The Big Think Behind the Arab Spring: Do the Middle East’s revolutions have a unifying ideology?
Why would we believe the Arab Spring meant the same thing to all Arabs? We didn’t believe each of the former Communist nations had the same agenda, save for ridding themselves of the yoke of tyranny as the Iron Curtain fell. Twenty plus years later each of those Eastern European nations have developed very differently. Their relationships with each other and with western Europe and the rest of the world are all consistent in their uniqueness with their political, cultural and even religious expressions defining their nations.
The only thing the Arab Spring will yield with any certainty is a brave new world.
“Why does every nation on Earth move to change their conditions except for us? Why do we always submit to the batons of the rulers and their repression? How long will Arabs wait for foreign saviors?” That is how the inflammatory Al Jazeera talk-show host Faisal al-Qassem opened his program in December 2003. On another Al Jazeera program around that same time, Egyptian intellectuals Saad Eddin Ibrahim and Fahmy Howeidy debated whether it would take American intervention to force change in the Arab world. Almost exactly seven years later, Tunisians erupted in a revolution that spread across the entire region, finally answering Qassem’s challenge and proving that Arabs themselves could take control of their destiny.
Throughout this year of tumult, Arabs have debated the meaning of the great wave of popular mobilization that has swept their world as vigorously as have anxious foreigners. There is no single Arab idea about what has happened. To many young activists, it is a revolution that will not stop until it has swept away every remnant of the old order. To worried elites, it represents a protest movement to be met with limited economic and political reforms. Some see a great Islamic Awakening, while others argue for an emerging cosmopolitan, secular, democratic generation of engaged citizens. For prominent liberals such as Egypt’s Amr Hamzawy, these really have been revolutions for democracy. But whatever the ultimate goal, most would agree with Syrian intellectual Burhan Ghalyoun, who eloquently argued in March that the Arab world was witnessing “an awakening of the people who have been crushed by despotic regimes.”
In March, Egyptian writer Hassan Hanafi declared that the spread of the revolutions demonstrated finally that “Arab unity” — long a distant ideal in a region better known for its fragmentation and ideological bickering — “is an objective reality.” This unified narrative of change, and the rise of a new, popular pan-Arabism directed against regimes, is perhaps the greatest revelation of the uprisings. Not since the 1950s has a single slogan — back then Arab unity, today “The People Want to Overthrow the Regime” — been sounded so powerfully from North Africa to the Gulf. This identification with a shared fate feels natural to a generation that came of age watching satellite TV coverage of Palestine, Iraq, and Lebanon over the previous decade. Al Jazeera, since its rise to prominence in the late 1990s, has unified the regional agenda through its explicitly Arabist coverage — and its embrace of raucous political debates on the most sensitive issues.
That pan-Arab popular identification extended to the democracy movements that multiplied across the region — whether Egypt’s tenacious street protesters, Bahraini human rights activists, or Yemenis (including this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkol Karman) protesting President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s nepotism and corruption. A decade-long, media-fueled narrative of change is why Arabs immediately recognized each national protest as part of their own struggle. As Wadah Khanfar, the network’s recently departed director-general, put it, “That was Al Jazeera’s role: liberating the Arab mind. We created the idea in the Arab mind that when you have a right, you should fight for it.”
So while the Arab uprisings generated a marvelous range of innovative tactics (uploading mobile-camera videos to social media like Facebook and Twitter, seizing and holding public squares), they did not introduce any particularly new ideas. The relentless critique of the status quo, the generational desire for political change, the yearning for democratic freedoms, the intense pan-Arab identification — these had all been in circulation for more than a decade. What changed with the fall of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia was the recognition that even the worst tyrants could be toppled. It shattered the wall of fear. That is why hundreds of thousands of Egyptians came into the streets on Jan. 25. It’s why protests broke out in Yemen, Bahrain, Morocco, and Jordan. It’s why Syrians and Libyans took unfathomable personal risks to rise up against seemingly untouchable despots despite the near certainty of arrest, torture, murder, and reprisals against their families.