North Africa, West Asia

The Arab Spring popular uprisings – myth and reality

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 amongst the urban and rural poor.

Fawaz A Gerges
27 March 2014
A young man wears a General Sisi picture in Tahrir Square

A young man wears a General Sisi picture in Tahrir Square. Demotix/Haisam Mahgoub. All rights reserved. A psychological and epistemological rupture has occurred in the Arab Middle East that has shaken the authoritarian order to its very foundation and introduced a new language and a new era of contentious politics and revolutions. A revolutionary moment of political emancipation and self-determination challenges conventional ways and dominant thinking about the region, such as the durability and resilience of authoritarianism and the ability of autocratic rulers to police the status quo. There is a reinvigorated academic interest in bottom-up politics, workers, ordinary people, social movements, public space and resistance, the decay of hegemony, the crisis of authority and the role of agency in general – a refreshing departure from the past fixation with top-down politics and the elite.

Far from over, this revolutionary moment is still unfolding before our eyes, an open-ended struggle that will play out in the coming years. If history serves as a guide, revolutionary moments – as opposed to revolutions that swiftly overturn a society’s social, economic and political structure, all within a relatively short time frame – will take time and space to produce a revolutionary outcome. In the process, they might be aborted, hijacked, co-opted, institutionalized, or face setbacks.

The shift from a revolutionary moment to a constitutional moment is fraught with uncertainties, tensions, conflicts, and differing conceptions of the political. In Tunisia, Egypt, perhaps in Libya, one might dare to hope, we might be seeing transitions from authoritarian regimes to pluralism – in other words, ‘regime transitions’ along the lines familiar to scholars of Southern Europe in the 1970s, Latin America and parts of Asia in the 1980s, and Eastern Europe and other parts of Asia and Africa in the 1990s and 2000s, rather than revolutions per se.

Despite uncertainties and risks, what has transpired in the Arab world is a watershed comparable to transformative historical developments like the French Revolution and the uprisings in Eastern Europe and Indonesia – and to a lesser extent in Latin America – in the 1980s and the 1990s. What happened in all these cases is that the agenda of political and economic possibilities suddenly expanded. 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 amongst the urban and rural poor.

Regardless of what the outcome(s) will be, this revolutionary moment has turned the wheels of history in a direction of progress. Given the fragility of institutions in the Arab arena and the structural socio-economic and political crisis there, the social and political turmoil and politically-driven violence that have engulfed the area after the Arab uprisings is natural and to be expected - part of the painful birth pangs of a new world.

Signposts and worldviews

It is worth capturing the heartbeat of this revolutionary moment. Bread, freedom, social justice, and human dignity (al-karama) were the rallying cries that echoed from mayadeen al-tahrir (liberation squares) in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, and elsewhere. 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.

Amidst this effervescence, new stories are told and new narratives of resistance, hope and determination are articulated. Decades of political authoritarianism and repression, coupled with a development failure, neither extinguished the flame of resistance nor enforced authoritarian rule. The public reclaimed effective agency and regained its voice, which had been stifled and muffled by the elite.

The authoritarian order was far from durable, as the dominant narrative had it. Instead, it crumbled under the blows of popular resistance and cleavages within ruling coalitions, particularly forming around the military institutions. In Egypt and Tunisia, popular mobilization has been enabled if not impelled by splits within the regimes, especially in the context of ongoing succession struggles if not crises, and has been championed or in due course quarterbacked by the urban middle class and business elements, in a pattern familiar from other transitions elsewhere. In Tunisia and Egypt, as the public revolt gained momentum, senior echelons of the military sacrificed Ben Ali and Mubarak, respectively, in favour of their institutional and economic interests.

In Libya and Yemen, the situation was more complex because the armies splintered along opposition and regime lines. In contrast, the security apparatus in Syria, including the core of the armed forces, has remained loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, thus prolonging the ferocious battle between the opposition and the regime. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened militarily in neighbouring Bahrain to assist in crushing the uprising and rescuing the royal family.

