Can the mass uprisings that happened across the Arab world in 2011 accurately be called an awakening? The editors of Arab Awakening defend the title of their section, while admitting that it may be time to move on.
A revolutionary moment?
Of course the countries of the Arab Spring—among numerous others—have a rich history of struggle. For decades if not centuries, they have fought in civil wars, uprisings, and revolutions with varying degrees of success for their freedoms and rights against despotic, unjust rulers and governments, both local and international.
It’s also true that this awakening did not arise out of a vacuum. It was built on the continuous hard (and mostly dangerous) efforts of workers and activists of various political stripes, tirelessly calling for justice; take the build-up in Egypt, for example, which had been happening since at least 2006. The Arab Spring also echoed movements across the rest of the world against neoliberal injustices, such as the Occupy movement.
To say this, however, is not to deny the sheer power of this premonitory upheaval, which can be seen as a “psychological and epistemological rupture” with the political and discursive past for various reasons. Anyone taking part even peripherally in protests and demonstrations for justice and rights in Egypt in the decade preceding the uprisings of the Arab Spring, can tell you that going from groups of at most a few hundred, abused by police and ignored by passers-by, to being joined seemingly out of nowhere by tens if not hundreds of thousands, definitely feels like an awakening.
Many who took part in the uprisings across the Arab world will tell you how, up until that point in our lifetimes, political engagement or expression of any kind had been minimal, non-existent, or co-opted by the state (with their ‘opposition’ parties).
The demonstrations enjoyed remarkable mass support and participation, from the full spectrum of political and social backgrounds, and critically, the urban and rural poor. Worsening socioeconomic conditions through corruption and mismanagement, increasingly limited opportunities for youth, and a rapidly inflating gap between rich and poor provided the necessary conditions. A much larger audience opened up to calls for dissent, as they found they had more to gain and less to lose.
The protests were already groundbreaking in each of these countries in terms of scale and inclusiveness, but together as a trans-Arab call for social justice and political freedom, framed in nationalist narratives of civic engagement and ownership, they were surely unprecedented. As Fawaz Gerges describes:
Millions of Arabs revolted against al-istibdad (repression), defying fear and bullets and daring to call for effective citizenship and more representative and egalitarian political and economic systems. Arabs across national boundaries united in their opposition to social injustice and political authoritarianism. Taking ownership of public space, symbols of liberation from colonial rule, Arabs from different ideological persuasions, imaginations, and sensibilities ‘performed the nation’ as united citizens, in a quest for political emancipation and civil and economic empowerment. The will of the people and electoral legitimacy echoed as a call for action, a marked departure from previous waves of social protests and discontent in Arab states.
How old is your dictator?
The speed at which these triggers and calls for revolt spread at the end of 2010 through Tunisia, then Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain Yemen and further, is also unprecedented. The internet meant the possibility of engaging countless others as supporters for a cause or witnesses to an event (that can then rally support).
One wake-up call for thousands of budding civilian journalists all over the Arab world, was the realisation that they could turn the tables on the state’s Orwellian use of surveillance, monitoring and censorship. By turning their cameras and internet connections on the oppressor, they could force it to work harder to hide or explain (if not stop) its actions.
The primary users of the internet are young people, and it is no coincidence that despite the participation of all ages in the protests, young people made up the vast majority and led the rallying call. Most of these youth had lived under the rule of the same aging dictators since before their births, and to them the mass strikes and uprisings of Arab history were distant anecdotes, and any kind of mass opposition to these regimes unimaginable.
In 2011, however, conditions unique to each country but sharing a conflation of unbearable economic pressure, brutal repression, and pervasive media, came to a head. A new power in numbers and a new consciousness gave hope, a sense of ‘now or never’. The ‘barrier of fear’ was broken. The biggest difference in 2011 was that the movements, at least at first, were not hijacked or crushed; they were successful in toppling their respective regimes. As Gerges says:
It is critical to recognize the significance of this revolutionary chapter in the modern history of the Middle East and the creative conceptions and articulations of resistance that shattered the system of domination, particularly the popular roots of these uprisings.
The greatest proof that there was an awakening, however brief, is the extraordinary lengths to which our counterrevolutionary regimes are going to repair the breaches in the barriers of fear, shore them up, and raise them by several metres. Look at the investment in repression, foreigner and minority-baiting, propaganda and PR, and distractions for the masses (often involving social taboos) – not to mention the steady erasure of everything from opposition forces to graffiti. Their sense of complacency, of assuredness in the complicity and compliance of the citizenry, has been shaken.
We cannot learn from or build on that brief moment of determination, plurality and hope if we deny it ever happened; fail to see what made this particular confluence of conditions and events spill over and spread so fast between countries so different; or even worse, ignore its reappearances through the fissures in the carapace, wherever they may occur. But what else is Demirtas’ call if not that meme at work again, through Tahrir, Sol, Wall Street and Taksim and beyond:
“You are not only Turkish, Kurdish; not solely Armenian, Arab, Circassian, Georgian or Bosniak… Alevi, Sunni, Syriac, or Yazidi… Jewish, Hebrew, or Christian. You are all of them.”
Will the counter-revolutionary movement be successful in erasing what unfolded in 2011 from collective memory? As we frame it in our ‘about’ section:
How will this generation—close to 200 million of the Arab world’s 340 million people are under 30-years old—meet the myriad socio-economic challenges they face on a daily basis across the region? On Arab Awakening we wish to capture the emerging plurality in social views, political positions, economic approaches, social and national identities and frames of reference this awakening has inspired—and use it to help us read a rapidly changing world.
The 'awakening' is taking new forms and the question that remains is ‘what's next?’ Saeed Rahnema is right (though for slightly different reasons) – our change of name is overdue. But let us be sure to change it to Arab Futures.