They called us crazy

Thoughts on the Arab revolution from an Arab nationalist.
Dyab Abou Jahjah
31 August 2011

They called us crazy, naïve, radical, foolish, relics of another time, irrational, but we always believed and preached the Arab revolution. We always believed that our Arab peoples are oppressed and that they want to liberate themselves. We refused to accept the racist statements made by western orientalists and by all kinds of self-hating Arabs that somehow the Arab person is inclined towards absolutism and is not interested in freedom. We refused to accept the preaching of both right wing pundits and Muslim extremists that Islam and democracy are not compatible. And we refused to accept the poisoned gift of democracy imported on an American tank and we exposed it as invasion and occupation. We always believed that like every person on earth our people want dignity and freedom, and that these values are universal. We also always believed that our culture that is Islamic in essence is compatible with democracy as much as the Jewish or Christian cultures are, with the necessary adjustments and tact.

Some people shared our views but contested the revolutionary method we advocated and said that revolutions are of another time, and that the only way towards democracy is to support some enlightened despot who is willing to make reform, albeit under the pressure of the west. We refused that because we knew that a despot is never enlightened and that the west doesn’t want democracy in our countries as much as it wants stability and safe oil trade.  We also knew that democracy is a threat to Israel and a threat to western hegemonic policies, because democracy translates the popular will into policies and our people want national dignity as much as we want freedom. Our people also want a free Palestine and if we had the opportunity to determine the agenda, each Arab country would have Palestine on the top of its foreign policy interests. And this is why Arab democracy frightens the west.

When the first spark of the Arab revolution ignited in the town of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia the west stood supportive of the Tunisian regime. France offered police help to the Tunisian dictator and said that it would put its expertise gained in oppressing the Arab and immigrant youth in the Parisian suburbs at his disposal. This is the authentic position of the west towards Arab freedom and democracy. Supporting the dictators, considering the revolting masses as thugs and rushing to lend a hand to oppress the people.

The people of Tunisia did not expect anything else from the ex-colonizer but an attempt to keep its colonial policies by supporting Ben Ali and projecting its repression in the Parisian suburbs onto Ben Ali’s despotism in Tunisia. A projection that is not without a real basis of truth, since colonialism and racism have always been deeply connected. An Arab demanding his right is only an extremist who should be thrown behind bars or killed, we all know this mechanism in Europe and at home.

When it became clear that the people are not going to retreat and that the Arab people of Tunisia will succeed in toppling its pro-western corrupt despot, France and the US and the rest of the world changed their game plan. It became clear to them that it was too late to help Ben Ali survive, so it was time to contain the revolution. Hence, they started to express tentative support for the popular demand. The Arab people from Rabat to Bahrain city were watching the Tunisian revolution unfold on Al Jazeera, felt on their pulses as if it was happening in the backyard of every Arab family.  The Tunisian revolution echoed every day in every Arab school and university and on the millions of Arab facebook accounts and twitter feeds.

The Tunisian revolution was in all ways a pan-Arab event.  Its slogan, “ the people want to topple the regime”, inspired by the words of the Tunisian poet Abu al-Qasim al-Shabi studied by all Arabs in high school, was far more than just a slogan.  The “people wants: Asha’b yorid” became the new ideology, the new spirit of our people, it became the most empowering sentence in our history.  That sentence started appearing on the streets, on classroom walls, on facebook and in youtube clips: “Asha’b yorid iskat an’ izam”.

As an Arab Nationalist, the writer of these words always believed that any event that occurs in any Arab country will soon have tremendous repercussions in the other Arab countries.  We called this ‘Arab interdependency’ and we always believed that it is organic. Watching the Arab reaction to the Tunisian revolution, there was no doubt in our minds. Everywhere, people felt empowered and felt that they not only can emulate that revolution, but that they must emulate it.

Western pundits were again preaching that this is an ‘exception’, and that nothing much has changed, but every time we watched the footage that was repeated on Al Jazeera over and over again, of that man shouting “Ben Ali flees, Ben Ali flees, Tunis is free, glory to our martyrs” , every Arab experienced the same shivers down the spine: the citizen, because he knew more dictators will follow, and the dictator or his lackey, because they knew their turn will come. Both, because they knew that the Arab world will never be the same again.

All eyes were on Egypt, the heart of the Arab nation, the trend setter, but also the home of the Mubarak regime, a ruthless dictatorship with tremendous American, European and Israeli support.  Mubarak, a corner-stone in American-Israeli policies in our Arab homeland, seemed like a pharaoh, untouchable. And the Egyptian opposition was fragmented, and weak.

But just as in Tunisia, it was not the opposition but the youth, through facebook and twitter and other means of communication who mobilized themselves and went to the street shouting “ Asha’b yorid iskat anizam”, and in a tremendous show of popular will, discipline, civilized protest and awareness-raising, succeeded in toppling the most ruthless regime of them all in 18 days.  When Mubarak fell, the Arab revolution became a victorious fact. Egypt is the core, what goes in Egypt travels everywhere else, and what fails in Egypt fails everywhere else. Another premise of our Arab national school of thought, and another premise to be confirmed.  In Yemen, Libya, Bahrain and Syria true revolutions ignited after Egypt.  In Algeria, Morocco, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Jordan massive protest has occurred, all under the revolutionary Arab spell “ Asha’b Yorid”.