Despite important differences and specificities of the various uprisings, a unifying thread runs through all of them: a call for dignity, empowerment, political citizenship, social justice, and taking back the state from presidents-for-life, as well as from their families and crony capitalists who hijacked it. This has been a call for representative government and social equity and justice. From Tunisia to Egypt, from Libya to Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, the slogans, songs and street art of protesters testify to their collective psychology and worldview, one anchored in freedom from want and oppression and desire for equality. Silmiya (peaceful), not Islamiya (Islamic state), was a common theme of the uprisings even when the regimes unleashed their thugs to terrorize protesters. In Libya and Syria, respectively, force deployed by the Qaddafi and Assad regimes transformed largely peaceful revolts into armed struggles.

On the whole, demonstrators behaved in a dignified manner, displaying a sense of solidarity with one another, a commitment to principled action and unity of purpose and ranks. While authoritarian rulers sought to drive a wedge between various communities and fragment the public, for the most part protesters performed the nation and exhibited a sense of maturity and cosmopolitanism that defied segmentation and common stereotypes. In Egypt and, to a lesser extent, Tunisia, a rainbow coalition – of men and women, Muslims and Christians, young revolutionaries, the poor, embattled lower and middle classes, Islamists, leftists, nationalists, and secularists – joined the protests and forced entrenched authoritarian incumbents from power.

In Egypt, Muslims and Christians fraternized together and guarded each other while they prayed – a symbolic act of toleration and refutation of a clever ‘regime-craft’ of divide and rule.  To maintain backing by the western powers, particularly the United States, Arab rulers portrayed themselves as protectors of women and Christians; the latter would suffer discrimination and persecution of the opposition, painted as Islamist and extremist, gained the upper hand.

In fact, Mubarak’s last years in power witnessed an escalation of religious tensions between Muslims and Christian Copts, as well as armed skirmishes. Many Egyptians believed these were orchestrated by the internal security services to divert attention from Mubarak’s crisis of authority and grooming of his son, Gamal, to inherit the presidency. Based on conversations with Egyptians of all political colours in the last decade, there existed a consensus about the use and abuse of the ‘religious card’ as part of Mubarak’s regime-craft to divide and rule, as well as to impress on its superpower patron one of the significant functions it performed at home.

In a rebuff to autocratic rulers who cleverly manipulated minority issues, women played a prominent role in all the uprisings, showing how the public constituted itself in a drive to overthrow the existing order.  Resistance by women undermined a key aspect of regime-craft that targeted progressives and leftists at home and westerners abroad. For example, both Ben Ali and Mubarak touted progressive legislation empowering women, contrasting their enlightened rule with their reactionary Islamist rivals. As protests gained momentum in Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh tried to fragment and discredit the protestors by arguing that ikhtilat, the mixing of men and women, was un-Islamic. In response, protestors planned a co-ed march to oppose Saleh’s discrimination and divide-and-rule tactics.

Although subsequently the ruling generals in Egypt seemed to have unleashed thugs who attacked women protesters, the attempt to humiliate women and divide dissidents produced opposite results; it reinforced the solidarity of the newly constituted public and caused a backlash against the perpetrators and elements of the old regimes.

The newly constituted public included ideologically rival groups, such as Islamists, leftists, and nationalists, a rivalry fuelled and encouraged by the old regime. In particular, authoritarian rulers had co-opted an important segment of the Arab left and deployed it as an effective weapon against their Islamist nemeses. Before the 2011 uprisings, Arab leftists – and, to a lesser extent, nationalists – frequently expressed hostile attitudes towards Islamists, including mainstream religious-based organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood, and justified their cooperation with autocratic rulers as the lesser of the two evils.  Nevertheless, both camps briefly suspended their differences and joined ranks to oust the autocratic incumbents, though this coalition subsequently fractured because of differences over the identity of the state and struggle for power.

