John Keane | Revolution in the Arab world
post-template-default,single,single-post,postid-9091,single-format-standard,do-etfw,ajax_fade,page_not_loaded,,wpb-js-composer js-comp-ver-4.1.2,vc_responsive


Revolution in the Arab world

  |   Articles & Essays JK, Civil Society, Democracy Field Notes, Democracy in the 21st Century, Media and Democracy, Religion and Politics   |   1 Comment

Great revolutionary convulsions typically trigger long-lasting reflections on their causes and consequences. The European tradition of political thinking harbours many well-known examples, including Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Harold Laski’s Reflections on the Revolution of Our Times (1943) and Ralf Dahrendorf’s Reflections on the Revolution in Europe (1990). There are not yet any comparable published reflections on the volcanic events that have suddenly rocked the Arab-speaking world during the past six months. There ought to be. Still in their infancy, the upheavals have shaken practically every political regime within a swathe of territory stretching from Morocco through Egypt and the Gulf states to the Levant and beyond, to Iraq and Iran. The lives of millions of people within this region are changing; often for the first time, women and men have jumped, danced, kissed strangers, and sung in the streets. There is talk of dignity and justice, freedom and democracy. Dictators and ruling groups are in a pickle; they are on the run or in custody, suffering nervous breakdowns or fighting back like maniacs, using terrible weapons.

Nobody knows what will happen next; only a deity could predict with certainty what the near-distant future holds. That, of course, is the trademark of revolutions: they unchain struggles for freedom and power manoeuvres that inject great uncertainty into the world. Some things don’t change; but many things usually do. Revolutions inject freshness into people’s lives. They become different people. The blood in their veins flows more freely. They hunger after free speech. They hear with different ears and see the world through different eyes.

The transformations that have begun in the Arab world in recent months are admittedly still in their infancy, but already they have whipped up a great deal of excited speculation tinged with doubts and touches of vapid confusion. Controversies about their present dynamics and long-term significance are flourishing. That is why there’s an urgent need to look carefully at their trajectory, to assess their overall contours, initially by asking after their originality. Are big things happening that have never before happened elsewhere in dramatic upheavals of this kind? Do these popular rebellions display novel qualities that will have profound long-term effects on the peoples and institutions of the region – consequences that might impact significantly on the whole world?

The disciplined refusal of violence

Arguably, they do. The disciplined refusal of violence by citizens is striking. Strictly speaking, these revolutions are not revolutions, if by that word is meant an insurrectionary transformation of state power relations fuelled by violent protest from the streets. A new word is needed to describe these remarkable events of recent months. They can be called ‘refolutions’, radical refusals of the old choice between reform and revolution and the familiar revolutionary logic of using violence to capture and dismantle the imagined heartlands of state power. Judged comparatively, the popular rebellions within the Arab world take the 1989 spirit of non-violent ‘velvet’ rebellions in central-eastern Europe to a higher level. Faced by much worse state violence and terror, the Arab uprisings are remarkably sensitive to the grave dangers and high costs of using violent means to get their way.

For the moment, citizens of the Arab world have captured the moral high ground by choosing life over death. Millions have marched to demand the fall of regimes that kill their own people. Government infrastructures of violence are no longer legitimate. Demonstrators chanting ‘No more fear’ and ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’ and ‘Allahu Akbar’ have risked everything, including death by random gunfire from state troops and goons camouflaged in civilian clothing; in more than a few settings, knowing that their situation is all or nothing, demonstrators have been prepared to march on troops they know will surely shoot them dead.

The uprisings have drawn the poison of state violence. They were triggered by episodes of humiliating cruelty. In Tunisia, Mohamad Bouazizi’s alleged slapping twice by a woman police officer in the streets of Sidi Bouzid and cold-blooded police shootings of protesters and the tear-gassing of women and children in Menzel Bouzaïene were among the earliest examples. The decision by citizens to react to such violence using the chosen tactic of peaceful solidarity on the streets has had the effect of dramatising and publicising previously hidden forms of state violence. The popular uprisings are certainly abreactions to police states but what is important to see is their unusual awareness of the limits of violence. These uprisings are not by nature pacifist, and they should not be judged as such. There is widespread awareness that under extreme circumstances measures of violence, for instance throwing stones at the police, is necessary for venting frustrations or defeating the terrible means of violence wielded by the ruling regimes. The Libyan armed struggle is currently the clearest example, but even there the old revolutionary fetish of violence, reigns of terror and calls for blood revenge, for stringing up hated dictators, has been replaced by an awareness of the need to use violence in measured ways, and by civilised talk of human rights violations and criminal court proceedings.

