The Middle East Channel

Reflections on the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt

Reflections on the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt

This is above all a moment of new possibilities in the Arab world, and indeed in the entire Middle East. We have not witnessed such a turning point for a very long time. Suddenly, once insuperable obstacles seem surmountable. Despotic regimes that have been entrenched across the Arab world for two full generations are suddenly vulnerable. Two of the most formidable among them — in Tunis and Cairo — have crumbled before our eyes in a matter of a few weeks. Another in Tripoli, one of the most brutal and repressive, is tottering at this moment. The old men who dominate so many of these countries suddenly look their age, and the distance between the rulers and the vast majorities of their populations born 40 or 50 or 60 years after them has never been greater. An apparently frozen political and social situation has melted almost overnight in the heat of the popular upsurge that took over the towns and cities first of Tunisia and then of Egypt, and which is now spreading to other Arab countries. We are privileged to be experiencing what may well be a world historical moment, when what once seemed to be fixed verities vanish and new potentials and forces emerge.

The same mainstream Western media that habitually conveys a picture of a region peopled almost exclusively by enraged, bearded terrorist fanatics who "hate our freedom" has begun to show images of ordinary people peacefully making eminently reasonable demands for freedom, dignity, social justice, accountability, the rule of law, and democracy. Arab youth at the end of the day have been shown to have hopes and ideals not that different from those of the young people who helped bring about democratic transitions in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and South, Southeast, and East Asia.

These young voices have been a revelation only to those deluded by this media’s obsessive focus on Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism whenever it turns its attention to the Middle East. This is thus a supremely important moment not only in the Arab world, but also for how Arabs are perceived by others. A people that has been systematically and habitually maligned — probably more than any other in recent decades — are for the first time being shown in a new, and largely positive, light.

The most difficult tasks are yet to come. It was not easy to overthrow an out-of-touch tyrant and his greedy family, whether in Tunis or Cairo, and it is proving very hard in Tripoli. Building a working democratic system will be much harder. It will be harder still to ensure that a democratic system, if one can be established, is not dominated by the plutocrats who abound in the Arab world and by entrenched, powerful interests like the military. Finally, it will be a daunting task for any new popular democratic regime to achieve the social justice and the rapid economic growth that will be necessary to provide good jobs, decent housing, quality education, much-needed infrastructure, and equal opportunity. These are the very things that the old regimes failed to provide and whose absence triggered the youth revolution now sweeping the region. Failure at any of these daunting tasks could well lead to an attempted comeback for the forces of reaction and repression. It could also unleash those extreme, violent, minority trends that prosper in circumstances of chaos and disorder, such as were created by the American invasion and occupation of Iraq and the attendant destruction of the Iraqi state. And we must never forget that this is the Middle East, which is the most coveted region of the world and the most penetrated by foreign interests. It is thus vulnerable, as it has been throughout its history, to external intervention that could easily divert or distort outcomes.

Nevertheless, what has happened in Tunisia and Cairo has opened up horizons that have long been closed. The energy, dynamism, and intelligence of the younger generation in the Arab world have been unleashed after being dammed up by a system that treated the younger generation and its aspirations with contempt and that concentrated power mainly in the hands of a much older generation. Seemingly out of nowhere, young people in the Arab world have gained a confidence, an assurance, and a courage which have made fearsome police-state regimes that once looked invincible tremble and lose their nerve. Watching young Tunisians and Egyptians speak on Arab satellite TV stations was a revelation to many in the West. These young people were articulate, they were smart, and they were determined. Al Jazeera took much of the credit for relaying news about events to the Arab world and beyond, especially in Tunisia, where it was way ahead of other media in perceiving the importance of what was happening, but also in Egypt and now Libya, among others. However, other Arab TV stations played a major role, including Egyptian stations, once the fear of repression had ebbed and the spirit of revolution had spread.