What distinguished the large-scale popular uprisings in 2011 from past small-scale protests was the active participation by urban and rural workers and the poor in general. That was a tipping point overlooked by the old regimes and their security apparatus, surprising even the young revolutionaries who had been agitating to mobilize the public. In Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Syria, the sources of discontent lie as much in abject rural poverty, neglect and discrimination as in urban poverty belts. For the first time, the rural and urban poor turned out in large numbers and played a key role, a development that hastened the removal of Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Saleh.

The various constituencies of the public came together and discovered one another after decades of segmentation and political apathy. Villagers and college students mingled together with urban workers, human rights activists, professionals, and the unemployed. Mothers, fathers, and children filled public squares, creating a festive atmosphere, with poetry and music performed live by artists and food donated by citizens who could hardly afford to feed their own families.  The nations were on display in all their glory, diversity, hope, and wretchedness. This was testament to the creative vitality of the peoples and their courage to overcome fear, mistrust, and apathy. Half a century of political authoritarianism has neither devoured civil society nor broken its will to resist.

The uprisings were not all united and harmonious. There also existed a struggle for domination inside the public squares within the protests, most notably between religious conservatives and liberal-leaning groups. In Yemen, independent protesters were beaten and incarcerated by Islamist hard-liners of the Islah party and their allies who share business interests and clan ties with the ruling elite. A few months after the outbreak of the uprising against President Saleh, hierarchies were established amongst demonstrators, which the youth activists resented. Thus, the protest movement was manipulated and taken advantage of by powerful players who had been looking for an opportunity to get at Saleh and settle scores with him. In this regard, activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkul Karman admitted recently that the general secretary of Islah, Abdulwahab al-Anisi, had told her early in the uprising that she should not shout the slogan ‘the people want to oust the regime’, but focus only against Saleh. Islah and its allies were personalising the revolution. They were not opposed to the authoritarian regime itself, but rather wanted to get rid of Saleh and gain power themselves.

In Tunisia, Salafis intimidated and attacked secular-oriented activists. Similarly, in Egypt, women and young revolutionaries faced intimidation and assault by extremists of the Salafi variety and elements of the old regime.

With presidents Ben Ali, Mubarak, Gaddafi, and Saleh out, the struggle within has intensified. Peoples react differently to the new emerging order and struggle over the distribution of power. More importantly, there exists a fierce conflict over the identity of the state between religious-based activists and secular-leaning ones, a clash that has deepened the divide and exacerbated social tensions and contradictions. Egypt and Tunisia are cases in point. In the Arab revolts – like others in the past – dormant power struggles have come to the fore and self-interested factions have acted as spoilers.

But the power struggle is not surprising because the institutionalization of diversity and the ‘parliamentarization’ of politics will take time. Trust amongst political actors is in short supply, and the old regimes went to great lengths to deepen the divide and mistrust between political groups.

The performance of the nation by the protesters included people with different ideas and conceptions of the political and the social – a diverse coalition whose members may also deeply mistrust each other. Diversity cannot be wished away. The challenge facing the post-authoritarian order is to institutionalize diversity, establish a broad electoral coalition and rebuild political trust – a prolonged and complex task fraught with risks. More important, the emerging new authorities have to address the economic vulnerabilities and abject poverty that have bled Arab societies.   

In the meantime, we should not be blinded by the dust of political turmoil bursting out in the aftermath of the revolts. We should not confuse the revolutionary moment with the unfolding outcomes and the fierce social and political struggles. Instead of proclaiming the end of the so-called Arab Spring, analysts should focus on understanding the sources of vulnerabilities facing the transition in separate Arab societies and the drivers behind the political-ideological struggles among dominant groups.