The outcome in each country has not been the same. In Yemen the revolutionary upsurge was massive, impressive in its organization and discipline and non-violent character, and so close to victory. In Libya, the fanatical ideology of the regime and the crazy character of Gadaffi added to the fact that he controlled the army. Once the peaceful protestors were massacred, the army imposed its own military version of a revolution on the people.  The rebels tried fighting this on the ground but Gadaffi used air power against them and a massacre was looming.  This was the chance for Nato to move in, in order to secure the generous Libyan oil contracts that Gadaffi had signed with the west. With Egypt and Tunisia free and revolutionary on its borders, western powers knew that Gadaffi was the wrong horse to back, despite the fact that he had succeeded in curbing that first revolutionary incursion. Sooner or later he would fall.  Despite Gadaffi begging for western support and swearing allegiance to western interests, they took the side of the rebels.

In Syria, the people have long been schizophrenic when it came to Bashar Assad and his father before him, torn between the foreign policy of the Assad regime that they supported, and the domestic policy that they despised. The Syrian people championed their nationalist stance in support of Palestine and the resistance and they were proud of it. But at the same time they suffered under their dictatorship. The regime used this ambivalence to secure its legitimacy. After the Egyptian revolution, however, the Syrian people wanted reforms. The Syrian revolution began as a reformist movement that wanted change, but didn’t want to topple Assad and thereby weaken the axis of resistance against Israel.  But the ruthless response of Assad radicalized the revolution in Syria. I saw this process unfold in front of my eyes as many of the young leaders of that revolution are my close friends and fellow Arab nationalists. 

In Bahrain, the revolution was accused of being sectarian and Shi’a, but nothing could be less true. The majority of the Bahraini population is Shi’a, so inevitably the majority of the revolutionaries are Shi’a too, but the revolution was national and still is. The first martyr of the revolution was a Sunni. The revolution there was oppressed ruthlessly with the help of Saudi troops: the same Saudi’s who preach freedom and democracy in Syria.  And the west, who rightly condemn Syria for its repression, stood by and watched; talk about double standards and hypocrisy.

In Morocco, the movement of 20 February forced Mohamed VI to concede some reforms, that remain inadequate, but at least they are a move in the right direction, and the protest movement continues in demanding a constitutional monarchy. In Jordan a similar process is taking place. In Palestine the popular movement forced Hamas and Fatah to reach an agreement and end their conflict, something that has not pleased either the US or Israel.  In Lebanon, for the first time, tens of thousands have marched against the communitarian regime and called for a new national unity based upon citizenship values.

In all these revolutions and movements, many forces tried and are still trying to jump on the bandwagon to secure some interest or gain some political terrain. Some of these forces are domestic, some are foreign.  Some are genuinely pro-revolution, some are in essence counter-revolutionary. But no one controls the revolution, not a political movement, not a political party, not a state, not a facebook group. Everybody is just part of the scene, but the course was and will be determined by the popular will and its collective emanation in a form of self-regulating multitude, making of the Arab revolution a historic process that cannot be stopped.

The Arab revolution has shifted in favour of the people, not only the domestic power relations but also the balance of power in the region. It has also revised essential concepts and self-definitions. I would argue that the Arab revolution has revived components of the Arab collective psyche dormant since the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols in 1258. The Arab citizen today is empowered and engaged and believes that his or her will is a powerful weapon. This is unprecedented.

In the coming years we will witness a lot of turmoil and instability. This is to be expected. Revolutions are like major earthquakes, they generate massive aftershocks and take time to settle. Everything that was residing under the surface and oppressed is now rising to the surface and many of these (ideas, movements, groups, frustrations, drives, reflexes) are ugly and spooky for having been under ground for so long. Everything will clash with everything. I foresee blood, sweat, tears, set-backs and disappointments. But one thing is sure, nothing will turn the tide of Arab emancipation. Revolutions must be viewed from a historic perspective, not months, not even years are enough to assess their results. The French revolution generated terror and chaos, Jacobin despotism, Napoleonic empires, the return of the old regime and of monarchy, and then settled down after all that into a republic that is the true heir of the revolution. 

I do not believe it will take our Arab revolution a century and more to pay off, because our time is different and everything in the world changes more rapidly. But the challenges are tremendous and therefore there will certainly be many difficult years to come. It is my deepest belief though, that once the dust settles, a new Arab world will emerge. It will be democratic, having reconciled its identity with modernity without betraying either, and it will be without borders and regionally integrated just like the European Union today. Such an Arab world will constitute a power centre on this planet and an example to all people, upholding the values of our revolution: freedom, democracy and above all human dignity. This is the dream that our martyrs have died for, a dream worth living for.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData