A critique of the Arab Spring elite: What is needed is a cultural revolution, not another uprising

In Opinion Articles by CIHRS

Bahey Eldin Hassan
Director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.
“When the history of the January 25 revolution is written, it will be described as a revolution that cared more about cleaning up Tahrir Square than sweeping away the old regime. And in both cases, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was most appreciative.”

I wrote the above paragraph eight months after Hosni Mubarak abdicated the presidency on 11 February 2011 following unprecedented popular upheaval in Egypt. A decade after tens of millions of people in six countries in the Arab region rose up to claim freedom, social justice, and human dignity in what became known as the Arab Spring, today they confront a far more desperate situation than in 2011.

In Bahrain, the ruling Sunni minority tightened its repressive stranglehold while Egypt has come under the heel of the most brutal and rapacious military dictatorship in its modern history. Yemen and Libya have been ravaged by internal armed conflicts and proxy wars fought on behalf of regional and international powers, as Syria has been transformed into a staging ground for a multilateral civil war, rendering it easy prey for foreign occupation.

In Tunisia, the sole country where democracy was ushered in by the uprising, the 10th anniversary of the revolution was marked by protests in six cities against deteriorating economic conditions and the wretched performance of the democratically elected political elite. A prominent opposition figure issued an apology to former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the man who imprisoned him and ruled Tunisia with an iron fist until 10 years ago. Meanwhile, Yadh Ben Achour, a key figure in the post-revolution transition, said the current Tunisian president’s positions were sowing division and contradicted the principles of the revolution.

Of course, no one expected the region to end up in this tragic state as peoples had been striving to liberate their countries and communities from iterations of medieval rule and elite corruption. And such a liberation would have been possible were it not for the insatiable ruthlessness of this same corrupt ruling elite, and were it also not for the emergence of a regional coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

This coalition, which saw the Arab Spring as a threat to be fought even though the revolutionary ripples had stilled in Bahrain, played a crucial role in backing the counterrevolution in the region. It used its vast oil-generated wealth to directly intervene with military force in Bahrain, Yemen, and Libya while lobbying the European Union and United States to let its armed interventions and brutal suppression of protests pass with only routine statements of condemnation.

At the same time, the opposition political elite who ascended on the waves of the Arab Spring proved to be no obstacle in the path of the counterrevolutionary cyclone. Regrettably, these elites were unable to rise to the historical task or to the awe-inspiring sacrifices made by the peoples of the Arab region who believed the hour of deliverance had arrived, dissolving the barriers against their rightful place next to the free peoples of the world. Unfortunately, the performance of opposition elites may have aided the counterrevolution.

Opposition elites utterly failed to mount organised collective action, wrote Syrian intellectual Burhan Ghalioun, the first elected president of the Syrian Opposition Council in 2011, in his book Defect of the Self, published two years ago. Having reached astonishing moral heights in the early days of the uprisings, they reverted to a primitive age of savagery by the end. Offering his own appraisal a few days ago, Mohamed ElBaradei, a prominent secular figure for the Arab Spring in Egypt, said that elites had failed to agree on a vision, a roadmap, and fundamental governing values.

These two assessments apply not only to Syria and Egypt, but to Yemen and Libya as well to varying degrees. Tunisia escaped this fate, thanks to a broad consensus around a roadmap and core values from the early weeks of the uprising. Tunisia’s uprising was helped along by its army’s lack of political and economic ambitions – in stark contrast to the Egyptian military – and by the relative political openness and pragmatism of the Islamist Ennahda movement in comparison to political Islamist groups in Egypt and Syria.

Nevertheless, Tunisia offers another illustration of the failure of collective action, not only between Islamists and secularists, but within each of these camps as well.

In a magnificent, striking evolution of the Arab Spring, the forces of its second wave drew collective lessons from their observations of the first wave and the reactions to it. One of the wisest of these was the critical importance of preserving the peaceful nature of the popular rebellion, no matter how brutal the crackdown from governments and their irregular auxiliaries, as well as the need to avoid public disputes between opposition parties.

Even so, the difficulty of building consensus around core values made it hard for forces of the second wave to be vigilant enough about public disagreements to permit the formation of a coalition political leadership and draft an alternative roadmap in Iraq, Algeria, and Lebanon.

Although its transition remains fragile, Sudan has been an exception in the second wave, thanks to a long history of struggle for democracy against military rule since 1964. Sudan’s movement towards democracy draws on deeply rooted traditions of joint action between civil society, political parties, and ethnic groups open to a basic consensus around values, although Sudanese Islamists remain outside this political and normative consensus.

The task of the Arab Spring was made even more difficult not only by disputes between Islamist and secular elites within the opposition, but also by how some of the elites aligned themselves. A segment of this elite, particularly the older generation, does not live in the current reality but in imaginary worlds. As think tanks around the world prepare for the Chinese century and a world dominated politically and economically by China, some Islamists are busy trying to revive a world that passed a millennium ago.