Not unlike Southern Europe, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Indonesia, contentious politics and collective action in the Arab world will be accompanied by political storms, unstable coalitions, and street protests until the dust settles and institution-building is consolidated. One should not be surprised by inter-ethnic and inter-religious turmoil following the dictators’ departure because they had relied on divide and rule and exclusion of critical segments of the population.

The plight of the urban-rural poor and the unemployed was a critical cause of the uprisings, and will most likely be a constant factor in contentious Arab politics for many years to come, as the cases of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya clearly show. Post-authoritarian governments will come and go depending on their ability to provide employment, hope, and a measure of fairness and justice; they neglect the social and economic public goods at their peril.

Conditions were ripe for the 2011 popular mobilizations against autocratic rulers. The question is not why the uprisings took place, but why had they not occurred earlier given the dismal state of the Arab world and the Arab regimes’ deepening crisis of authority? And why did we fail to predict when and where they would erupt? Autocratic Arab rulers had been running on empty – a life of domination without hegemony. In the 1990s and first decade of the twenty-first century, Arab activists and observers believed their authoritarian rulers were illegitimate; that it was a matter of when and how – not if – they would be forced out.

A chorus of voices has already declared that the Arab Spring is either over or has already turned to a darkening winter and that the region has long seemed like ‘infertile soil for democracy’, with the military (the most powerful institution) and the Islamists (the most influentially organized force) hijacking the uprisings.  It is argued that both the military and Islamists, illiberal and undemocratic, have a vested interest in perpetuating the autocratic status quo with minor modifications. Evidence is marshalled to show how the remnants of the old regimes and the Islamists stifle dissent and debate and oppose an overhaul of the political and economic structures that sustain authoritarianism and socioeconomic hierarchies.

The post-Mubarak dichotomy between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood confirmed the worst stereotypes about Arab politics. The choice was between two forms of authoritarianism with a weak secular and liberal segment caught in the middle. Arab politics was therefore caught in a vicious cycle of despotism, according to this interpretation, and the prospects for democracy were bleak.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was perhaps the single most vocal prime minister or president to speak against the Arab uprisings. He called western leaders, and especially US President Obama, ‘naive’ for taking risks on democratic change in the region and pushing Mubarak to resign from power. Netanyahu said, ‘In February, when millions of Egyptians thronged to the streets in Cairo, commentators and quite a few Israeli members of the opposition said that we’re facing a new era of liberalism and progress . . . They said I was trying to scare the public and was on the wrong side of history and don’t see where things are heading’. But time has proved him right, he added. His forecast that the Arab Spring uprisings would turn into an ‘Islamic, anti-Western, anti- liberal, anti-Israeli and anti-democratic wave’ turned out to be true, he concluded’.

Others caution that overcoming the authoritarian inheritance is not easy because of the robustness of deeply entrenched interests, and this can be proven by the internal variation in regime collapse and survival observed in the Arab world thus far. There is a real tension and difference between the more agency-centred, voluntaristic accounts of transitions from authoritarian rule (or revolution) which this contributed volume pursues, on the one hand, and the more structuralist, institutionalist, or class-based analysis on the other hand. In some ways, this more structuralist analysis is deeply pessimistic about the prospects of political change in the Arab region. I acknowledge, however, a set of concerns in some ways similar to those the structuralists stress, namely economic inequality and social injustice and fragile institutions, as opposed to the ‘identity’ and ‘Islamist’ bogeymen that are so strongly emphasized in the mainstream literature and in public commentary as well.

Pragmatic Islamists and fragmented publics

It is too early to offer a definite judgment on how centrist Islamists will govern, and if they will show toleration towards others, although signs from Tunisia are more encouraging than Egypt. There is a big debate taking place in Egypt and Tunisia about Islamists’ intolerance of free speech and the treatment of journalists who criticise Islamist figures in power, as well as their authoritarian ways.

