Arabs and the long revolution
A talk by Brian Whitaker at the Centre for Applied Human Rights, University of York, 18 May 2011.
THE POPULAR UPRISING that began in Tunisia last December came as a surprise in one sense, but in another sense it was no surprise at all. Rather like an earthquake, we could be pretty sure it was going to happen, though nobody could say exactly when.
It was obvious, or ought to have been, that at some point something would have to give – and the same can be said of all the Arab countries. If the regimes don’t transform themselves radically over the next few years, eventually they are going to fall.
The focus at the moment is almost entirely on the regimes, but we shouldn’t just be looking at the politics. Arab countries not only have repressive, authoritarian political systems; they have repressive, authoritarian societies which will have to change too.
Ten or 20 years from now, the Middle East is going to be a very different place. This may sound like a bold prediction, but one way to see what’s coming is to look at the age profile of Arab populations. In Yemen, 43% are under the age of 15. In Syria, the figure is 35%, in Egypt 33%, in Oman 31% and in Saudi Arabia 29%. For comparison, the figure in the EU is just 15% – less than half what it is in many of the Arab countries.
So there is a huge youth bulge coming up. One enormous problem will be how to provide work for them but, perhaps more importantly, as a result of increased contact with the rest of the world the authorities are also going to be dealing with a generation which has different attitudes and aspirations. The change can be seen already among Arabs in their twenties. They are much more globally-aware than previous generations and they see how their own lives are restricted in comparison with elsewhere.
So far, we have witnessed full-scale uprisings in five of the 22 Arab countries – Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and Syria, plus major disturbances in Bahrain and warning signs in Algeria, Morocco and Oman. A lot of media reports, especially in the United States, describe the street protests as “pro-democracy demonstrations”, but that is really viewing them through a western lens.
If you look at the activists’ slogans, hurriya (freedom) is certainly one of the buzz words but “democracy” as such scarcely figures at all, even though democracy may be one of the things that freedom implies.
The most popular Egyptian slogan, later transferred to Syria, was “The people want the fall of the regime”. The Arabic word for “regime” is nidham, but it also means “system” and this wider meaning is what the protesters are really talking about: not just getting rid of unpopular leaders but the whole system associated with them – the corruption, the cronyism, the repression, the lack of accountability, and so on.
We also hear protesters demanding “respect” and “dignity”. Among other things, that means not being shot at or set upon by thugs when they try to express their views. But it’s also, more broadly, a call to be treated like grown-up citizens.
In my book, What’s Really Wrong with the Middle East, I argued that Arab regimes are basically modelled on traditional concepts of the Arab family, with a father figure at the head who knows what is best for his children (or at least thinks he does) and whose authority should not be challenged.
This can even be seen in the language and imagery used by the regimes themselves, including the idea that the head of state is a shepherd guiding his flock.
So these calls for respect and dignity may sound quite bland but they are actually very subversive. Though not fully articulated at present, they point to an assertion of rights as citizens and a refusal to be treated like children or sheep.
When researching my book three years ago, I found high levels of discontent and frustration almost everywhere – especially about corruption and privilege, and a high-handed style of government which is oppressive in some areas while failing in other areas to tackle the problems that most people regard as important.
What I also found was a strong feeling of despair – that nothing much was going to change and there was little that ordinary Arabs could do about that.
In fact, though, if you looked closely enough, resistance was already building up – often in the form of individuals or small groups fighting isolated battles. Elsewhere, most notably in Egypt, strikes by factory workers and street demonstrations had become a common phenomenon and of course Islamists were active in most countries since agitation through the mosques was difficult for regimes to suppress entirely.
The uprising in Tunisia shifted the public mood in the other Arab countries very dramatically. It demonstrated the possibility of change and was deeply empowering.
The significance of this should not be underestimated, because the public mood since the military defeat of 1967 had been largely one of resignation, where Arabs saw themselves as victims of other countries’ power games and looked to outsiders to solve their problems rather than seeking their own solutions.
As I said earlier, no one can predict exactly when an uprising will occur. Discontent can build up gradually over a long period and then suddenly reach a tipping-point. It needs sufficient numbers of people to decide that they have finally had enough, plus some kind of event, or series of events, to trigger it off.
The trigger event can actually be something quite small. There’s a parable in the Qur’an about the great dam of Marib in Yemen which collapsed, causing a great social upheaval, after a rat dislodged a single stone. In Tunisia, it started with a minor altercation between officials and Mohamed Bouazizi, the unemployed fruit seller. In Syria, it was the arrest of some kids for painting graffiti.
What we are seeing here is a particular kind of revolution. It is not a battle of ideologies or a struggle for power where one faction tries to supplant another. It is basically a case of ordinary people asserting themselves and reclaiming their citizenship. It’s about establishing a new kind of relationship between governments and the people they govern: government by consent rather than government by diktat.
One reason why so many people failed to see this coming is that they were looking in the wrong place. A couple of years ago, I wrote an article suggesting that the real drivers of change in the Middle East were not reformist politicians or opposition parties and similar movements, but informal groups of individuals – and I gave the examples of women, gay people and bloggers. My point was that just by asserting their rights they are challenging the status quo in much more fundamental ways than any opposition party.
In the case of women, I wasn’t necessarily talking about organised feminist activism. Simply changing the power structures within families also starts to change the way people view other power structures that replicate those of the traditional family, whether in education, the workplace, or in government. Even something as basic as women going out to work, if enough people do it, can make a difference.
