The Arab Spring, 3 Years On

“When people choose
To live by life’s will,
Fate can do nothing but give in;
The night discards its veil,
All shackles are undone.
Whoever never felt
Life celebrating him
Must vanish like the mist;
Whoever never felt
Sweeping through him
The glow of life
Succumbs to nothingness.
This I was told by the secret
Voice of All-Being:
Wind roared in the mountains,
Roared through valleys, under trees:
“My goal, once I have set it,
And put aside all caution,
I must pursue to the [d.
Whoever shrinks from scaling the mountain
Lives out his life in potholes.”
Then it was earth I questioned:
“Mother, do you detest mankind?”
And earth responded:
“I bless people with high ambition,
Who do not flinch at danger.
I curse people out of step with time,
People content to live like stone.
No horizon nurtures a dead bird.
A bee will choose to kiss a living flower.
If my mothering heart
Were not so tender,
The dead would have no hiding place
In those graves yonder.”

So wrote the Arab Shelley, the great Tunisian nationalist poet, Abul Qasim al-Shabi in the early 1900s, while his fellow countrymen were engaged in an anti-colonial uprising against the French invaders. While he passed away almost two decades before Tunisia gained independence, he needn’t have worried: exactly a century after he penned these lyrical lines, it was Tunisians again who proved that the heroic and dignified sacrifice of young Mohamed Bouazizi, who set fire to himself on December 17, 2010 in protest against the injustices and humiliations of the Ben Ali dictatorship was not in vain and that the martyr actually had a hiding place beyond his majestic grave.

Three years on, the remarkable uprisings which began in Tunisia, travelled to Egypt and then – who would have known – spread to the Arab Gulf continue to defy explanation and expectation, of would be theorists and the people alike. And they are still going on as I write these lines, critically in some places like Egypt, Bahrain and Syria.

The Arab uprisings seem to be completing a remarkable century of revolts and revolutions in the Arab world beginning in 1916 when the discredited opportunist Arab royal Sharif Hussein of Mecca sought British help to launch a War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire, amidst World War I. That revolt ironically not only set an unhappy precedent for foreign intervention in the Arab world which continues to this day, but also did not set the stage for any real independence from colonialism. Rather the victors of WWI delivered independence to their chosen satraps as a result of the arbitrary drawing of boundaries – ‘lines in the sand’, to quote a famous British colonialist. From that little-remembered ‘revolt’ down to the various revolts and rebellions, namely the Rif War against the Spanish in Morocco (1920s), Omar al-Mukhtar’s struggles against the Italians in Libya (1930s), the Great Syrian Revolt against the French (1920s), the Iraqi (1920) and Palestinian (1930s) revolts against the British; and then in the second-half of the last century, when the old order that the British and French had bequeathed to the Arab world began to crumble, not least because of British compliance in the partition of Palestine to create the state of Israel in 1948. Throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, nationalist military officers overthrew unpopular and corrupt despots in Egypt, Iraq, north Yemen, Syria, Sudan and Libya, aided by the victories of the Marxist National Liberation Front in south Yemen and the Algerian FLN against the British and French, respectively. Under the outstanding leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the project of Arab unity seemed viable in the face of repeated Israeli, Saudi and Western attempts to dislodge him. It was only after the massive Arab defeat against Israel in 1967 that marked the decline of secular-nationalist politics in the Arab world and the rise of petrol-funded Islamic fundamentalism across the region. The Iranian Revolution in 1979 consolidated this trend, despite being led and participated in by popular left forces.

As the few gains the Arab people had made during the phase of nationalist military regimes in the second half of the twentieth century were slowly frittered away by the morphing of these regimes into decadent dictatorships, only Muammar Qadhafi’s regime in Libya held any promise of the prospects of anti-imperialist resistance against US-Israeli designs in the Arab world, as well as solidarity with the Palestinians, while preserving its independence and an enviable standard of living in a neighborhood slumbering in the long night of a stupor effected by neoliberalism.

The Arab century of revolution begun in 1916 in the twentieth century has now come full-circle with the Arab Spring uprisings begun in late 2010 in the twenty-first century.
In Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, the Islamists have so far sensibly heeded the opposition consisting of secular parties, trade unions and women’s rights groups since winning elections, especially after the assassination of two prominent leftist opposition figures, followed by their resignation en masse, giving way to a consensus candidate. Out of all the countries where dictators have been toppled, Tunisia perhaps remains the only country where the post-revolt process has yielded the sort of consensus about social change which could begin to alter the status quo if left under the tutelage of its people rather than Saudi and Qatari imports.

