be of some help, even though they all have to be complemented and updated. My first lesson, “Arabs are no exception,” stands firm against all the culturalist and racist reasoning that would exclude the Arabs from any democratic prospect. The pugnacity of Arab protesters is a testimony to this collective aspiration to freedom. “Muslims are not only Muslims,” is still valid in a region where Islamic faith gives no clue about the political rationale an individual or collective actor will follow.

The fact that “Anger is power for the younger,” states a striking Arab reality, even though this militant “anger” has failed to materialise into real power on the political and institutional scene. The same can be said for the following lessons, “Social networks work,” and “Leaderless movements can win.” The amorphous nature of the Syrian revolution until today, for instance, is key to understanding both its resilience – despite the merciless repression, and its impotence – in converting its social capital into political gains.

“The alternative to democracy is chaos,” is obviously true in Syria, but also in Libya, where the incapacity of the General Congress to establish effective institutions feeds the militias warlordism. I am also afraid that the Egyptian military coup will only bring more serious disturbances instead of restoring “stability”. My next lesson, “Islamists must choose,” was a warning against the temptation for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or Ennahda in Tunisia to take their coming electoral victories as a blank check, since the Islamist vote was complex and partly volatile.

President Mohamed Morsi contributed to the collapse of the democratic transition by refusing to choose between his party’s logic and national interests. Rachid Ghannouchi was close to falling in the same trap, but the political process was saved in Tunisia by the strong and lasting pressure of the powerful union – Tunisian General Labour Union – that imposed an agreement between the Islamist government and the nationalist opposition.

Such a compromise between the nationalist and Islamist components of the Arab Nahda is key to the fulfilment of its historic promises, which I summarised in “No domino effect in the Renaissance”. This is also why counter-revolutionary forces and powers have a vested interest in exacerbating the polarisation between the Islamist and nationalist currents in various Arab societies.

“Palestine is still the mantra” could easily seem out of touch in a world where the ordeals in Gaza and the impasse of the Palestinian state elicit little public solidarity – the military junta in Egypt has even reached unprecedented levels of demonising Hamas. But the volatility of the Arab public opinion during the Israeli offensive against Gaza in November 2012, proves that popular feelings still run high when it comes to Palestine, a cause now disconnected from the leanings towards Hamas or the PLO.

Finally, “Jihadis could become obsolete,” may sound preposterous when al-Qaeda affiliates are on the offensive in Syria, dig deep into Yemen and loom over Libya. But the conditional was intentionally used in connecting a reverse of the jihadi tide with a breakthrough in the democratic process. A US intelligence veteran in February 2011, confided in me, “A defeat of the democratic movement would give such a boost to jihadi subversion that the counterterrorism budget would have to be tripled – not doubled – just to cope with the magnitude of such a threat.”

That is where we stand in the whole Arab region. More democracy is the key, not a new “war on terror” that would ultimately feed more terrorism. The Arab revolution is only entering its fourth year and its standard slogan, “The people want”, will echo for many years to come.

Jean-Pierre Filiu is professor of Middle East Studies at Sciences Po, Paris School of International Affairs (PSIA). He has held visiting professorships at Columbia and Georgetown Universities. He is the author of “Apocalypse in Islam” (University of California Press), “The Arab Revolution” (Hurst, Oxford University Press) and of the forthcoming “Gaza, a history” (Hurst). 

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