The flowers of the Arab spring are faded. In Tunisia after the first free elections, Islamic conservatism seems to be the mood. In Egypt the heart of the old regime (the army headquarters) is still controlling the State. Yemen’s movement has obtained the resignation of the autocratic president Abdullah Saleh, but real regime change is still uncertain. In Libya, the Gaddafi dictatorship has been destroyed, but the situation is chaotic after the bloody fighting with foreign participation. Not to speak of the ugly war that the Assad regime has imposed on the Syrian people where each days brings its tens of victims. And the spectre of war floats as ever over Palestine…
There is gathering rage
Revolution provokes counter-revolution. In the Europe of 1848, after the “spring of the people”, the feudal regimes managed to crush the movement in a few months, even in France, where the liberal monarchy had been replaced by the Bonapartist Empire. Change in order that nothing would change? Or the beginning of an historical wave, a new political cycle across the whole region? As we might ask this question of Europe’s nineteenth century, we ask it again in the Middle East’s twenty-first.
Demotix/Nawal Al Basri. Women assembled at a protest of opposition groups, 30th April 2012 in Megsha, Bahrain.
In a way counterrevolution started already mid-March 2011 when Saudi and Emirati troops invaded Bahrain to put an end to the movement. Precisely at the same moment NATO forces struck Gaddafi. Cracking down on the uprising in Bahrain, while supporting Benghazi ? The ostensible contradiction is only superficial: a Gaddafi victory, after a massacre of civilians, would have been disturbing to international public opinion and destabilizing for the region; that was the opinion in Paris, London and Washington, and Riyadh agreed. A democratic evolution of Bahrain would have been destabilizing for the other states of the Arabic peninsula; that was the mood in Riyadh and Washington. London and Paris let Riyadh put an end to it.
The Arab Spring started at the beginning of winter in central Tunisia and spread throughout the whole country. With a lag of two weeks the Egyptian people, confronted by the same type of autocratic, corrupted regime, also began demonstrating, especially on Tahrir (Liberation) square in Cairo. Until the victories: the fall of Ben Ali (January 17) and Mubarak (February 11). The same kind of pro-democracy intifada (uprising) had already begun in Yemen and Bahrain. There were mobilizations in Morocco and Jordan, and to a smaller extent in Algeria, Oman, Iraq. Then, after violent clashes in the little town of Deraa, the Syrian people went out on the street. Demonstrators protesting against confessionalism in Lebanon and division in Palestine explicitly referred to the Arab Spring. And everywhere, the same quest for universal values: freedom of expression, democratic reforms, an end to economic and political corruption, and a determined resistance to sectarian splits. The slogans and methods were the same: peaceful demonstrations, Irhal ! (Leave!), Es Chaab yourid isqat al nizam ! (The people want the fall of the regime!) to the rhythm of the famous Chilean motto El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido.
It was an Arab movement in the sense that it happened from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian-Arabian Gulf, which constitutes a cultural and linguistic zone, even if the local dialects are different, a significant number of people have a mother tongue other than Arabic (Tamazight, Kurds…) or do not consider themselves Arabs. A region stretching out from its common destiny.
The situation was not identical in all the countries but everywhere one might notice the signs of a new social situation. A whole new generation, enjoying a much higher level of education than the previous one, faced with a wall built by a privileged cast, state conservatism, and the massive development of unemployment, including for those with university degrees. Through the policies of infitâh (economic opening) and the process of privatization, the coherence of the system built post independence has vanished. Neoliberalism has deepened the differences between rich and poor. For the oligarchies, privatization was the opportunity to plunder and control the benefits of oil and other raw materials but also to snaffle the grants of foreign aid. In each country the gap between oligarchy and society has widened. And rage has accumulated.
Revolt became Revolution when the “days of anger” and the “day of dignity” brought together people with common goals: educated youth, salaried middle class and small entrepreneurs, peasants and workers, people from areas that had been marginalized and discriminated against.
Demotix/Nawal Al Basri. Men assembled at the opposition protest, 30th April 2012 in Megsha, Bahrain.