In Egypt, long the social and cultural barometer of the Arab world, where the former Egyptian army chief General al-Sisi has just won a resounding victory in this week’s presidential elections, the situation is still in flux since the removal of the West’s favourite Arab dictator Hosni Mubarak; and the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) as the frontline electoral force did not present a serious alternative to the Egyptian people: the MB government under Mohamed Morsi, while admittedly following the Turkish model, attempted to do in their one year of government what it took a decade and three election victories for Recep Tayyip Erdogan to do in Turkey. Moreover, they offered no economic or political solution for Egypt’s poor – crushed as they were between Mubarak’s neoliberal infitah policies and the military jackboot – in fact. Signing a loan deal with the International Monetary Fund, refusing to try members of the country’s security and police establishments for their brutality during the anti-Mubarak protest movement and not revoking the humiliating Israeli-Palestinian ‘peace’ treaty. The balance sheet of grievances against the MB government was long and helped to mobilize 32 million protesters against its policies this July. In the absence of any organized opposition, it was the Egyptian army which seized the moment and took power for itself. Like in the immediately post-Mubarak period in 2011, the new regime called for a new constitution and fresh elections in the beginning of the next year. The military regime showed little patience with opposition whether from the right or left, albeit the persecution of the former more so, with an uneasy consensus emerging in Egyptian society over the MB as the bigger and more dangerous threat. The most significant news to emerge from the continuing Egyptian winter was the death of longtime revolutionary working-class poet Ahmed Fouad Negm – who was jailed by Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak, and barely tolerated by Morsi – on December 3 last year, overshadowed by the passing away of the iconic Nelson Mandela in the same week, just a couple of days later. The just-consolidated military dispensation in Cairo under al-Sisi would do well to heed Negm’s warning from a not-so-distant past, written from prison in the heat of another uprising by the poor against Mubarak’s predecessor:

“And ask
All the learned men in our country,
Ask every tower and every minaret,
Ask every friend,
And every child,
If any of them had seen
The signs of resurrection
Before the good tidings
Of 18 January
When Egypt rose up,
Cursing hunger, humiliation,
Injustice and its rulers,
After it had been believed
To have been dead.”
And again, a year later:
“That prisons are only walls,
That ideas are like light,
That light can jump over a thousand walls,
And that walls never hold back the spirit.
And let it be known by all
That injustice has grown old,
That the gates of the prison are weak,
That the handles of the gates have disappeared,
And that soon all this will just be memories,
And that these promises will be fulfilled tomorrow,
And that all your days, and ours, will be filled with light.”

The treatment in the media that was reserved for Yemen and Bahrain has continued three years after ferocious uprisings began there. Perhaps it has to do with a little-discussed aspect of the Saudi counter-revolution which has now firmly entrenched itself not only on the Arabian peninsula but in Syria as well. Both Yemen and Bahrain occupy a strategic neighborhood. Apart from being Saudi neighbours, both have the additional misfortune of being important imperial theaters of a projected war against Iran: Yemen, like Pakistan has been long-involved in the US-led War on Terror powered by drone attacks, while Bahrain is host to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet. So when energetic uprisings broke out in both countries following the toppling of Arab despots elsewhere, it was conceivable that the Saudi princelings would do everything in their power to forestall successful revolutions from taking place in a region they have long considered their backyard. Thus the patient removal of Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sana’a was followed by Saudi-American maneuverings to enable his deputy to take over effortlessly after being ‘endorsed’ in a referendum, while a national dialogue, ironically funded by the US has so far failed to include dissenting voices from the formerly socialist south Yemen. Without any respite from continuing drone attacks, Yemen may again break-up into two countries, which would be a great tragedy for the only country in the unsavoury Saudi neighborhood to have a genuine tradition of parliamentary democracy and an ancient identity pre-dating Arab conquest.

If Saudi-American designs in Yemen were achieved by prevention of a more radical alternative emerging there, in Bahrain the same outcome has been achieved, first by crushing the popular movement through direct Saudi military intervention and then deliberate sowing of sectarianism, buttressing the power of its fellow Wahabi royals in Manama. The Bahraini jails are full of dissidents and doctors; despite the fact that protests are still going on unreported, the counter-revolution has firmly asserted itself in Bahrain. One small mercy though is that the Bahraini elite has so far resisted being assimilated into a twin Wahabi ‘confederation’ with its generous neighbor, ostensibly to fight ‘terrorism’ more effectively but whose purpose would eventually be soft annexation to the latter as its fourteenth province.

Libya offers an interesting yet tragic case of a Western intervention in another oil-rich country like Iraq, but at a time when the Arab uprisings were in full-swing. However the overthrow of Qadhafi was not achieved swiftly, proving that he did in fact have deep social roots in the Libyan population. While the supposed ‘massacre’ which those favouring military intervention in Libya had so confidently predicted Qadhafi was going to carry out in Benghazi never happened, the opposition to Qadhafi utterly compromised itself by openly calling for armed assistance from the West. Qadhafi could have never been overthrown from within without such intervention by NATO; however the seeds of his demise were laid much earlier when he gave up Libya’s arsenal of nuclear weapons and agreed to be rehabilitated in the West as the Arab pioneer of the Blairite ‘Third Way’ in exchange for pottage. Be as it may, the Libyan intervention was ostensibly undertaken to defeat the initial momentum of the Arab uprisings and to restore the dead-weight of counter-revolution, ably assisted by Saudi approval to get rid of their long-term bête noire in exchange for American covert support of its own armed intervention in Bahrain.

