North Africa, West Asia

You've kept your power, Arab rulers, but at what cost?

Let us never forget that those who make peaceful uprisings impossible will eventually make violent revolution irresistible. 

Nabil Echchaibi
25 January 2018
AA/ABACA/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt, June 15, 2012. AA/ABACA/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Seven years after the Arab uprisings, the political and socio-economic conditions in many Arab countries remain dire, if not more disastrous.

In Tunisia, the cradle of that popular revolt, impoverished youth, facing tremendous austerity measures, issue desperate calls like “Employ us or kill us”.

Close by on the Mediterranean, hundreds of marginalized young Moroccans have been jailed for rising up against corruption, severe unemployment, and poor social welfare infrastructure. 

Egypt has reverted to a vicious military rule. Syria is mired in an endless bloody war. Libya is a political disaster. Yemen is in the grip of a savage war between rebels and a hawkish Saudi Arabia, and Gulf dictatorships are blissfully the same. 

Wherever you look, the light is dim.  

This is undoubtedly a damning portrait of a region with rich human and natural resources but where hardship is a way of life. 

There are 105 million Arabs between the age of 15-29 but they face an abysmal 35 percent unemployment rate, 20-40 percent illiteracy in some countries, increasing armed conflicts accounting for 17 percent of all conflicts in the world, a heightened likelihood of forced displacement, and poverty levels reaching 30 percent in some cases. 

This is the land where a crown prince can go on a $1.5 billion-spending spree to buy a yacht, a Da Vinci painting, and a French castle in a few days while scores of poor Arabs self-immolate in public to protest their utter precarity, their dispensability, their social death.

Between the horrid extravagance of the prince and the piercing despair of the self-immolator, life with dignity is extremely difficult, if not impossible. 

As we pause this month to reflect on the legacy of these historic uprisings, we must remember not to simply idolize the heroic acts of the Bouazizis of the revolution with clichéd slogans and vapid ceremonies.

We must re-center their ultimate sacrifice and demand accountability from leaders who govern by brutal decrees and paralyzing fear. 

suicide by self-immolation in Tunisia alone has tripled since 2010

An honest celebration of the Arab Spring means eliminating the very edifice that produces citizen suicide in the first place.

Since Bouazizi torched himself on that fateful day in December 2010, hundreds across the Arab world have committed similar acts in public for the same reasons. According to a recent study, suicide by self-immolation in Tunisia alone has tripled since 2010 and affects most frequently young unemployed men.  

Seven years after the uprisings, much of the social energy of the average Arab is spent trying to cope with this dehumanization in the face of police states, lack of freedom, and poor economic prospects exacerbated by a neoliberal order that favors shopping malls to public schools and fancy resorts to hospitals. 

Besides the monstrous despotism in all Arab countries, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank demand tighter fiscal austerity which means further wiping out the scarce social welfare benefits the poor depend on for survival.

In Egypt, ironically, the minister of solidarity recently announced deep cuts in vital government subsidies on fuel and food to secure a $12-billion loan from the IMF. The same heartless calculus of global capitalism that forced millions of Arabs into city squares in 2011 is returning as a farce under the garb of “helpful” austerity measures.  

Meanwhile and with no economic or political alternative in sight, more Arabs brave the treacherous seas for a chance of salvation. According to a Carnegie study, 17 million Arabs have left their homes. And half of the refugees in the world are Arab because 143 million people in the region live under war or occupation.  

The gains of the Arab Spring are unfortunately dwarfed by the haunting memories they left behind. The chilling picture of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian boy whose lifeless body washed out on the shores of the Mediterranean in 2015 should haunt our existence as we ponder the futility of our indignation.

The video of five-year-old Bouthania al-Rimi, a beautiful Yemeni girl who lost her mother, father, and six siblings in a Saudi overnight air strike on her residential building just a few months ago should shake us out from the idleness of our Twitter outrage. Her eyes were so bruised from the attack she couldn’t even open them to see her rescuers.

Three entire families perished that night and the world barely noticed. More Arab kids are traumatized that a Syrian neuropsychologist recently coined a new condition to capture their boundless pain: “Human Devastation Syndrome”.

a Syrian neuropsychologist recently coined a new condition: “Human Devastation Syndrome”

This is how cheap Arab life has become. This is the deplorable situation of the wretched of the Arab world. How much more can the human spirit tolerate in the midst of this degradation and humiliation?

Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe talks about a new form of sovereignty he calls necropower, the capacity of a minority to decide who deserves to live and who can be left to die, who matters and who does not, who is disposable and superfluous and who is not.

Today, rogue leaders and vile economic logics have that power to castigate people to zones of non-being, non-living. Arab life now exists mainly in bursts of pain, atrophy, and perpetual anger. Death itself is now both the manifestation of this form of domination and a desperate tool of resistance. This is unsustainable.  

The Arab Spring was a beautiful display of a downtrodden people peacefully rising up against this kind of cruel power. Let us not sully their legacy with silence or tamed commemoration, lest we consign them to the bins of fleeting history. And let us never forget that those who make peaceful uprisings impossible will eventually make violent revolution irresistible. 

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