All of Egypt, and much of the rest of the world, were transfixed by the interview on Dream TV with Wael Ghonim immediately after his release from 12 days of captivity, especially given his mix of clarity and rationality on the one hand, with profound emotion on the other. And the fact that he was a Google executive obviously played especially well with Westerners. But other young Egyptians that few people outside Egypt have ever heard of have been even more impressive, like the blogger Asmaa Mahfouz, a leader of the new revolutionary movement whose persuasive and forceful video blog helped incite the Jan. 25 protest, or Nawara Negm, a journalist, activist, and leader of the movement (and daughter of one of Egypt’s most revered popular poets of the 1960s and 1970s, Ahmed Fouad Negm, and the renowned feminist Safinaz Kazim). A Dream TV interview with Negm gave a clear sense of the strategic clarity of the leaders of the protests — although she protested that she was not a leader, saying: "We do not need leaders. We do not need zaims [strong men]. That stage in our history is over." Responding to a question about what the movement would do if the military did not keep its promises, she responded matter-of-factly and utterly convincingly: "We know the way back to the [Tahrir] Square." These young women, and hundreds of other women and men like them, in 18 days managed to produce a movement that toppled a pharaoh who had been in power for 30 years.

It once looked as if the Arab countries would continue indefinitely to be an exception to the wave of liberation from authoritarianism which has swept other regions of the world over the past few decades. Suddenly, the younger generations of Arabs have proven that they are no different than anyone else. They have shown that they have been following events elsewhere and watching carefully the examples of others outside their region. They have learned amply from the mistakes of their elders, and they are far more technologically savvy than the police state with its unlimited resources, top-of-the-line equipment, and extensive training in the best facilities the United States and Europe could provide.

This last point raises embarrassing questions. Why were American tear gas canisters used copiously against peaceful protesters in Tunis and Cairo, as they have been systematically used for years against Palestinians and a few Israeli and foreign activists demonstrating at villages like Bil’in in the occupied West Bank? Why were the goons and thugs of Ben ‘Ali and Mubarak on such good terms with the intelligence services of the United States, France and other European countries? Why was support for "stability" (which really meant support for repression, corruption, the frustration of popular demands, and the subversion of democracy) in practice the main, and indeed the only, policy of the United States and the European Union in most parts of the Arab world?

These may be questions which policymakers prefer not to answer in Washington, Paris, London and Bonn. But they are on the minds of smart young people all over the Arab world who follow the Western and other international media, and are aware of what is happening in the rest of the world — much more aware than those who have repressed them for so long. Like people in the non-Western world going back to the eras of Lord Palmerston and Woodrow Wilson, this generation of young Arabs has also become aware of the long-standing gap between the proclaimed ideals of the great Western democracies and their cynical realpolitik policies. Because of the existence of this awareness, it would be a welcome change if American and European officials would refrain from preaching either to those in Tunisia and Egypt who have already engineered striking revolutionary change, or to others in the Arab world who are trying to do the same. Clearly, these young revolutionaries know better what they need to do to achieve democracy and social justice than those who until literally a couple of weeks ago were the closest friends of dictators in Tunis and Cairo, and are still intimately linked to the rest of the Arab despots.

The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions raise many questions. After liberation from Western colonialism, failed experiments with radical populism, Arab nationalism and state-led economic development in the 1950s and 1960s gave way to the stagnation and repression of dictatorships and absolute monarchies. During the decades since the 1960s, sclerotic authoritarian regimes have controlled every Arab country, with the (partial) exceptions of Lebanon and Kuwait. This has been a night seemingly without end, going back as long as most Arabs, born in the 1970s and afterward, can remember. Most people in this very young population, over two-thirds of whom are under 30, know no time when they were not governed by either aging ex-military officers or absolute hereditary rulers, or by their chosen heirs.

One of the worst things about this pan-Arab patchwork of authoritarian regimes was the contempt the rulers showed for their peoples. In their view, the people were too immature to make decisions, to choose their own representatives, or to allocate societal surpluses or foreign aid. These things and much else were done for them by their betters, their rulers. Anyone who challenged the lines drawn by those with power, whether by the ruler or by the policeman in the street, risked being subjected to unlimited brutality. This was the lesson of the fate of Khalid Said, the young Alexandrian blogger who videotaped police corruption in June 2010, and was beaten to death in broad daylight by the crooked cops he had reported on (ironically, the Facebook page "We are all Khaled Said" was one of the many triggers of the Egyptian Revolution). These incessant infringements on the common dignity of nearly every Arab citizen, and the constant affirmations of their worthlessness, were eventually internalized and produced a pervasive self-loathing and an ulcerous social malaise. This manifested itself, among other things, in sectarian tensions, frequent sexual harassment of women, criminality, drug use, and a corrosive incivility and lack of public spirit. All of these phenomena appeared to confirm the dim view held by those in power of their subjects.

It was only after the shocking spark of the self-immolation of a young vendor in the town of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia, Mohamed Bouazizi, had started a chain reaction as people first in Tunisia and then in Egypt organized and realized their ability to confront the regimes in power, that it became possible to overcome some of these deep traumas bred by decades of oppression. Multiple reports indicated that in the Cairo protests, for example, people brought food to each other in Tahrir Square; sexual harassment dropped off noticeably; Muslims guarded Christians while they prayed in public and vice versa; and young Egyptians voluntarily swept the streets and picked up the trash. The millennium had not come, of course. It was simply that standing up to those who had denied their dignity and their rights gave the people in the streets of Tunis, Cairo and dozens of other cities and towns the sense that they were masters of their own fate, that they had dignity, and that they were not simply miserable, abject near-slaves of their lofty masters who ruled them from their palaces and villas.

It is impossible to say whether this spirit of liberation can be sustained, whether other Arab revolutions underway will help to keep it alive, or even if this spirit can be sustained sufficiently to surmount the daunting structural problems of a country like Egypt. We cannot know whether these upheavals will amount to real regime change, and whether Tunisians and Egyptians will succeed in establishing fundamentally new political systems, or will just end up with Ben Ali-lite and Mubarakism without Mubarak. The elites in both countries, whether the influential military in Egypt or the entrenched upper classes in both countries, will not easily cede their power, even if they have been willing to sacrifice Ben Ali and Mubarak and some of their closest collaborators. (They have not sacrificed them all: Mohammad Ghannouchi, the interim Tunisian prime minister, was a minister in Ben Ali’s government, while Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, head of the Egyptian junta, was Mubarak’s defense minister and crony.)

Nevertheless, for the first time in two generations there is hope among the people of Tunisia and Egypt that they can aspire to a better life, to greater dignity and to more control over their lives. The youth of these countries have found out how to harness popular discontent and turn it into a force against the status quo. They know their way back to the street, if foot-dragging by those in charge necessitates it. This spirit in turn has clearly inspired people in many other Arab countries to fight against the pervasive hopelessness and despair that are essential if despotism is to be sustained.

Another major question is whether what has happened in Tunisia and Egypt, and what appears to be happening in Libya, marks the beginning of a real Arab revolutionary wave. So far the demonstrations in Yemen, Jordan, Algeria, Bahrain, Morocco, and Iraq are no more than a potent expression of universal dissatisfaction with a rotten status quo. Although they are a powerful echo of events in Tunisia and Egypt which have been amplified by the media, there is no indication yet that any of them — with the possible exception of Libya — has the potential to overthrow those in power in these countries. For all the similarities between their regimes, each of these countries is very different from the others and from Tunisia and Egypt. The populations of several of them, notably Jordan, Algeria, Bahrain and Iraq, are less demographically homogenous than Egypt or Tunisia, with significant ethnic, regional or religious cleavages that rulers can always exploit to divide and rule. And in some cases, notably Algeria, Iraq, and Jordan, there is memory of bloody strife that recently or not so recently tore apart these societies, and may make people hesitant about protesting. Nevertheless, a new spirit seems to be abroad in the Arab world, and there has certainly been a contagious effect of the spirit of protest, and of demands for democracy, that started in Tunisia and Egypt. Just watching Arab satellite TV and listening to radio accounts of the protests, one is struck by the ubiquity wherever Arabic is spoken, from Morocco to Bahrain, of the slogan raised first by the Tunisian revolutionaries and then by their sisters and brothers in Egypt: "Al-sha’b yurid isqat al-nizam" ("The people want the fall of the regime)."

Whatever the result, these events are a spectacular confirmation not only of the common aspirations for freedom and dignity of an entire generation of young Arabs, but of the existence of a common Arab public sphere. Although this owes much to modern media, including satellite TV, it is a mistake to focus excessively on the specifics of the technology. Such a common public sphere existed in the past, relying on earlier forms of technology, whether the printing press or radio. The importance of Al Jazeera in particular has been misunderstood. In the early days of satellite television it was certainly crucial in breaking the monopoly of the state broadcasting systems, and in introducing competition which forced even the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya and other stations to cover a great deal of news simply to avoid losing viewers. During the uprising in Tunisia and later during the Egyptian events, Al Jazeera riveted viewers all over the Arab world and in the Arab diaspora. But the insidious Islamist bent of its coverage is not reflective either of the protests themselves or of a large segment of its viewership. This bent was noticeable in its constant favoritism towards Hamas in covering Palestinian events, and during the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions in its intensive coverage of the return to Tunis of the Tunisian Islamist Rashed al-Ghannouchi, or the prominence it has given to Egyptian Islamists in the wake of the fall of the Mubarak regime. Similarly, Al Jazeera highlighted the participation in the Algiers demonstration of February 13 of a leading Algerian Islamist, Ali Belhadj, but not the fact that many in the crowd called him an assassin. The point is that Al Jazeera is followed by Arab viewers for its gripping and often daring news footage, but not necessarily in the political line its executives push. As most of the coverage of the Arab uprisings so far has shown, there is nothing specifically Islamist about most of those participating, nor about their demands for dignity, freedom, democracy and social justice.

The last question these Arab revolutions raise is that of the role of the United States and its European partners in upholding the rotten Arab status quo which seems to be crumbling before our eyes. The United States is always torn in its Middle East foreign policy between its principles, including support for democracy, and its interests, including upholding dictators who do what is wanted of them. When there is little public scrutiny, the latter impulse almost always predominates in U.S. policy in the Middle East. Today, with the American media featuring stories of charismatic young Arabs bringing down hated dictators and calling for democracy in perfectly comprehensible English, the public is watching, and Washington has responded by tepidly supporting a democratic transition, and calling for restraint by its other Arab clients in repressing their peoples. One can only wonder what will happen when the attention of the American public wanders from the Arab world, as it inevitably will.

In any case, this new moment in the Middle East will make the old business as usual approach in Washington much harder. The dictators and absolute monarchs, even if they stay in power, have been placed on notice that they cannot any longer ignore their peoples, as they have done before in making policy. Whether this meant submissively following Washington’s lead in its Cold War against Iran, or in protecting Israel from any pressure as it colonized Palestinian land and entrenched its occupation, these highly unpopular policies of most Arab governments are no longer tenable. Much remains to be decided in the Arab world, and a real input of public opinion into the making of foreign policy there is still in the future. But the day when a Sadat or a King Hussein could ignore domestic and Arab public opinion and make peace with Israel while it brutalized the Palestinians may well be past.

Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan will most probably survive, even if there are real democratic transitions in the entire Arab world. But no one in Washington can rely on the complaisance and submissiveness towards Israel and the United States that was one of the features of the stagnant Arab order that is being challenged in the streets all over the region. What will replace it is unknown. It will largely be determined in these streets, as well as in the internet cafes, and in the union halls, newspaper offices, women’s groups and private homes of millions of young Arabs who have served notice as publicly as possible that they will no longer tolerate being treated with the contempt and disrespect their governments have shown them for their entire lives. They have put us all on notice with their slogan: "The people want the fall of the regime." They are not only referring to their corrupt governments; they also mean the old regime that has prevailed for decades in the entire Arab world, from the Atlantic to the Gulf.

Rashid Khalidi is the Edward Said professor of Arab studies at Columbia University, editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies, and author of Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Dominance in the Middle East. A version of this article will be published in Spanish in Vanguardia.