An autonomous organized civil society had already started to emerge from Morocco to Bahrain: NGOs, women’s groups, human rights associations, social movements, independent trade unions. A strong Alter-global Movement emerged in the Maghreb, especially in Morocco, and to a lesser extent in Tunisia, Egypt or Palestine. The Maghreb Social Forum in El Jedida (Morocco) in 2008 attracted 2400 activists from North Africa but also from the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa and Europe. New forms of action developed in the 2000s. The blog phenomenon originated in Egypt. The self-organized “Unemployed-Graduate” movement began in Morocco. Internet chats and Facebook became tools for communication and initiating actions. The first network of cyber-dissidence was the April 6 Movement initiated by young Egyptian bloggers in support of the struggle of Mahalla’s textile workers on April 6, 2008. Cyber-dissidence flourished in Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen, Morocco or Syria… This helped the constitution of youth networks like the Young people for Revolution in Yemen or the January 20 Movement in Morocco. Everywhere, except in Libya where it was impossible from the beginning, the movement has been trying to act with Sulamya (a peaceful approach), a “demilitarize the intifada", developing a Gandhi-like strategy, despite the casualties (300 people died in Tunisia in 2011, 1000 in Egypt). This has occurred even in an over-armed country like Yemen, and even confronted with the bloodbath imposed by Bachar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.
Demotix/Nawal Al Basri. Birdseye view of the protest 30th April 2012 in Megsha, Bahrain.
Secular and Islamist
On the political terrain, secular forces are divided. The liberal-democrat and conservative democratic parties are weak or in decline, like the old Egyptian Wafd party or the Moroccan Istiqlal. On the left, “Arab socialism”, which was supposed to be the ideology of the Nationalists (from Nasser to the Baath, the Algerian FLN or the Tunisian Neo-Destour), has vanished into the oligarchic system and corruption. Today genuine Arab Nationalist forces are small groups. On the left, post-communist centre-left parties like the Tunisian Ettajdid and Moroccan PPS (Socialist Progressive Party) have a limited influence. In comparison the radical new left of the 60s has had a more prolific and diverse offspring - with old parties like PFLP in Palestine or the Socialist Party of Yemen, or new ones such as the leftist PSU (United Socialist Party) in Morocco, and the social democratic al-Waad in Bahrain. New movements have also appeared, like in Tunisia the leftist radical PCOT (Communist Party of the workers of Tunisia), the social-democratic FDTL (Forum for Democracy, Labour and liberty) or the liberal PDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party).
The Islamists are (provisionally) the great beneficiary of a movement they call “Islamic awakening”. The main Islamist parties have abandoned the revolutionary utopian goal of the Islamic State and progressively transformed into conservative political parties accepting the parliamentarian game. These parties are rooted in urban middle class, professionals, civil servants, etc. the kind of people who aspire to law and order more than to the turmoil of Islamic revolution. They won the election in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt and will probably have similar success in other countries if free elections are held. Such a conservative party could be one of the bases of a post-revolutionary regime, in cooperation with the military (in Egypt), or any kind of coalition after the elections and the “return to normality”.
But the Islamists are challenged from within. On the one hand, some of the Islamist activists have been struggling together side by side with leftist or liberal secular forces: such as in Morocco the members of the movement Al adl wal ishane (Justice and Charity); in Egypt, a part of the young Muslims Brotherhood (and Sisterhood); and the same in Yemen or Syria. On the other hand, mainstream Islamists are challenged by dynamic ultraconservative Salafist groups. They can disrupt the cautious approach of movements like Ennadha in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (where the Salafist An Nour party has got 20% of the votes). They are mounting all sorts of provocations (like in Tunisia the Hizb u Tharir - Party of the Liberation, a radical international party). Salafists often act in connection with the former security services of the old regimes and external forces (Saudis).
The past is still competing with the future
The political future of Tunisia and Egypt is uncertain. The future and the past are still competing. In Tunisia, social unrest, provocations and a bad economic situation might push electors towards candidates promising a return to order. Ennadha is hesitating between cooperating with or confronting other political parties, probably also because of the contradictory aspirations of its members as well as voters. In Egypt the Supreme Military Council is engaged in arm-wrestling with the forces of change (the youth networks, part of the left, part of the Islamic youth), with the Muslim Brotherhood in between, waiting to reap the benefits of the situation following an expectedly good electoral result.
The short-term fate of the Arab revolution in each particular state will depend on the nuisance capacity of several actors. Those from inside, who would like to limit it or who would like to go backwards. And also those from outside, western powers, Saudis, Israelis... Whatever will happen in the coming months or years, things are not going to go back to what they used to be, and the 2011 awakening of the Arab people will be harvested in the coming decade.