However, in the last three decades, a pattern has emerged that allows scholars of religious activists to advance working hypotheses regarding the broad contours of Islamists’ governance. To begin with, increasing evidence shows that the balance of social forces amongst Islamists has shifted towards pragmatists. It is a generational shift that favours open-minded and reformist technocrats and professionals such as engineers, dentists, doctors, attorneys, and teachers who are less obsessed with dogmas, identity, and culture wars and more willing to build governing coalitions with ideological opponents who are non-Muslim and liberal.

For example, Ennahda in Tunisia prefers to form alliances with liberals and leftists, not with the ultraconservative Salafis. The Muslim Brothers have recently endeavoured to differentiate themselves from the Salafis and show moderation, although the struggle over the constitution exposed a rift between the Salafis and the Muslim Brothers, on the one hand, and liberal-leaning groups on the other hand. The Muslim Brothers aligned themselves with the Salafis and rammed a contentious constitution through, thus alienating a significant segment of Egyptians.

Tunisia assembly approves new constitution

The Tunisian assembly approves new constitution. Demotix/Mohamed Krit, All rights reserved.

The big point to stress is the direction depends not just on the structural shifts in alliances, but also on the outcomes of collective political struggles. More than two years after the Arab uprisings, Egypt, together with other post-Spring countries, continues to witness waves of protests by both the Islamists and the secular-leaning opposition, a testament to the durability of contentious politics and collective action. In other words, things could go in different directions as the Islamists recently discovered in Egypt on the first anniversary of Morsi’s Presidency, when millions of protesters, some of whom had voted for the Muslim Brotherhood, filled the streets demanding his resignation and called on the military to force him out.

Despite their rhetoric, centrist Islamists continue to compromise in the arena of foreign policy and have shown a willingness to work with western powers when their interests converge. This includes their posture towards Israel. The Islamists’ commitment to Palestine, rooted in popular pressure from their constituencies, will mean that, while they will not renege on existing peace treaties, their relationship with Israel will remain frozen in the absence of a just solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict that is endorsed by Hamas.

Like their Eastern European, Latin American, and Indonesian counterparts, the Arabs’ parlimentarization journey will be rocky, messy, uneven, and prolonged, as the Egyptian case shows. There is no assurance of success, and there will undoubtedly be setbacks. Spearheaded by elements of the old regime and their conservative regional backers, counter-revolutionary forces have put up stiff resistance in a concerted effort to abort the nascent political process and keep the lid on further liberalization and reformation.

The solidarity of the public during the protests has given way to diverse and even fragmented publics. Political mistrust and suspicion have replaced hope and solidarity, well displayed during the uprisings. Secular-leaning groups accuse the Islamists of replicating the authoritarian state by suppressing freedom of press and monopolizing the decision-making process. Some of them have even thought the unthinkable and invested their hopes in the military as a counterweight to the Islamists.  

The Islamist-Nationalist fault line that emerged in the mid-1950s still exists and the culture wars are still raging. With the toppling of the first Islamist elected president, the ideological rivalry between Islamists and Nationalists has been invested with cultural overtones. In Tunisia and Egypt, no consensus has emerged amongst leading groups on the identity of the state and its political economy. Intense struggles are raging on the streets and elsewhere, a dramatic shift from the era of political authoritarianism and state-sanctioned repression.

The challenge for students of the Arab world is not to be blinded by the dust generated by political turmoil and bickering. Political contestation and mobilization will be a dominant feature of Arab political life for many years to come. The return of contentious politics signals the end of an era and the beginning of another, one fuelled by a new collective psychology of empowerment and engagement.

It should be celebrated, not feared. The fear is not a return to the old, discredited political regime but only tinkering with the socio-economic structures that pauperized the public, as opposed to implementing structural economic reforms. In this sense, there will be no closure, no end, in the foreseeable future to the revolutionary moment that has shaken the political system to its foundation.


For the full argument, see ‘Introduction: a Rupture’ in The New Middle East: Protest and Revolution in the Arab World (CUP, March 2014), edited by Fawaz A.Gerges.  


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