Why I Still Believe in the Arab Spring
Everyone talks about the "failure" of the Arab revolts that began in 2011. But the story isn't over yet.
Note: This article is a slightly modified version of a presentation made at the Oslo Freedom Forum last month. A video of the presentation is embedded below.
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Iyad el-Baghdadi. I’m an Arab Spring activist and writer. I’m Palestinian, but I’ve lived all my life — since birth — in the United Arab Emirates, better known as the UAE. Until around this time last year, I was the most influential online voice out of the United Arab Emirates, and among the 30 most influential Arab voices online.
But this past spring on the morning of the 30th of April, I was abruptly summoned by the government and told that I am being permanently expelled from the UAE. There were no charges, no reasons afforded, no chance for appeal, and the decision was to be carried out immediately. My wife was seven months pregnant with our first child.
When I was invited to speak before you, I thought that this is what I’ll be talking about: About how the authorities didn’t know where they could expel a stateless Palestinian refugee; how they eventually gave me the choice to either fly to Malaysia or stay in jail indefinitely. I thought I’d be describing the abuse, racism, injustice, and corruption that I witnessed first-hand during my detention, and how I became stranded in Kuala Lumpur International Airport for three weeks following my release.
But this is not the story I’m here to tell.
My story fades into complete insignificance against the greater mosaic of tragedies that befell the Arab Spring, that befell a generation that three years ago opened its mouth to speak, only to have a thousand forces conspire to smother its voice.
In early 2011, the Arab world erupted with a massive youth-led protest movement demanding liberty, justice, dignity, and democracy. The “Arab Spring,” as it is now called, touched almost every Arab country, but, with very few exceptions, it failed to produce visible institutional effects. Instead our revolutions were attacked by an organized counter-revolutionary axis with very deep pockets as well as international legitimacy and credibility.
Dear friends: This is a talk about how a generation found it voice and then lost it, how we can regain it, and why, despite everything, we remain hopeful, and will never, ever give up the fight.
My friend Mariam is a Syrian Palestinian young woman who, in 2011, was among the first people to protest peacefully as part of the Syrian revolution. As the revolution gave way to civil war, Mariam’s family became internal refugees, hopping from neighborhood to neighborhood across Damascus for shelter. In 2013, she eventually managed to flee Syria, alone, having witnessed so much death and destruction along the way.
I met Mariam over a meal in Kuala Lumpur. I sat across the table as she told me her ordeal with an air of detached indifference. She bragged that throughout it all, she never cried.
She asked to hear my story and I began to explain.
I lived in the UAE, which is a bit far from the heartlands of the revolution, and does not tolerate any form of street activism. As a result, my Arab Spring experience was online. As the revolutions kicked off in early 2011, I reported on the unrolling events and helped present our story to the world.
But I like to think that my main contribution was in the realm of ideas. Even before Mubarak was ousted I was already asking a key question: “A constitution must be preceded by a statement or manifesto. Do we have one?” It really bothered me that nobody was asking that. Over the next few months I raised the same issue several times. “What’s next? Do we have a plan?”
I had no doubt that a new order was set to arise — but I was sure that it wouldn’t arise spontaneously. It was clear that it required original thinking and lots of work. Even more importantly, it needed a new generation of intellectuals — young, independent, and skilled in formulating their ideas, in networking together, and in communicating with the world.
Amid the dizzying rush of events in 2011, nobody was really prepared to talk about these issues. Moreover, a growing polarization was tearing our movement apart, one centered upon the role of Islam. In the midst of this, I provocatively called myself an “Islamic libertarian” — and talked about the need to indigenize liberty, to find our own expression and implementation, our own path to freedom.
By 2012, the Arab Spring had fallen into a trap. When your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail — and our only tool was protests. We moved into the streets and then got stuck in the streets. And we were stuck there long enough to allow the dictators to stage a comeback.
A conspiracy was being planned. It’s actually become quite fashionable in many Arab state media to refer to the Arab Spring as a foreign conspiracy — but the real conspiracy was one at home to stop democracy at any price. It was an organized assault by a counter-revolutionary axis more afraid of the rise of an Arab democracy than the rise of a thousand terror groups — especially, the rise of a thriving Arab democracy that could tickle the imagination of the young.
It’s very important to note that terrorist groups like ISIS present no existential threat to the Arab dictators. In fact, they’re incredibly convenient. They’re an opportunity for the autocrats to present themselves as fighters of terrorism and a force for stability.
When the people boil and demand democracy, and instead of giving them democracy you put the lid back on even tighter than it was before, you do not get stability — you get an explosion. And even if you do manage to get the lid back on and clamp it shut, you don’t get stability — you get a time bomb.
At this point, in my conversation with Mariam, I was rambling. I looked up this young woman’s face, and she was crying. Minutes earlier she was bragging that she never cried, but now she was crying.