Civility and public space

The attention paid to civility is unusual; the uprisings are victories for the theory and practice of al-mutjama’ al-madani (civil society). Judged by global standards, this attachment to the ideals of civil society is nothing new; but it helps explain why efforts to construct and defend public space have unusual strategic significance for these refolutions. Past revolutions witnessed the storming of the presumed Bastilles of power: government headquarters, presidential palaces, post offices and telecommunications buildings were the usual targets of public action. The Arab upheavals reject the principle of sovereign power presumed by those old tactics. The redefinition by citizens of places like Boulevard Habib Bourguiba, Tahrir Square and Pearl Square as open public spaces is something original. Sites of refusal of the whole idea of concentrated violent power, these public spaces mean different things to many people. They function as reminders that the power of the powerful ultimately rests upon the consent of the powerless. The new public spaces are gatherings of the afraid, calls for others to join the resistance, places where the act of gathering consoles, discharges fears and raises hopes. The public sites of resistance are zones of joy and happiness fed by poetry, speeches, music and literature; spaces of unfettered political discussion and the feverish making of political plans. They are also broadcasting studios that transmit signals to the wider region and, ultimately, to the whole world; in effect, they are political commentary boxes which issue calls for others to take note of their demands, to witness their calls for justice and democratic freedom.

The struggles for public space have proved infectious throughout the region, so that in the Syrian city of Homs tens of thousands of protesters quite recently took to the streets and occupied Clock Tower Square, pitched tents and declared their intention to stay, with the whole world watching, its citizens chanting, ‘a sit in, a sit-in, until the government falls!’ The tactic reveals the unusual degree of public awareness of the political importance of digital media. These are not events fuelled by typewriters, audio cassettes and samizdat publishers, or by struggles by opposition leaders for access to microphones and television and radio broadcasts. Compared with previous grand-scale upheavals, including the crushed uprisings of ’89 in China, the Arab refolutions are the subject of unprecedented media coverage. Thanks to outlets such as Al Jazeera and the BBC, Reuters, al-Arabiya and the New York Times, never before have so many people witnessed dramatic events of this kind on such a global scale.

Equally novel is the fact that multi-media tools and messages are vital parts of the power struggles that are going on. Citizens have understood that news is by definition powerful information not yet known to others, which helps explain the remarkable first-time experiments in the arts of gathering and circulating news. Huge crowds in Alexandria watched themselves live on satellite television, hoping that the coverage would protect them from annihilation by the police or military; with help from networks operated by diasporas, tweets and blogs and video footage uploaded onto the Internet describe situations both terrible and hopeful in powerful narratives; everything, even the shooting of protesters and innocent bystanders at point-blank range, is recorded for posterity.

The public rhetoric of these upheavals is surely unique. In matters of political language, there are two striking contrasts with the European events of 1989. The Arab upheavals have been fuelled by protests by the wretched of the earth. They are (so far) the biggest rebellions against the pauperisation and injustices produced by the long wave of deregulation of rapacious global markets. Extreme concentrations of private wealth and market injustice are anathema for millions of citizens; so a push has begun for independent trade unions, justice for small farmers and uncorrupted local councils elected by the inhabitants of slums.

The striking refusal of nationalism within these and other initiatives again separates the refolutions from the upheavals of central-eastern Europe. Nationalist impulses are weakened by various factors. There is plenty of patriotism framed by vibrant local dialects. The common language of Arabic and commonly-shared traditions play a significant role. There is a vibrant sense of the importance of spreading news and building cross-border interactions and the need for people of one country to learn from citizens of other countries. The widespread perception of a common opponent (police state dictatorships backed by the West) plays a role, as does the deliberate production and circulation of a common democratic rhetoric of political symbols and tactics.

Religious secularity

The fountains of religiosity play an equally critical role in dampening the fires of nationalism. The convulsions in the Arab world are neither ‘secular’ nor ‘religious’. They are in fact refusals of the old Orientalist prejudice still indulged by many Western intellectuals, journalists and politicians: the belief that ‘secularism’ is a condition of citizenship, that Muslim peoples are not fit for democracy, that their religion is founded on ‘the cult of submission’ (Niall Ferguson) and that perforce they are suckers for ‘fundamentalism’ and al-Qaeda-type terrorism.

Such prejudice runs deep. In the analysis of democracy, its taproots are traceable to the nineteenth-century French politician and writer Alexis de Tocqueville, otherwise famous for his rich defence of democracy in the young republic of the United States. Tocqueville minced no words when it came to Muslims. He was in no doubt that whereas in America the spirit of Christianity had fertilised the growth of a bustling society and solid democratic institutions, the Muslim faith had deeply infected its believers with the linked diseases of materialism and fatalism. So decadent was Islam that ‘the great violence of conquest’ perpetrated by European colonisers in countries like Algeria was as necessary and justified as the ‘smaller acts of violence’ that would be needed to maintain such colonies. Tocqueville considered that ‘there have been few religions in the world as deadly to men as that of Mohammed’; and he was sure that it was ‘the principal cause of the decadence so visible today in the Muslim world’. Democracy was impossible in Muslim societies. The only alternative was a two-tier political order: a top layer governed by men who lived democratically by the principles of Christian civilisation, and a bottom layer of institutions inhabited by natives left to wallow in the backward laws and customs of the Qur’an.