Meanwhile, many strains of the secular elite are stuck in the 1950s and 60s, in the age of national liberation and the Cold War, when British and French occupation armies divided the region among themselves as the American empire readied itself to assume their mantle. But the old occupations are gone.

Today, states in the region are divvied up between occupying Russian, Iranian, Turkish, and Emirati armies, Sudanese, Chadian, Syrian, and Russian mercenaries, and Shia militias operating under orders from Iran, even as the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the Golan Heights persists and remnants of the American invading forces remain in Iraq.

At the same time, ruling powers have created a form of internal colonialism in Arab states, as described by Burhan Ghalioun and others, both before and after the Arab Spring. Speaking of the condition of the Syrian people under Baath Party rule, Ghalioun says they have “been denied any form of self-organisation, in villages, cities, and neighbourhoods. Their civic, political, and economic institutions have been colonised and occupied from within.”

The situation is much the same whether in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi’s Egypt, Omar al-Bashir’s Sudan, or Islamic Iran.

It would be worthwhile to learn from Africans who spoke of the “second independence,” not only to distinguish the struggle for democracy from the struggle for liberation from foreign colonialism, but also to underscore it as a struggle against those who helped bring about the first independence then assumed the role of the foreign coloniser over their own people.

In some of the Arab Spring uprisings, it was ironic to see demonstrators bearing pictures of figures who continued to flog their people with the whip of nationalism or religion after freeing them from the colonial lash.

Arab elites who continue to believe that the Palestinian issue is the mother of all liberation causes may find it painful to reflect upon how the PLO leadership of the 1960s and 70s became vassals safeguarding the Israeli occupation, while suppressing peaceful activity that rejects the transformation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip into Bantustans within an apartheid system, and is critical of the corruption and authoritarianism of Palestinian institutions. How the Arab world has changed in half a century!

The failure of Islamist and secular elites to fully comprehend how much the world and the region has transformed keeps them confined in imaginary worlds, which by default leaves them with ideological solutions that may have worked when these worlds were taking shape, but which are not fit for this era and do not speak to contemporary challenges. On the contrary, they unrealistically magnify specific issues at the expense of major challenges, especially economic ones.

The core of the Arab Spring uprisings was about the aspiration to wrest back the stolen dignity of the state, society, and family; and to enjoy economic and social justice, political equality, and individual freedom regardless of ethnicity, race, or social status.

Achieving this requires first a particular set of political, constitutional, legislative, and judicial arrangements; and second, the construction of a dynamic economy capable of enhancing resources and creating wealth for all of society.

It requires creating new, sustainable jobs and developing an equitable educational and health system. Fine slogans like ‘bread, freedom, and social justice’ – no matter how commendable – are not enough to fulfill this mission; it needs well-considered plans based on hard facts to make the slogans a reality.

The first task was always the focus of the rebelling elite, but unfortunately little attention was given to the second. Elites offered slogans and promises of social justice without elaborating on how they would bring it about. Tunisia offers a clear example: Opposition elites came to power a decade ago, armed with nothing but slogans.

The deep yet unexamined attachment to state capitalism among some secular and Islamist elites is another barrier. In essence, this model means the concentration of wealth in the hands of the state bureaucracy, rather than in the hands of the deceived masses. Concentrating wealth in the state bureaucracy, military, or private monopolies automatically generates fierce resistance to any political project aspiring to a decentralised model and empowerment of the people and society through genuine democracy.

I fear that some elites’ adoption of this model is a first step on the path to perpetuating the old authoritarian system and a failed, corrupt economy.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the crisis of the Arab world, and not only with regard to health. The United Nations and international financial institutions expect the health crisis and collapse of oil prices to aggravate the economic and political crisis in the region, in oil-exporting and importing countries alike. This projection is based on these institutions’ negative assessment of the model of economic growth prevalent in the region and on the likely interplay between economic impacts and the chronic crisis of trust between people and most rulers in the region. This is why a UN report warns of possible political unrest, though the magnitude and impact of it will vary from one state to the next.

It is worth remembering here that on the eve of the Arab Spring, most international indicators measuring economic growth and political conditions were satisfactory; the only indicator that offered a cautionary note was related to popular satisfaction with living conditions in the Arab world.

Although this indicator improved after the Arab Spring, it has been in steady decline since 2015, and continues to decline even though it does not cover the three Arab countries witnessing armed conflicts and civil wars (Syria, Yemen, and Libya), and even as it has been rising in the rest of the world. Some Arab Spring elites may see this as a promising harbinger of new uprisings, but I do not think it bodes well given the current critical state of governance and opposition elites in the Arab world.

Arab Spring elites have played a historic and progressive role; nevertheless, it is time for a thorough reassessment. It is time to develop a new political culture and different methods of action. It is time to live in reality rather than in imaginary worlds, to study this reality objectively, and to transform the fine slogans into short- and long-term plans.

Source: The New Arab

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