In Arab societies, people are discriminated – both for and against – largely according to accidents of birth: by gender, by family, by tribe, by sect.
Although Arabs in general have a strong sense of justice and injustice, I think it’s fair to say that the principle of equal rights, regardless of the circumstances of a person’s birth, has not really been taken on board and internalised. These are highly stratified societies where people are routinely penalised or privileged because of their family background, their tribe, their sect, gender, and so on. And to a large extent it’s still accepted as normal behaviour.
Women, as the largest disadvantaged group, can play a major role in overcoming this and helping smaller disadvantaged groups to do the same. Once the equality principle is accepted for women it becomes easier to apply it to others.
Gay activism is a very recent development. It began in Lebanon about eight years ago and still hasn’t reached most of the Arab countries. But the numbers are less important than what gay people represent, once their existence is acknowledged.
In a patriarchal system, where masculinity is highly valued and gender roles are rigidly defined, any deviation from the sexual “norms” and expected gender roles is not only subversive but is regarded as extremely threatening – as illustrated by the vigilante killings in Iraq.
As far as bloggers are concerned–- and I’m really talking here about anyone who uses the internet to exchange information and ideas, Twitter, Facebook and everything else – their role in the recent uprisings is much debated.
The main point, though, is what they represent. The traditional “ideal” of an Arab society is one that is strictly ordered, where everyone knows their place and nobody speaks out of turn. Basically, you do what is required of you and no more. You keep your head down, don’t make waves and let those who supposedly know better get on with running things. The significance of bloggers is that they want none of that. They are engaged in what’s happening and they’ll speak out of turn as much as they like.
So the Arab uprisings have initiated political change within a more long-term process of social change. They will probably accelerate social change, but we shouldn’t be misled by the speed with which Ben Ali and Mubarak were toppled. It’s going to be a lengthy process.
Meanwhile, the grassroots, almost anarchic, nature of the uprisings – though admirable in many ways – does present a problem for post-revolutionary transitions. There is still no clear sense of where it is heading politically.
The old opposition parties are largely discredited – in Yemen there is a huge gulf between the official opposition and many of the street protesters, and turmoil continues on a smaller scale in Tunisia and Egypt. So at the moment there is a political vacuum and a very fluid situation.
Considering all the attention that has been given to the rise of Islamist movements in recent years, religion had played a surprisingly small part in the uprisings so far, and secular voices have been surprisingly prominent.
This has prompted speculation that the region may be moving into a post-Islamist phase – and I think it is probably true. In the past, Islamist movements may have appeared more important than they actually were because they had some advantages compared with more secular opposition movements. For example, the mosques provided them with a basic organisational infrastructure and in Egypt the Mubarak regime liked to portray itself as the only thing preventing a takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood.
In the post-revolutionary stage, its likely that religious parties will operate legally and may have some electoral success because of their organisational strength. However, it’s doubtful whether they will have enough support to govern single-handedly.
There is also a fair amount of evidence from a variety of Arab countries that Islamist parties, on the whole, are not seeking to govern. They are not seeking to capture the state in the way that Marxist parties did, but are seeking to Islamise society, and so they are more likely to be parties of influence than parties of government.
This obviously becomes important when we consider the prospects for social change but in that area too, if the present mood of anti-authoritarianism continues, they are likely to have a battle on their hands.
In the short term, as the immediate euphoria over the fall of dictators subsides, we shouldn’t hold out too many expectations. The most likely outcome is the emergence of flawed democracies – far from ideal, but better than what went before, and a foundation that can be built upon.
Nor should we assume that the elements seeking change are necessarily progressive, secular and liberal – though vociferous elements in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings certainly were. Discontent with the regimes brought together a lot of disparate sections of the population in a temporary, tactical alliance but they still have to find ways of coming to terms with their differences.
It’s worth noting that Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian who started the revolution by setting fire to himself, had reportedly been slapped by a female official. That part of the story may not actually be true but the anger it aroused at the time included this extra dimension of an insult to male pride. In other words, popular indignation was based, at least in part, on the old-fashioned values of a society where women are kept in their place.
On the wider issue of social change, most of the battles still lie ahead and the recent sectarian conflicts in Egypt give a hint of what may be in store. I’m not suggesting they can’t be resolved, but so many social issues have been kept under wraps by the old regimes that they have to be brought out into the open before they can be tackled.
In the case of the Gulf monarchies, where public acceptance of the rulers’ legitimacy tends to be stronger than in the Arab republics, the battleground may turn out to be more social than political.
Looking at Saudi Arabia in particular, it seems to me that the struggle will be more about tradition versus modernity, about the character of Saudi society and the role of religion, than about political leadership – not so much a case of the people united against the regime as the people divided amongst themselves over the kind of society they want.
All this means it’s likely to get very messy, over quite a long period. Following the quick successes of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, other regimes – in Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen – have been fighting back vigorously and violently. That is not surprising, because they have so much to lose, but it prompts newspaper articles asking questions like “Has the Arab spring stalled?”
That’s what comes from looking at the process too narrowly, and focusing too much on the short term and the regime-change aspects. Nobody can seriously expect it to progress in a smooth straight line. Obviously there will be setbacks, but the process can’t be reversed entirely. Demonstrations may be suppressed to remove an immediate threat but the forces in the background that are driving change are beyond the regimes’ control.