I did not ask her what sent her over the edge. Reality was much more poignant than anything I could say. Here we were, two Arab activists, sitting some three thousand miles away from home, refugees in a foreign land. We wanted the downfall of the regimes — but it seemed that the regimes had achieved our downfall. Our Arab Spring had turned into a jihadist Disneyland.
Mariam looked up at me. I’ll never forget what she said next. It was as if she poured all of her frustration, all of her betrayal, all of her pain, into this one question: “Do you mean to tell me you still believe? After all of this, you still believe in an Arab Spring?”
I’ll never forget how she said that. I said, “Yes.” And she looked at me like I was crazy.
I never got to explain. I’ll try to do so now.
There are three reasons why I maintain my confidence despite all the catastrophes. The first reason is that 2011 happened. It was not a dream. It was not an illusion. Millions of young Arabs really did take to the streets demanding liberty, and dignity, and justice. Something green and fresh and beautiful appeared and captured the world’s imagination. It wasn’t a mirage. We really do exist.
We’re not a minority, either. We only appear to be a minority because we’re not organized; we’re not on the menu. When the only options presented are black or white, it does not mean that red or green or blue are a minority. When the only options presented are religious authoritarianism or nationalistic fascism, it does not mean that a third option doesn’t exist. It’s just not on the menu. Our historical responsibility right now is to put ourselves on the menu.
The second reason I am confident is that the friendships that arose since 2011 cannot be unmade. The online scene isn’t “virtual,” ladies and gentlemen. No, it’s all too real. The ideas are real, the friendships are real. Many of us activists have never met face to face — but we talk almost daily about things we care very deeply about. We’re a family. These friendships are forever.
Martin Luther King once said, “Those who want peace must organize as effectively as those who want war.” I’m going to adapt this gem as follows: “Those who want liberty must organize as effectively as those who want tyranny.” These online friendships can form the nucleus for an intellectual movement as we work together on campaigns, projects, and books.
The third, and perhaps most important reason why I remain confident, is that the old order, the Arab ancien regime, has, for all its cruelty and deep pockets, no vision or hope to offer beyond sectarianism, demagoguery, and jingoism. It lives on borrowed time supported by mass hysteria; it’s unsustainable. It will bring no stability or growth.
More importantly, they have a dirty little secret. They’re afraid of us. They’re not afraid of those with guns; after all, they have bigger guns. But they’re afraid of those with ideas.
We are the future, ladies and gentlemen. Despite the catastrophic scene back home, we are the future. If they don’t let us dream, we won’t let them sleep.
There is yet another reason why we can never give up. In August, in order to avoid overstaying the short-term visa I was allowed when I entered Malaysia, I decided to pay a visit to Cambodia. My first stop there was at the Choeung Ek memorial site, better known as the “Killing Fields.” About fifty paces into the site, I collapsed on a bench, holding my head in my hands, a sobbing mess.
Cambodians come to this site to look at their past, but I felt like I was walking through an exhibit of what could be the Arab world’s future — a future full of massacres, mass graves, and genocide. My son was two months old at the time. The Cambodian genocide took place in the mid-1970s, around the time I was born.
What genocide sites will my son walk through when he’s my age? Will it be a memorial dedicated to the Rabaa Massacre, committed by Egypt’s military regime? The Ghouta Massacre, committed by Assad’s regime in Syria? The Sheitat Massacre, committed by ISIS? Or will it be some other horror that’s yet to come?
And more importantly, will my son still live in a world where he’s afraid to speak, where demanding dignity ends you in jail, where you have to think a thousand times about what you want to say, or tweet, for fear of upsetting the wrong people?
This is what awaits us if we fail. At this point it’s either the Arab Spring or no Arabs. A thriving democratic Arab world is not only our salvation as Arabs, it’s also the world’s best hope to end the cycle of terrorism and tyranny that we’re stuck in.
I’m writing a book, The Arab Spring Manifesto, that details my vision of an Islamic libertarianism. We’re hoping to have it out by next summer. As far as I know, it will be the first attempt by our Arab Spring generation to present a detailed political vision. And I hope it won’t be the last.
Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to take a couple more minutes of your time and close with a short message to my son, who was born on my exact birthday last June. He turned four months old a few days ago. I only saw him last week, and only spent three days with him.
Ismael: I say this as a father. I’d rather see you die young than grow up to be a coward. We were preceded by a generation that kept its head low and kept its nose to the grindstone and learned to live with tyranny and corruption and injustice and to accept them as facts of life. And they bequeathed us the Arab world we see today. A festering pool of retardation and stagnation. A playground for tyrants and terrorists. And now that the counter-revolution seems to have prevailed, they expect us to take the same deal again. “Trust the great leader with your rights. Trust us with your children’s future. Trust the strongman with your security.”
No. No. Do not legitimize them even if the world does. Do not call them “Sirs” or “Majesties” even if the world does. Do not call them heroes or champions even if the world does.
Our liberty, or we die trying. Our dignity, or we die trying. Ismael. May you live long and kick ass. But if they ever make you choose between the two, then kick ass.