The events of the past six months have turned such bigotry on its head. The great upheavals have rendered obsolete the old normatively-fuelled and clichéd controversy of whether or not Islam is ‘compatible’ with democracy. The refolutions also call into question the old European dualism of ‘secularism’ versus ‘religion’. Calls for the ‘separation’ of the state and religion have been as rare as their opposite, demands (such as those by Yemeni cleric Sheik Abdul Majid al-Zindani) for the replacement of existing forms of government with an Islamic state. Symbolised by the church bells rung during Muslim funeral rites, and by the veiled and unveiled women standing shoulder-to-shoulder with bearded and clean-shaven men protesting on the streets, the refolutions are rather infused by the spirit of religious secularity.

The oxymoron is needed to make sense of the chosen imprecision, the deliberate fuzziness and wilful spirit of religious compromise at work in these upheavals. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s lightning-fast rejection of Ali Khamenei’s Friday prayer sermon (February 9th) describing the Arab events as a replay of the Iranian revolution, as an ‘awakening of the Islamic Egyptian people’, counts as an example of this new spirit of religious secularity. Rashid Ghannouchi’s affirmation of the principle of religious compromise and respect for worldliness points in much the same direction. ‘We have continuously defended the right of women and men to choose their lifestyle’, he said last week. ‘We are against the imposition of the head scarf in the name of Islam; and we are against the banning of the head scarf in the name of secularism or modernity.’

When refusing oligarchy makes history

When the histories of the great Arab convulsions come to be written, will the various novelties listed above be noted, addressed and assessed? Hopefully the historians of the future will underscore their originality, even if it turns out that they are crushed into insignificance by subsequent events. So what are the chances that the breakthroughs will survive, perhaps to make their long-term mark on the region? We cannot yet say.

The tough job of transforming corrupted police states into power-sharing democracies that foster social and environmental justice has barely begun. Electoral systems, competitive political parties, feisty parliaments, independent judiciaries and constitutions fit for democracy have yet to be built. Uncorrupted watch-dog and guide-dog institutions, independently-minded scrutiny bodies that are essential conditions of monitory democracy, are weak. The civilising principles of religious secularity, their refusal of religious and secularist dogmatism, remain untested in practice.

The situation is complicated by the sobering fact that many not-so-new forces are on the loose. The power of the military and disaffected elites to wreck a transition to democracy remains. Memories of the terrible uncivil war in Algeria are plentiful but so, too, are stocks of weapons, some in private hands. Poverty of heart-breaking proportions and unemployment, particularly among young people, are rife. Healthcare and housing and other basic public service amenities are in short supply; chains of market production and distribution are broken. There are victims of domestic violence and shattered and dysfunctional families. The list is long, and could grow longer, which is why answers to the question of whether and to what extent the positive innovations of the Arab refolutions will leave their mark on the peoples and institutions of the region, or have effects on the wider world, strongly depends on high-quality political leadership.

Pundits have said that the absence of clearly-defined leadership is the fundamental weakness of these Arab rebellions. The lack of leadership is traced to internal divisions and to the fact that the rebellions bear the marks of the regimes that forced alternative political elites into exile, or underground. There is truth in these observations, yet they understate a final novelty of these upheavals: their refusal of oligarchy in all its different forms, including purist ‘Salafi jihadism’ (Gilles Kepel) and Bin Laden-type conspiracies, and their insistence on the political advantages of multiple leadership, on the importance of dispersing power during attempts to democratise, so that things have to be decided by negotiation, compromise and the recognition of genuine differences of opinion.

The refusal of the cult of leadership is impressive. No self-anointed caliphs or religious potentates resembling Khomeini have stepped forward. Equally absent are self-selected saviours of the nation, figures in the mould of Lech Walesa or Václav Havel. There are instead humble figures like Wael Ghoneim, Michel Kilo and Rachid al-Ghannouchi, modest representatives of decency and dignity who are hardly men of power, or experienced in the arts of handling power, certainly not within the wider geo-political setting, where, remarkably, the Arab upheavals have triggered a regional power vacuum.

The refolutions are major setbacks for Israel, the United States and its allies. ‘From Tunis to the sultanate of Oman’, noted Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the current disorders are ‘managed by Tel Aviv and under the supervision of Washington’. The trends are exactly the opposite. The bell tolls for Western double standards. The dalliance with Gaddafi’s oil-and-gas rich Libya is shattered. The heavy investment of the United States and Israel in ‘dependable’ police dictatorships (Mubarak’s Egypt, al-Assad’s Syria, Saleh’s Yemen) is in disarray. The fruitlessness of EU negotiations to end Israel’s uncompromising land-grab policy is as obvious as Israel’s deafening silence about how it will play its cards in the face of the new uncertainties. Palestinians’ enforced patience with their miserable lot cannot last. The status quo has snapped. Where the region and its people are headed now hangs in the balance, just as one would expect of a great convulsion that has brought joy and the hope of dignity and justice to many millions of people, for the first time in their lives.


Opening remarks to the international symposium, ‘Spirited Voices from the Muslim World’, The University of Sydney, 28 -30 April 2011.

Originally published at OpenDemocacy

Listen to Audio here

A shortened version is also published at The Conversation