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Revolutions are messy
But we shouldn't despair of the Arab awakening

 
Al-bab
20 January 2014
Brian Whitaker
 
In a column for the Independent last week, Robert Fisk wrote:
"Has ever the Arab awakening - the Arab 'Spring' if we were to believe the nonsense spouted at the time - looked more desperate, more bloody, more hopeless, more despairing than it does today?
 
"... the awful truth - and it has to be stated at last - is that the Arab revolutions have brought about unspeakable slaughter, an unprecedented flood of refugees and economic disaster. As a newspaper seller put it simply to me in Cairo a few weeks ago, 'the revolution was great, what followed was terrible'."
Although this over-simplifies the picture to some extent, it does reflect a current of disillusionment both inside and outside the Middle East. But perhaps this is only to be expected.
 
In Tunisia three years ago, President Ben Ali was driven out of office swiftly and relatively easily. Ben Ali was taken by surprise but since then other regimes have been better prepared and have been fighting back.
 
Revolutions are often messy and can take years to play out, with all sorts of unpredictable turns along the way. Three years into the French revolution Robert Fisk would probably have been gloomy about that too, and revolutionaries who stormed the Bastille in the heady days of July 1789 might well have been reflecting on what they had unleashed. By 1792 there were food riots in Paris, France was at war with Austria and Prussia, King Louis XVI was still on the throne and the guillotine had just been adopted as the official method of execution.
 
Ultimately, though, the French revolution - bloody and messy as it was - came to be recognised as one of the key events that shaped modern Europe and the Arab awakening will do the same for the Middle East.
 
Today, Arabs are paying a heavy price for decades of enforced "stability" which western governments short-sightedly encouraged. The result was political stagnation where issues that ought to have been addressed - sectarianism, corruption and lack of accountability, to name just a few - were left festering beneath the surface. Now that the dam has burst they are out in the open, and all needing urgent attention.
 
It has also become more apparent that getting rid of unpopular leaders is not a solution in itself. There is still the problem of the state apparatus they left behind, and transforming that is a formidable task.
 
So the natural reaction of many Arabs, contemplating the present turmoil, is to hanker after certainty and familiarity - even if the familiar in this case happens to be a police state. With that, at least they knew where they stood: keep your head down, don't make waves, and usually you could get by.
 
We have seen this in Egypt over the last few months: an attempt to return to the old (known) world of Arab politics. How long this will last is anybody's guess but it's difficult to believe there will be no more twists in the Egyptian revolution: much as some may try to turn the clock back to the start, it probably won't happen - because too much has already changed.
 
Last week two items in particular caught my attention. One was an essay by Peter Harling and Sarah Birke for the Arabist blog which is worth reading in full. The other was an interview with
Khaled Fahmy, professor of history at the American University in Cairo.
 
Asked if the Egyptian revolution has failed, Fahmy replied:
"No, the Egyptian revolution has just started. We've just seen the initial phase ... The challenges are huge because the old regime has not collapsed - if anything, it has managed to position itself - but I think the genie is out of the bottle. I don't think it is possible to revert back to the situation before January 2011."
Although there are some similarities between Egypt's current revolution and earlier ones, its scale in terms of the numbers participating and the range of issues tackled is unprecedented, Fahmy said:
"The scale and the depth of this revolution is phenomenal. And the sign of it is that we have ... two presidents who have been deposed and they're still alive, and the future has not been settled ...
 
"In terms of what this revolution is against - again, there are very deep, historical roots of it that go as deep as the very nature of this modern Egyptian state - this aloof, patriarchal, remote state that claims to deliver goods and services for the people, but is not held accountable to them.
 
"And I think what Egyptians are revolting against is exactly this nature of the state. It is not only police brutality, and it's not only Mubarak, and it's not only the Muslim Brotherhood. It's something that goes at the very nature of the Egyptian state."
In this situation, focusing on political leaders and how to choose one from another obscures the main point. The question is not so much who governs but how they are to govern and the common demand, heard in Arab countries that have not yet seen uprisings as well as those that have, is for governments that respond to the needs and wishes of their people.
 
The picture that Harling and Birke set out in their essay is one of enormous confusion, which they aptly describe as "a mixture of gridlock and vacuum". On the positive side, though, they also make a lot of important points. Here are a few of them:
  • "The region [now] has an unprecedented level of awareness ... The utter incompetence of traditional elites, the vacuity of promises of reform, the final collapse of long-eroding social contracts, the pluralistic nature of societies, the exclusionary character of their political representatives and sectarian instincts are just some of the things on display ... Issues are discussed openly, if aggressively. In this sense, a public space has appeared and widened; and no amount of repression seems to be bringing it to a close."
     
  • "The challenging, slowly and painfully, of all the old narratives - pan-Arabist, nationalist, various shades of Islamism, anti-imperialism, "the resistance" - is ultimately positive because none of them work. They are used reflexively to fill a vacuum, to cover up for a lack of programme, vision or ethic, and they are constantly belied and undermined by reality. Events, in a sense, are calling every narrative's bluff."
     
  • "The region is emerging from a century in which a succession of European imperialism, the Cold War and US hegemony denied it any genuine opportunity to define its own future. It is only just beginning to realise it will have to sort out many of its problems by itself ... Foreign interference has left a legacy that will continue to bear down, and meddling from outside will not end entirely, but the trend points toward a more autonomous Arab world."
     
  • "Today's generation [opf Arabs] was born as all political systems essentially went bankrupt and is coming to age in an era when certitudes are being challenged and undone. These young men and women often have a strikingly different outlook to their parents. For one thing, the political culture that plagues the region has less of a hold over them ... Just as the legacy of existing political structures and cultures won't soon be swept away, this generational shift will only slowly come to bear. For now, those who have more to lose than to gain remain an obstacle to change, but that will not last forever."
     
Al-Bab 2014
 
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