Which is why what is currently happening in Syria should give pause to enthusiasts of another foreign intervention-in-the-making. Syria does not have oil like Libya, but it does share a border with Israel and a strategic axis of resistance in alliance with Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon. It has historically been a bastion of Arab nationalism like Egypt and Iraq, which is why the fate of the uprising as well as any prospects of foreign intervention there will determine the fate of the Arab world and the significant non-Arab countries in its neighborhood, namely Israel, Iran and Turkey in the years to come. Bashar Assad inherited his presidential mantle from Assad senior and started off as a likeable ruler, in tune with some of the wishes and hopes of his people; unlike other Arab rulers, he has not emerged from a military background and has not been in power for several decades. Also, Syria has historically had a strong civil society and a powerful communist opposition, so that when the uprising broke out in Syria, an intelligent dialogue which would help to avoid the fate of Saddam Hussein and Qadhafi was a realistic solution. However the Syrian opposition’s own disunity and quick infiltration by US, Saudi, Qatari and Turkish-trained-and-funded Islamist mercenaries has meant that the very future of Syria as a militantly secular Arab state in a puritanical neighbourhood is now at stake.

What is also distressing is the fact that Aljazeera’s steady degeneration into a mouthpiece for Saudi-American capital has led to the situation in Syria being played out in sectarian terms, similar to the uprising in Bahrain. While it’s true that an Alawite-Shiite minority rules Syria, whereas the majority is Sunni, the only real division is between those who want to protect Saudi-American-Israeli interests and those who want to resist this by protecting Syria’s sovereignty vis-à-vis its strategic axis. Early this year, the unverified possibility of the Syrian regime using sarin gas against its own people was utilized by Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US to raise the clarion call for regime change in Damascus. The only explanation for such a foolish accusation would be desperation to thwart the Syrian regime’s victories against the rebels on the ground, and to target Iran. With the possibility of a Western intervention in both Damascus and Tehran stalled for now, following Iran’s détente with the West over its nuclear program, it would be interesting to see in the coming months whether Syria’s abject surrender of its weapons arsenal follows a doomed trajectory similar to those of the erstwhile rulers in Baghdad and Tripoli.

Three years on, I would still hesitate to call these momentous events in the Arab world as a revolution. A revolution by definition is a complete upheaval of the existing economic, political and social order. That has clearly not happened yet in the Arab world despite the fact that the toppling of Mubarak was the biggest blow to Western foreign policy in the region since the failed 1956 expedition to topple Nasser. The Arab uprisings clearly haven’t produced organic social movements with political and economic programs to take power and emancipate the people like has happened in Latin America at the beginning of the present century.

The role of Israel as the region’s dominant expansionist power together with the Saudi counter-revolution in the Gulf, the Levant and North Africa, both buttressed by the United States, rule out such a possibility in the near future. In her book On Revolution published exactly 50 years ago and written in the wake of the defeat of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, the political theorist Hannah Arendt, not known for her sympathy to Marxism, contrasted the fate of the French Revolution, which according to her ‘ended in disaster, but made world history’ with that of the American Revolution, which was ‘triumphantly successful, but remained an event of little more than local importance.’ Without agreeing with Arendt’s rather crude and inaccurate binaries, the Arabs today face the same stark choice: either to make world history and be triumphantly successful, or to end in disaster and be consigned to mere local importance.
And therefore, when the Arab spring follows through to a tough winter, it is to the poets that one turns to, who give hope to the people in bad times. To quote the late Negm who dwelled on the ‘consolations of poetry’:

“Oh comrades,
You who taught the stones strength,
I am calling out against
And boredom.
You who can speed up the light of dawn
And its advent,
Listen attentively
To a singer’s cry
Emanating from the bottom of nothingness:
For only through unity will the poet be joined by the people.

Raza Naeem is a social scientist, literary critic, translator and longtime political activist of the Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party (CMKP), engaged as Research Fellow in the Graduate Institute of Development Studies at the Lahore School of Economics in Lahore. He has been trained in Political Economy from the University of Leeds in UK, and in Middle Eastern History and Anthropology from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, USA. He is presently working on two books, namely, on the contradictions of bourgeois democracy in Pakistan and the Arab Spring in Yemen, as well as translating Saadat Hasan Manto’s Letters to Uncle Sam and other postcolonial essays from the Urdu. He has recently been awarded a prestigious British Council and Charles Wallace Trust Fellowship 2013-14 to continue his work on Manto’s postcolonial essays in the UK He can be reached